Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Bush administration does it again

Bush political appointees discriminated against job applicants to the Justice Department. According to an internal investigation by the Justice Department’s Inspector General, the Justice Department rejected applicants for the Honors Program and the Summer Law Intern Program due solely to their affiliation with the Democratic Party and other liberal organizations. Those rejected included students who were at the top of their classes at prestigious law schools such as Yale and Harvard.

You are thinking “this is just the same as what the Bush administration has always done.” However, this is different and worth paying attention, to for four reasons.

First, unlike much of the Bush administrations previous politicization this is actually illegal. Federal law and Justice Department regulations prohibit discriminating based on political viewpoints in hiring for “career positions” such as the jobs these applicants were applying for. These were not positions like U.S. Attorneys where their hiring or firing can be political.

Second, political discrimination occurred broadly. Esther Slater McDonald, the Justice Department official responsible for most of the political discrimination, apparently engaged in internet searches to find comments or essays written by the candidates.

Third, and possibly most disturbing was the broad criteria for what constituted unacceptable liberalism. For example, individuals who had worked to defend indigent clients were rejected. The administration considered helping poor people who could not afford lawyers to be too left-wing. (It has been pointed out to me that in some contexts defending indigent clients can be a disguise for pushing actual liberal policies. I agree that this may occur occasionally but there’s no evidence that such considerations were at all relevant in these cases.) I can imagine few stronger demonstrations of how sick the current administrations values are.

Fourth, the long-term impact of these actions is bothersome. While the impact on summer interns may be small, for the permanent or semi-permanent positions this discrimination tilts the Justice Department in a specific political direction.
I have a certain personal interest in this issue. My brother is in law school now and he helped write amici briefs for the recent Supreme Court cases about Guantanamo detainees and related cases. I worry that if he applied for a position in the Justice Department, he might not get it due to his political work. I also have two good friends who are working this summer at legal-aid clinics. Will they be discriminated against if they want to work for the Justice Department?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

An ethical question from my trip to Israel

Last post I talked about some of my experiences on my trip to Israel. This post I'd like to address an ethical issue that came up during my trip.

Last Saturday night a friend of mine and her friend came across a group of charedi (ultra-orthodox) Jews dancing and singing about the coming of the messiah. This was occurring on Ben Yehuda street, an area where there is a lot of nighttime activity (there are open cafes and bars and all sorts of out-door events. Very nice atmosphere). Around the charedim were many people watching or chatting. Apparently a fair number of people joined the charedim. Now, here's where things get interesting: the group of people dancing were exclusively male. (Most orthodox Jews don't think men and women should dance together and the charedim really don't like it at all). The two people in question are female and decided to attempt to join in as a "feminist protest". This caused a fair bit of disruption.

Now the ethical question: was their intervention? I initially argued that this was unethical and was close to sexual harassment. The two arguments have heard in the other direction are: 1. The charedim were dancing in a public location. 2. This isn't substantially different behavior from Rosa Parks protesting segregated busing by sitting in the white section of the bus.

So what do people think about this? Ethical or unethical?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Various thoughts on my trip to Israel

I just got back from my trip to Israel. Here are a few thoughts and observations about the trip with minimal attempt to put them in a coherent order.

Hezekia's Tunnel is freaking awesome. The tunnel is 1500 feet or so narrow tunnel (thin enough that two people cannot pass each other in it) which was used to convey water from a spring outside the city to a reservoir within the city. This was built roughly the 8th century BCE. The tunnel system is still functioning and you can walk through it. My twin and I along with some of our relatives walked through the tunnel (which is open to tourists). The

The Israeli Supreme Court hears approximately 10,000 cases a year. Roughly half of which are cases where it has original jurisdiction. This is due to the Court having large-scale original jurisdiction and all cases being in principle appealable to the Supreme Court. This is an interesting contrast to the US Supreme Court which is now down to 70 cases a year. Hmm, maybe a happy medium might exist somewhere?

Also, on the topic of the Court, their method of appointing justices would never be accepted in the United States and would be considered very undemocratic. New justices are appointed by a small committee which has on it representatives from the Supreme Court, the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament), the Ministry of Justice, and the Bar Association. This committee of nine people makes all appointments to the Supreme Court and there is no way to overrule it.

Saturday night we went to a Sephardi shul for Maariv (the traditional evening prayer). Although I had been to Sephardi davening before, I had not been to their Saturday night services. As before I found sitting down during kaddish to be a disorienting experience. However, there was a nice touch that I'd consider advocating that Ashkenazi Jews consider adopting: for havdalah (the ritual which marks the end of the Sabbath) for the part that requires something that smells nice they used freshly cut flowers and little sprigs as opposed to the Ashkenazi practice of using little bags full of spice.

I have an odd ethical question that came up also that I'd like to get feedback on but I need to think about it a bit more before I post an entry on it. Suffice it to say it is connected to the very weird diversity that Israeli societies is composed of.

Friday, June 13, 2008

William Demsbki and long-term memory.

William Dembski, one of the chief proponents of intelligent design, seems to have a surprisingly poor memory. In a post from his blog he talks about how the proponents of theistic evolution are attacking intelligent design. (Theistic evolution is the idea that evolution occurred as scientists describe it but that there is some overarching deity who set things in motion in an essentially non-testable way. In TE the deity is often credited with adding souls into humans) Dembski as well as the commentators at his heavily censored blog seem to be under the impression that this was some sort of attack launched with no provocation by the TE proponents against innocent ID. Dembski seems to forget that as early as 1995 he said "Design theorists are no friends of theistic evolution." And that isn't his only comment of that sort. For example, Dembski has also said ""As far as design theorists are concerned, theistic evolution is American evangelicalism's ill-conceived accommodation to Darwinism." (I'm not going to bother addressing the issue that the prominent proponents of TE are generally Jews and Catholics more than evangelicals).

Oh, and while I'm at it: it isn't that complicated why proponents of TE think that ID is undermining Christianity (one of the things you complain about in your post) I'm not even going to bother trying to have fun with the massive hypocrisy based on the many comments by you and other ID-proponents complaining that evolution undermines good ol' Christian, American values. TE proponents think it undermines Christian values because they think ID involves lying. You know, that whole don't bear false witness thing that the ID proponents ignored at the Dover trial and elsewhere? Furthermore, ID like its close creationist cousins forces people to make a choice between science and religion. Understandably that gets TEists upset.


While procrastinating at the xkcd forum, I ran across a thread linking to political lolcats. The website is amusing, although the makers clearly are very pro-Obama and don't like Clinton or McCain much at all (even if I'm likely going to vote for Obama I'd like a bit making fun of him). Also, most of the captions are not written in lolcat but rather in proper English whereas some could be funnier if written in lolcat.

Highlights include a picture of Obama and Michelle with the caption "Admit it, we're the only political couple you could bear to see naked."

There's a nice one also of Al Gore with a pretentious look on his face and the caption "I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees." I imagine it would be funnier as "I r teh Lorax. I speek for teh treas" or possibly "I r teh Lorax. I dfend all treekind". (I'm waiting for someone to translate this into proper Lolcat for me since I'm not such a great speaker).

There are a handful of good ones, including one with Arnold that I won't describe because it is sufficiently funny that it should be seen rather than described. So I recommend you check it out.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Superstition Kills

There are many ways that irrational beliefs can kill. Every year people die from using alternative medicine rather than evidence-based, scientific medicine. Such people even if misguided or misinformed are generally only harming themselves. However, superstition can kill other people as well even those who are not involved. I'm not talking today about herd immunity and how not vaccinating endangers people who have been vaccinating. I'm talking about a far more horrific example, brutal murder to obtain talismans.

In Tanzania, as in a variety of other countries, there are beliefs that the body parts of albinos have magical properties and are good luck charms. Thus, people have taken to killing albinos and mutilating their bodies to obtain the wanted parts. Those albinos were in fact lucky; the unlucky albinos have had their legs and arms hacked off and been left to bleed to death.

Cectic made a graphic point about other species being driven to extinction due to human superstition. But we should realize that it doesn't just happen to other species, it happens to other humans. These murders are not that different from genocide; people of a specific type are being killed simply because of who they are. Let's not forget what happens when irrationally is allowed to run rampant: people die .

Friday, June 6, 2008

A few weighing puzzles

Here are three related puzzles. I'll post answers next week and discuss how it is related to certain notions in computer science.

1) Suppose I have ten stacks of ten gold coins each. Each coin weighs 1 ounce, but there is one set of counterfeit coins. The coins in that stack weigh only .5 ounces. You have a scale. What is the minimum number of weighings to determine which stack is counterfeit?

2) Suppose instead of a scale, you only have a balance and you don't know how light the counterfeit coins are but they are too light. Then how many weighings can you do it in? What if we instead have n stacks with one counterfeit? How many weighings does it take? Can you prove that you can't do it in fewer?

3) This last generalization is due to Elissa. Suppose we again have n stacks with one set counterfeit but instead of a balance we have a k-balance which compares k different objects simultaneously and returns their mass order. So for example, if on a 4-balance I had two two ounce objects (object a and object b respectively), one ounce object (c) and one three ounce object (d), I'd be told that
c < a = b < d. The normal balance is thus a 2-balance. In general for a k-balance with n stacks what is the minimum number of weighings?

Important PointAfter I put up this issue Etienne pointed a issue I had not anticipated. In the original phrasing of 2 and 3 there was only a single counterfeit coin and one no longer had stacks. In my phrasing above I assumed that this wouldn't make a difference for the general solution. It turns out that in fact it does. So instead for 2 and 3 assume that one just has n coins with 1 counterfeit rather than n stacks. Etienne has not yet worked out the general solution with stacks nor have I, so bonus points if you can do that.

Feel free to either post or email me solutions.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Stel Pavlou is an Idiot

Recently. I had the extreme displeasure of reading Stel Pavlou’s "Decipher". [1] Pavlou manages to make Dan Brown look like an intelligent, educated adult who did his research.

The book does not start off well. One of the first scenes involves the main character, Richard Scott, a professor of religious studies, shock an audience of academics by announcing that he doesn’t believe that Jesus was a historical figure. Maybe in Pavlou’s world that's a shocking statement but not in modern academia.[2] But it is worse than that. The current President, is a religious Christian who has publicly “questioned” Scott’s work. This is apparently evidence that there’s a lack of religious freedom in the United States. Stel, Presidents are allowed to give their opinions about things as individuals. Really. That’s ok.

And Pavlou isn’t just ignorant about major areas of academia. In another scene early in the book he describes how GPS works. Only the GPS in his universe has little to do with how GPS actually works. “GPS kept track of every vehicle linked into its network of satellites. Those vehicles could access all kinds of navigational data, including pinpointing all the other vehicles plugged into it, anywhere on earth, at any given time…Red Osprey had the distinct advantage … in that, thanks to some bright young computer programmer, it didn’t actually register on any GPS system. At a distance, Red Osprey was to all intents and purposes invisible.” The description of GPS seems to be a combination of radar, GPS and the voices in Pavlou’s head.

Let’s have quick refresher on how GPS actually works and what it actually does. The main component of GPS is a system of satellites (Pavlou managed to get this single detail correct) orbiting about 20,000 km up. So the satellites are not geostationary but are not so far down as to be in low earth orbit. The GPS satellites have very precise clocks and they continually send out a signal containing their current time.[3] Now, on the ground there are receivers. Receivers do not send any information to the satellites. They receive. Hence the name “receivers”, ok, Stel? A receiver can do one thing: find my position. Here’s how it works: The receiver compares the signals it gets from the different satellites. Since some satellites are farther away, their signals take longer to reach the receiver (since the speed of light is finite). Thus, they give slightly out different current times. The receiver can use these discrepancies to estimate how far away it is from each satellite. Then, using simple geometry, the receiver can figure out its actual position. That’s it.

GPS doesn’t tell you where anyone else is; the technology that does that is radar. Radar bounces radio signals off of objects and times the signals return time to estimate distance of objects. Stealth objects (generally ships and boats) do exist. They don’t work by “bright young computer programmers.” Instead they use special materials that absorb radio waves and special shapes which make sure that the reflected radio waves don’t go in the direction they came from. There's no technology that allows you to connect to a network of any sort to see where everyone is.

The book only gets worse when one learns about the general plot: Atlantis exists and was designed as part of a sophisticated system by an advanced civilization to protect against a large solar flare that occurs every 12,000 years. The civilization was trying to build the system before the flare destroyed it but failed. Their survivors completed the system and then left clues buried in the world’s different religions about how to activate the system at the desired time. The system includes Stonehenge, the pyramids at Giza, and many other places. Of course, the heroes get to Atlantis in time (which is apparently buried in Antarctica) and managed to protect the Earth while the solar flare erupts.

I’m not going to discuss in detail how if anything like this were remotely true we’d see genetic bottlenecks for pretty much every species dating back to 12,000 years ago and how we’d see signs of recent extreme heat exposure on Mars and elsewhere. I don’t need to do that because there’s an even more basic problem with the ending. Pavlou tells us that “for the first time in 12,000 years the dark side of the moon was completely illuminated.” I'm sorry Stel. There is no dark side of the moon as you would know if you knew basic astronomy. There’s a far side but it is lit half the time just the like close side.

There are many other problems with this book but I'm not going to bother listing them all. Of all the errors in the book the description of GPS is the most damning. One can argue that not knowing basic astronomy isn't going to hurt you. Now, this is a bad argument because if you are going to write something you no longer have an excuse for your ignorance. But I'm genuinely puzzled by how Stel could have such deep misunderstandings of how GPS works. This waste of paper was published in 2001 by which time GPS was already a common technology. So in 2001, Stel was spouting nonsense about a technology already in common use.

This is in some ways more disturbing than Modern Geocentrism . There we are dealing with isolated fanatics. This waste of paper was published by a major publishing company and sold in major bookstores. Enough of this drivel. Stel, please try to get a real job. Flip burgers. Or pump gas. Whatever you do, please stop killing our brain cells.

[1] Ok I did enjoy the book but primarily out of intellectual masochism.

[2] Disclaimer: I think that Jesus was more likely than not a historical figure.

[3] There’s some other data sent out in the signal including the approximate position of the satellite but this isn’t important for our purposes.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

First Carnival of the Elitist Bastards

The first Carnival of the Elitist Bastards is up. This Carnival is a fascinating collection of posts defending and promoting elitism. So whether you are a grammar-elitist, a science-elitist, some other form of elitist or someone who thinks that elitism is evil, you should go take a look.

I was going to write a post for this Carnival but did not have one in time that I thought was good enough and topical enough for the Carnival. Hopefully I'll join in next time.

A short rant about major media and Wikipedia

At the risk of sounding like yet another blogger attacking the "Mainstream Media" sometimes there really is a mainstream media and sometimes the media really just doesn't get it. Take for example this quality piece of journalism from The Age which describes how a "hacker" altered the Wikipedia page for Mick Keelty, the Australian Federal Police Chief. Newsflash to reporter John Kidman who wrote this piece: it doesn't take a hacker to alter a Wikipedia page, all you need to do is click on "edit this page." Oh, and Wikipedia semi-protecting a page isn't news either. A glance at the protection log shows that literally hundreds of pages are protected or semi-protected on any given day. If in 2008 there are still major news outlets that don't understand how Wikipedia works at the most basic levels and don't bother doing their research is it any wonder why people don't trust the general media? One doesn't need to believe in any malicious conspiracy by the right-wing/left-wing/capitalist/communist/Wolbachia sympathizing media. You just need to see the incompetence and laziness.