Sunday, September 30, 2007

Book review: The Social Atom

Mark Buchanan: The Social Atom - Why the rich get richer, cheaters get caught. and your neighbor usually looks like you

The main thesis discussed in this book is that social science and economics is flawed because it looks at people as individuals, instead of groups behaving in patterns. Buchanan claims that if you look at individuals as atoms interacting with each other. you'll realize that people behave in ways (patterns) that can be observed to be like other patterns occurring in nature, and thus it's possible to predict what is going to happen in e.g. the market.

All of this is of course interesting, and Buchanan does make a good case for it, but I have some serious issues with the book.

If you've read Buchanan's book, Nexus, it'll come as no surprise to you that Buchanan suffers from a severe case of physicist glorifying, believing that they are experts at overturning dogma in existing non-physics fields. This comes through even more clearly in The Social Atom, where Buchanan makes it clear that he doesn't think much of economic theory, which is generally based on flawed premises. Buchanan does well at explaining why, while giving a simplified introduction to economic concepts like "rational individuals".

The problem is that he seems to not realize that his simplified version is not the full version, and that economists are fully aware of the problems with these concepts.

No economist, except perhaps members of the Chicago School, really believes that people are/act rational (or that markets are really transparent), but because economic models are incredible complex, it's been necessary to operate under these flawed assumptions, as to be actually be able to use the models at all. In other words, while the assumptions are flawed, it makes it possible to make an approximation of reality.

As computers have become more and more powerful, it has become possible to re-evaluate these assumptions, and dismiss the flawed ones. This could of course only be done, as the reality underlying those concepts became apparent through computer models/analysis, which is the very process Buchanan describes in his book. In other words, Buchanan complains of economics using simplified models/abstractions, while explaining the very process of possible for economists to not use them.

It would be like me complaining about physicists using a simplified model of the universe (or the atom, or gravity, whatever), while explaining how it is now finally possible to make a more complex (and correct) model, and what that model shows.

Another problem I have with the book is that it's light on science, and while it often mentions that something (the market, people in cities etc.) behaves in a certain way that's similar to a patten observed in nature, it usually doesn't explain why it behaves that way. That's problematic when you're writing a book about a descriptive field, which economics is.

All in all, I'm quite lurk warm towards the book. It has some interesting ideas, and it's pretty well written. However, if you, like me, have any type of background in economics, you'll get distracted by the flaws and oversimplifications. On top of that, you'll probably have heard about most of the experiments mentioned in the book.
In the end, I won't say that you shouldn't read it (unless you are an economist), but I won't recommend it either.

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70th skeptic's circle is up

It's a great one this time.

It's up over at the Conspiracy Factory

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Altruism in wasps tied to maternal behavior

ScienceDaily reports on an interesting study of wasps, where to researchers took a look at the genes of the different types of wasps, and saw if there was any connection to their genes.

Altruism Evolved From Maternal Behavior, Wasp Genetics Study Suggests

Researchers at the University of Illinois have used an innovative approach to reveal the molecular basis of altruistic behavior in wasps. The research team focused on the expression of behavior-related genes in Polistes metricus paper wasps, a species for which little genetic data was available when the study was begun.

Like honey bee workers, wasp workers give up their reproductive capabilities and focus entirely on nurturing their larval siblings, a practice that seems to defy the Darwinian prediction that a successful organism strives, above all else, to reproduce itself. Such behaviors are indicative of a eusocial society, in which some individuals lose, or sacrifice, their reproductive functions and instead work to benefit the larger group.

I don't get the use of 'Darwinian' unless it refers to some predictions made by Darwin. Even if it does, the reference to the prediction seems a bit weird, as it has long been known that evolution works on the species level, so it's not important if one particular individual reproduces, but rather that the species on the whole, reproduces in the most efficient way possible. For some species that apparently involves "a eusocial society" (an expression I've never heard before).

The researchers found that the pattern of behavior-related genes expressed in the brains of worker wasps was most similar to that seen in foundresses, the female wasps who alone build new colonies and devote much of their early lives to maternal tasks.

"These wasps start out as single moms," said postdoctoral researcher Amy Toth. "They don't have any workers to help them, so they're responsible for laying all the eggs and provisioning the developing larvae which then turn into workers."

The researchers selected this species because it appears to represent an evolutionary transition. Once a foundress has raised a first generation of workers, she turns over the task of nurturing the larvae to the workers and devotes herself entirely to her "queenly" reproductive function.

At this point, the researchers discovered, behavioral gene expression in her brain changes, becoming distinct from that seen during her maternal period.

Toth noted that the P. metricus wasps represent a kind of intermediate stage in the evolution of eusocial behavior. The honey bee colony, in which queens never perform maternal tasks, is considered a more developed form of eusociality.

So, queens have a different behavioral gene expression than foundresses, who are more similar to workers in their expression than queens and gynes (future queens in existing colonies). So, in other words, worker wasps (bees, etc.) are more maternal even though they are unable to sexually reproduce.

That's quite interesting.

It does not follow that all observed altruistic behavior have roots in maternal (or paternal) behaviour, but it would follow from what we generally know about evolution.

The study can be found here (behind a paywall)

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Giant dinosaur dug out in Svalbard

A Danish newspaper brings the story of the finding of the fossil of an unknown dinosaur in Svalbard, Norway (link in Danish).

While trying to find out more about this find, I realized that it's really an year-old story, which is described here:
Entire predator found

The first intact example of the "Tyrannosaurus Rex of the sea" - a Pliosaur from 150 million years ago - has been found on Norwegian soil, in Svalbard.

The story back then was basically that an entire skeleton was found, but due to the climate, it could only be partly uncovered, and the rest had to wait for the 2007 expedition. According to the Danish newspaper, the rest has indeed been uncovered this year, and it has turn out to be a huge specimen - it was expected that it would be approximately 9m (approx 30'), but according to the Danish newspaper it's really 20m (approx 64') long, so it was quite a bit longer than expected. What's more, it's also quite a bit longer than the previous found specimens, which were never longer than 12-13m (approx 40').

Apparently there is another fossil the same size there, which they will try to uncover next summer.

The Natural History Museum of Oslo has a page dedicated to the expedition, but unfortunately it hasn't been updated with the new finds yet.

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Why openness is important

Lauren posted a moving Youtube clip over at Feministe.

It shows San Diego’s Republican mayor, Jerry Sanders, explain why he was not going to veto legislation supporting gay marriage, as expected. It's deeply touching, and it appears clear that Sanders is totally honest about the soul-searching that led him to this decision. A decision which cannot but cost him among parts of his Republican base.

San Diego Metro News has more

Sanders has, to my knowledge, never been rabidly anti-gay, and has always supported civil unions, but in the end, he realized that he could not support a "separate-but-equal institution", which what civil unions amount to. As he stated, he couldn't face the gay people he knows, including his daughter, if he did.

In the end, I couldn't look any of them in the face and tell them that their relationships, their very lives, were any less meaningful than the marriage I share with my wife, Rana

He made the right decision in the end, and decided to back the San Diego City Council in its decision to support same-sex marriage before the Californian Supreme Court.

As his own statements make clear, this happened because of his proximity to gay people. That was what made him reconsider his stance, and change his mind. This is why it's important for people to be open about such things - it shouldn't be necessary for people to be open about it to get justice, but unfortunately it is. Hiding away because of hatred and discrimination unfortunately only makes it possible for the hatred and discrimination to continue much longer. It's hard to hate and discriminate your own daughter (though Alan Keyes of course manages to do so).

I am not saying that everyone has to come out - in some places that would be quite dangerous - but I hope more people will have the courage to do so, and at the same time change peoples' perception of who and what gay people are and represents.

Back to the story about Mayor Sanders. His daughter, Lisa Sanders, has generally not been commenting on the story, though it's pretty clear that she approves of it. The only comment she has made so far, is quite telling.

I'm just very proud of my father. And to be a part of this. It's about equality, and he's doing the right thing, and I'm very confident in him.

While I am sure that I would disagree with Sanders on many issues, I am totally in agreement with his stance on this issue, and wish him the best of luck in the future.

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Another anti-science politician

Senator David Vitter, R-La, is trying to use public funds to support a Creationist group, the Louisiana Family Forum. Officially the money is earmarked "to develop a plan to promote better science education."

The Times-Picayune has the story

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., earmarked $100,000 in a spending bill for a Louisiana Christian group that has challenged the teaching of Darwinian evolution in the public school system and to which he has political ties.

The money is included in the labor, health and education financing bill for fiscal 2008 and specifies payment to the Louisiana Family Forum "to develop a plan to promote better science education."

The earmark appears to be the latest salvo in a decades-long battle over science education in Louisiana, in which some Christian groups have opposed the teaching of evolution and, more recently, have pushed to have it prominently labeled as a theory with other alternatives presented. Educators and others have decried the movement as a backdoor effort to inject religious teachings into the classroom.

There are two issues here.
1) Vitter is trying to channel federal funds to an organization to which he has ties.
2) Vitter is trying to channel federal funds to an organization which wants to teach Creationism either as a supplement to evolution (the official goal) or instead of evolution (the real goal).

Either of those two issues should be enough to get the earmarked money out of the bill, but combined there should be no doubt whatsoever. Unfortunately, I doubt that any senators will raise the issue, and do something about it.

Given the fact that Creationism has a blatant religious connection, and that the US Supreme Court has made it clear it's illegal to teach Creationism, I would say that there grounds for legal action. Something the article also implies

Critics said taxpayer money should not go to support a religion-based program.

"This is a misappropriation of public funds," said Charles Kincade, a civil rights lawyer in Monroe who has been involved in church-state cases. "It's a backdoor attempt to push a religious agenda in the public school system.

The article also states that the appropriations bill is awaiting Senate action, which means that the earmark could still be killed. Maybe if people write to their senators, this blatant misuse of public funds can be stopped?
If you write to your senator, it might be a good idea to mention both the inappropriateness of the funding and the inappropriateness of the senator's close ties to the organization he wants to give money to.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Paul Krugman got a blog

Just noticed that Paul Krugman got a blog over at NY Times

The Conscience of a Liberal

I am a great fan of both his economical work and his opinion writing. His book, The great Unraveling, is a great read, even though it only contains reprints of his op-eds.

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Naming rights for 10 fish species sold for $2 million

This sounds like crass commercializing, but it's for a good cause.

Auction to Name Fish Species Nets $2 Million for Conservation

An auction of rights to name 10 newly discovered species of fish raised more than $2 million for conservation efforts in eastern Indonesia on Thursday night, setting a record for an event of its type.

The black-tie soiree, hosted by Prince Albert II and sponsored by Conservation International and the Monaco-Asia Society, featured species found last year in the Bird's Head Seascape, an area in the northwest corner of Indonesian Papua. Prices for the naming rights ranged from $500,000 for a Hemiscyllium shark from Cendrawasih Bay to $50,000 for the Pseudanthias fairy basslet. The identities of the winning bidders, and the names they chose, were not immediately disclosed.

I am of two minds over this. On the one hand, I must admit that I find the idea of buying the rights to naming animals somewhat repulsive. On the other hand, I realize how much good $2 million will do for conservation. And I am sure that the naming of animals take into consideration any sponsors an expedition have (much like geographical naming did in old days).

One good thing is that the bidders "had to pledge that they would name the species after people rather than corporate entities."

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This might revolutionize cancer treatment

One of the big issues with cancer treatment is finding the cancer in time to do something about it. At ScienceDaily there is some news which might help in this regard.

New Technology For Cancer Screening Listens For The Signs Of Cancer

Cancer-sensing devices built as cheaply and efficiently as wristwatches -- using many of the same operating principles -- could change the way clinicians detect, treat and monitor cancer in patients.

A device which can be mass-produced cheaply sounds like good news indeed. This would mean that it could be widely distributed to family doctors (presuming it's easy to use), and save people hospital visits for a diagnosis.

Researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology have created an acoustic sensor that can report the presence of small amounts of mesothelin, a molecule associated with a number of cancers including mesothelioma, as they attach to the sensor's surface.

I am sure this will result in a number of false positives, but I'd rather have false positives, than diagnoses that come to late to do anything about it.

Of course, it's important to note that not all types of cancers would be possible to detect this way.

According to the researchers, the study is a proof of principle, demonstrating a technique that might work for the detection of nearly any biomarker -- a collective term for a molecular signal that denotes the presence of disease.

"It is one thing to be able to identify biomarkers for a disease, but it is another to be able to find them in blood quickly and easily at very low concentrations," said Anthony Dickherber, a graduate student in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Georgia Tech. "We envision that, one day, doctors can use an array of our sensors as a sort of laboratory in their office, where they could use a quick blood sample to detect or monitor the signs of cancer."

I hope that the proof of principle can be reproduced, and that this device will become available as fast as possible. If they are right, I can't see any downside to the device. However, it would require the device to be at least as reliable in detecting cancers than current methods (though more false positives would be acceptable) for it to become a reliable first step of diagnosis.

A good example of a field, engineering, bringing its expertise to another field, medicine, to help solve a problem. Hopefully it will fulfill its potential.

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Careful what you wear to the airport

Or the train station I presume.

I am of course referring to the story about MIT student Star Simpson who was arrested for wearing a so-called hoax device (a fake bomb, if you prefer), which of course was nothing of the sort.

The Machinist over at Salon has the story

Star Simpson, a 19-year-old MIT student, was arrested at gunpoint Friday morning at Boston's Logan Airport when officers suspected that a circuit board and battery she had pinned to her sweatshirt was a bomb. Indeed, every news outlet is now referring to the thing as a "fake bomb," and Simpson has been charged with possessing a "hoax device."

But pictures of the sweatshirt that officials are putting out show something quite less scary -- I have no idea what a real bomb looks like, but I don't think it's a plastic board with a 9-volt battery on it. Simpson's explanation is that the jacket was a wearable-art project she made so she could stand out at her school's career day (the plastic board lights up). All information now streaming in supports that view, and suggests that the affair could have been a misunderstanding, one that very nearly turned tragic.

This is my speculation only, but it seems quite possible that rather than intending to deliberately walk into Logan with a fake bomb, Simpson might instead have rolled out of bed with an art jacket she often wore around campus and slipped it on in a rush on her way to pick up a friend -- forgetting that she was heading into the all-fear-all-the-time black hole that is U.S. aviation.

First of all, Star Simpson was extremely lucky that she was smart enough to not start debating with the cops when they pointed the guns at her. Second of all, wearing that jacket was a foolish thing to do - but only so in this climate of fear.

I live in a country where there haven't been any terrorist attacks for quite a few years (the latest was back in 1992), so it's of course quite easy for me to ridicule overreactions like this. On the other hand, last month, eight people were arrested for making bombs and planning terrorism in Copenhagen. Before them, a group of people were arrested in 2005, of which one was convicted, and a group was arrested in 2006 - their trial started earlier this month.

So, bomb scares are not entirely unknown here.

We've also had some issues with biker gangs fighting each other, which included incidents of bikers attacking each other at the airport.

What I am trying to say, is that I have some understanding of the level of care being extra high at airports, but there has to be some proportions. When the airport security arrested Simpson, it was a bit of a overkill, but that's understandable. When she's charged afterwards, it's crazy. The charges against her carries up to five year in prison. They should be dropped immediately!

Hopefully the legal authorities in Boston will come to their senses.

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Amnesty International's stance on abortion

Sp!ked has a good point about Amnesty International's stance on abortion.

The real Amnesty-abortion scandal

Forget the Catholic Church’s predictable stance on abortion. Why is a human rights group so cavalier about a woman’s right to choose?

Amnesty International was founded as an organization working against political prisoners and torture, but has become a all-round human rights' organization. Probably the most well-known such, as a matter of fact.

This means that their opinion and stance on issues carry a certain weight.

What is more shocking? The fact that the Catholic Church, well known for its obsessive opposition to abortion and contraception, should threaten to cut its links with organisations that support a woman’s right to choose? Or the fact that Amnesty International, a Western, liberal, progressive outfit whose slogan is ‘Protect the Human’, remained, until recently, neutral on the question of abortion, and now only supports a woman’s right to choose if she has been raped or made pregnant as a result of incest?

I wasn't actually aware that Amnesty International don't support women's right to choose fully, but I was aware that they only recently started to support it at all (I just thought they supported it fully).

Some of this is probably due to them not wanting to offend their allies, such as the Catholic Church. However, this is not an acceptable reason in my book, especially not given the support given by the Catholic Church to regimes like "Baby Doc" Duvalier in the past. They are not exactly a morale barometer that you want to use.

Amnesty was traditionally neutral on abortion. This was partly because it has close links with the Catholic Church and carries out much of its work in Catholic countries, and it did not want to upset the bishops by mentioning the A-word. And it was partly because Amnesty describes itself as a ‘human rights organisation’, and ‘there is no generally accepted right to abortion in international human rights law’ (3). This meant that Amnesty could largely ignore the question of abortion, despite the fact that women in the developing world need legal abortion services every bit as much as women in the West do. In countries where abortion is legal, the maternal mortality rate is 0.2 per 100,000 – in countries where abortion is illegal, the rate is 330 per 100,000. There are an estimated 20million abortions around the world every year, and according to the World Health Organisation many of them are ‘carried out by unskilled staff in unsafe conditions’ (4). Yet in order to keep sweet with the Catholics, and in the name of sticking to the letter of international human rights legislation, Amnesty trotted the globe for years criticising prison conditions and rights violations without uttering a word of public support for a woman’s right to choose.

I would also guess that not having a stance on abortion would make AI more digestible by certain religious groups in the US. Given the fact that these religious groups are politically well-connected, this might make sense from a purely real-political stance, however, from a humanitarian stance, it certainly doesn't.

In many ways, a woman’s right to choose – a real, meaningful right which, if enjoyed, can have an immensely positive impact on a woman’s life and status – is the very opposite of a human right. Where human rights are written from on high and passed down like a list of instructions to national governments, the right to choose is about a woman having control over her own body and personhood. It gives her power over her destiny and increases the choices she can make about work, family life and social life. Where human rights emphasise governments’ responsibilities to protect people from harm, the right to choose frees a woman from official prying into the decisions she makes about her body and her life; it increases her humanity, it makes her a fuller, more independent human being. The human rights agenda gives rise to Western advocacy on behalf of at-risk individuals, as groups like Amnesty and officials at the UN adopt victimised individuals in the developing world and campaign for their human rights to be reinstated; by contrast, real rights emphasise a person’s ability to be a self-advocate, if you like, to make decisions and take actions according to his or her own interests and desires.

In short, where human rights infantilise us, treating us as beings with very basic needs who need our governments, the UN and groups like Amnesty to guard us from others, real rights such as the right to choose, as well as the right to vote and the rights to free speech and free assembly, allow us to live as autonomous adults. Amnesty’s neutrality on abortion was about more than keeping on side with Catholics. It also reflected the human rights lobby’s lack of interest in, possibly even innate hostility towards, traditional rights. After all, a developing world in which people were demanding the right to choose and organise and speak as they saw fit would not need powerful human rights organisations to come and fight its corner. Everything you need to know about today’s problematic human rights agenda is contained in the idea that, according to the Amnesty worldview, it is acceptable for countries to adopt human rights without granting women the right to choose. That is, there can be a ‘human rights culture’ even if there is no free and safe access to abortion; a woman can be said to enjoy human rights even if she does not have basic control over her own reproductive system. Such is the narrow focus of the human rights agenda that you can ‘have human rights’ and yet still be enslaved.

Though Sp!ked is quite left politically to me, I find myself much in agreement with them on this issue. Traditional human rights, such as those Amnesty International focuses on, are important, but they are certainly not sufficient.

The right to make decisions over your own body is generally considered a basic human right, but for some reason, this does not cover women's right to choose. The only reason this is the case, are religious considerations, which has absolutely no place in a human rights' organization.

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Damn, there goes my hope of bankruptcy through legal fees

It turns out that the two Creationist organizations Answers in Genesis and Creation Ministries International have met on Hawaii to settle their differences.

Two leading creationism advocates, including Boone County's Answers in Genesis, have decided to settle their differences like Christians.

Appealing to God to smite the other side? Convention by the sword? Crusades? Abortion clinic bombs?

Rather than fight in court, last month the board of Answers in Genesis and Creation Ministries International met in Hawaii and reached a tentative agreement to settle the lawsuit they're parties to.

"We feel very, very satisfied about it," CMI Managing Director Carl Wieland said. "We were pleased to end it this way, and glad to have had the chance to have face-to-face communication."

The two organizations hope to have a final, written agreement by mid-October, Wieland said.

Let's hope not. As long as they are busy with their infighting (where I must admit it sounds like CMI have a good case), they don't have time to spread their lies and anti-science.

For many years, they shared resources and board members. Ken Ham worked for CMI in Australia before coming to the United States and founding Answers in Genesis.

Since then, they have not had equal success, at least in terms of financial backing.

Answers in Genesis recently opened a $27 million, 70,000 square-foot creationism museum - all of it paid for - at its Petersburg headquarters in western Boone County.

Last fiscal year, CMI had about $3 million in total revenue.

Think of how much good could be done with $27 million. Not only when it comes to science, but also in basic humanitarian actions. For such much money to be used to spread lies and anti-science is sickening.

CMI sued Answers May 31 in the Supreme Court of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, accusing Answers of un-Biblical conduct.

I hope that their accusations were a little more legally specific. Other than that, it could mean anything from eating shellfish over worshiping other Gods and not respecting their elders, all the way to not rendering onto Caesar what is his or not stoning adulters. There is a wide range.

Actually, CMI is accusing AiG of fraud:

The lawsuit alleged that Answers misled subscribers into thinking that CMI was no longer publishing the magazines, and instead signed them up for Answers in Genesis' own, new magazine, "Answers."

CMI said that it lost 39,000 subscribers that produced annual gross revenue of $252,000.

We can still hope for the settlement collapsing.

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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Pushers of bad ideas target Australian teens

US chastity evangelist targets Australian kids

A CONTROVERSIAL teenage chastity campaign based in the US is on its way to Australia.

The Silver Ring Thing project uses rock music and videos at its events to encourage boys and girls as young as 12 to pledge publicly to stay virgins until they are married. They then buy an inscribed ring for about $20 that they are told to wear all the time, as well as being given a "chastity Bible".

It is the fastest-growing abstinence campaign in the US and is led by Denny Pattyn, an evangelical youth pastor who, during rallies, admits to a wild past of promiscuity and drinking before finding God. But the campaign has attracted criticism for making misleading statements about safe sex and contraception and for frightening youngsters into pledging.

In theory abstinence sounds like a good idea, but in reality, focusing on that instead of sex education have very bad effects.

Evidence suggests abstinence campaigns might delay the age at which youngsters first have sex, but most who sign up break their pledge and might indulge in more risky sexual behaviour.

One 10-year study documenting that, can be found here (.pdf), a review of others relating to HIV-AIDS and pregnancy and abstinence can be found here.

Not only is it ineffective, abstinence only programs often contain misleading information about sex and preventions (.pdf). Also, abstinence buys into the whole idea that there is something wrong with having sex - something that's quite natural. People should never feel pressured into sex, but it's not a good thing to case sex as something that should be avoided.

All in all, not only is it ineffective, and potentially dangerous, it also leads to a (in my opinion) unwholesome view on sex and sexuality. Hopefully the teens drawn to this program, will still receive good sex-ed, ensuring that they don't participate in risky behaviour if they decide not to abstain any longer.

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A general warning when communicating with me

Or any other Danish person.

Today, new laws steps into effect in Denmark, that leads to all emails and text-messages getting stored by internet and phone providers. All phone calls from Danish phones and web-browsing from Danish computers (through Danish internet providers) also get registered.

This is an anti-terror measure.

Of course, it's entire ineffective, since the law only governs within Denmark, so email accounts in other countries (e.g. gmail, hotmail, yahoo etc.) are not stored, even if owned by Danes. And within Denmark, it can easily be bypassed.

The law is not as wide sweeping as some seen in the US - Danish police/intelligence agencies cannot get access to this data (which is gathered and stored by the providers) without a court order. Still, it's open for abuse, and a very bad step towards less privacy.

Unfortunately there is widespread support for these laws among politicians. Only the hard-core socialists (Socialist Folkeparti) and the communists (Enhedslisten) voted against it.

The union for programmers and systems developers (Prosa) is very much against this law, and has created a free CD containing some freeware to help people annonymize their internet usage. An image of it can be downloaded here (page is in Danish). Alternatively, I suggest installing Tor.

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A bit late isn't it?

It seems like there is a pattern among people working for the Bush administration. They do their job, supporting whatever mad schemes the Bush administration thinks up, by, among other things, lending their names and credibility to them. Then, they retire, and publish a book that's critical of the Bush administration.

In other words, when they have the possibility to actually do something, they don't - instead they wait until they cannot do anything, and then says the truth.

The latest in this choir is Alan Greenspan.

Greenspan Is Critical Of Bush in Memoir

Alan Greenspan, who served as Federal Reserve chairman for 18 years and was the leading Republican economist for the past three decades, levels unusually harsh criticism at President Bush and the Republican Party in his new book, arguing that Bush abandoned the central conservative principle of fiscal restraint.

While condemning Democrats, too, for rampant federal spending, he offers Bill Clinton an exemption. The former president emerges as the political hero of "The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World," Greenspan's 531-page memoir, which is being published Monday.

Thanks for nothing Greenspan. When you worked as the Federal Reserve chairman, and it was your duty to speak out, you said nothing. Instead you became a yes-man to Bush's mad ideas, letting him drag the US economy down the drain.
Now, when you risk nothing, and it's too late to prevent the damage, you gather the courage to speak out. Sorry, it's too little, too late.

If I seem agree, it's because I am. Greenspan was a solid chairman under Clinton, and wasn't afraid to make his opinions heard, yet when his own political party came into power, he let politics get in the way of his job. That's criminal neglect in my opinion, and it undermines the entire trust in his position. If he was too incompetent to realize the problems with the Bush administration, it would be one thing, but he wasn't. Instead, he turned out to be a partisan hack, who put party loyalty above the good of the country.

Greenspan's name should go down through history in disgrace.

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Friday, September 14, 2007

Author profile: James Tiptree, Jr.

Note: In the Readerville forum, I've written a few profiles of science fiction authors, some of which might also be of interest to others. Once in a while I'll post one of them here.

James Tiptee Jr. (1915 - 1987)

Tiptree is the man to beat this year.
Wilhelm is the woman to beat, but Tiptee is the man.

Thus wrote Harlan Ellison in his introduction to the story "The Milk of Paradise" in Again, Dangerous Visions (1972). Little did he know that Tiptree was a pseudonym for the psychologist Alice Hastings Bradley Sheldon. Her identity was kept a secret until 1977, when it was exposed because of some remarks Tiptree made; she referred to the death of her mother with enough details for people to figure out who her mother was.

Alice Sheldon was the daughter of Mary Hastings Bradley, who was a well known geographer and author of 35 books. She was born in Chicago, but spend much of her childhood in India and Africa. She worked in the US Government for many years, including some time at Pentagon and the CIA, which she left in 1955 for college, acquiring a PhD in experimental psychology in 1967.

Under her real name, she published a non-sf story, "The Lucky Ones", in The New Yorker in 1946, but her first story as James Tiptree Jr., "Birth of a Salesman", was published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1968.
Her best writing occured between 1979 and 1977 though, and short story collections covering that time frame are probably well worth getting (not that I've gotten around to getting any such yet). Especially of note are the stories "The Women Men Don't See " (1973), "The Girl Who Was Plugged In" (1973, Hugo winner), and "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" (1977, Nebula and, shared, Hugo winner).

The Life of Alice Sheldon had a sad ending. She had married Huntington Sheldon in 1945, and in the 1980s he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease. In 1987 Alice Sheldon first shot her husband, and then killed herself.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction by John Grant & Peter Nicholls
Again, Dangerous Visions edited by Harlan Ellison.

Since I originally wrote this short profile of James Tiptree Jr., a biography of her has been published. Julie Phillips' James Tiptree, Jr. - The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon describes the life of the subject from a somewhat feminist viewpoint, and quite deservedly won a Hugo this year. I highly recommend it.

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Author profile: C.L. Moore

Note: In the Readerville forum, I've written a few profiles of science fiction authors, some of which might also be of interest to others. Once in a while I'll post one of them here.

Catherine Lucille Moore (1911-1987)

They found me under a cabbage plant in Indianapolis on the 24th of January, 1911, and was reared on a diet of Greek mythology, Oz books and Edgar Rice Burroughs, so you can see I never had a chance"

Thus starts C.L. Moore her "An Autobiographical Sketch of C.L. Moore" (Fantasy Magazine, June 1936), she then goes on to tell how she left college without a degree during the depression, and then starts talking about her characters, a subject she appears more at ease writing about. The interesting part of reading that short autobiography, is that nowhere does she mention that she is a woman - something quite common back in those days, as female science fiction writers couldn't sell.

Her first sale was "Shambleau" to Weird Tales (November, 1933), which was the first of 13 stories about the outlaw Northwest Smith roaming the spaceways. In the October 1933 issue of Weird Tales, the story "The Black God's Kiss", with the character Jirel of Joiry, appeared. Many acknowledges Jirel of Joiry as the first female role model of the sword and sorcery sub-genre, perhaps of all fantasy, and Marion Zimmer Bradley appropriately dedicated the first Sword and Sorceress anthology to her and her creator.

In 1940 C.L. Moore married Henry Kuttner (April 7, 1915 - February 3, 1958), and much of their work after that were collaborations. Their marriage ended all to shortly, when Kuttner died of a heart attack in 1958.
This marked the end of Moore's writing career. After that she more or less left the science fiction field, only making a few appearances at conventions.

None of Moore's works I've read, be it solo or in collaboration with Kuttner, are what I'd call spectacular writing, but like so much other stuff from back then, they are entertaining light reads, and the Jirel of Joiry stories are interesting from a historical perspective.

C.L. Moore was one of the few female pioneers in science fiction and fantasy, and like her contemporaries Leigh Brackett and to a lesser degree Andre Norton, she is too often forgotten when the pioneers are discussed, or she is just mentioned as an appendix to her husband's name. This is unjust, and I hope that in time she'll be given the respect she deserves.

The Encyclopedia of Fantasy by John Clute & John Grant
Echoes of Valor II edited by Karl Edward Wagner (contains among other items "An Autobiographical Sketch of C.L. Moore")

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40% of deaths caused by pollution

According to this article a recent Cornell study shows that 40% of all deaths are directly or indirectly cause by pollution.

A recent Cornell research project concluded that pollution deserves a place alongside heart disease and cancer on the list of leading causes of death worldwide. Contamination of water, air and soil leads to 40 percent of the planet’s death toll, according to a study conducted by Prof. David Pimentel, ecology and evolutionary Biology.

We all know the direct causes such as arsenic in the drinking water, or mercury fumes etc., but the indirect causes might be less obvious.

The project focuses on how deteriorating environmental conditions and population growth are affecting the spread of diseases. According to the results, 62 million deaths each year are due to organic or chemical pollutants. Pimentel said that diseases like malaria, E. coli, salmonella, AIDS and tuberculosis are escalating due to the increased environment.

“Mosquitoes are much happier in polluted water. They spread a lot of serious diseases, like West Nile Virus and malaria,” Pimentel said.

So polluting water might not only lead directly to deaths (through poisoning and cancer) but also indirectly through increased frequency of malaria.

Of course, the study is pretty broad in its definition of what is caused by polution

The study classified malnutrition as an environmental impact issue because it results from a lack of adequate nutrients. Rainfall, temperatures and water quality all effect food production, and are issues of land and water, subject to pollution.

In some cases malnutrition is certainly an environmental impact issue, but in other cases, it's not. Street children can live in a somewhat healthy environment, yet still suffer from malnutrition.

Still, an interesting study.

Cornell's own coverage of the study can be found here, and includes a link to the study, which unfortunately is behind a paywall.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Are chimpanzees going biblical on us?

Well, not quite, thought the headline of this PLoS One article makes it sound that way.

Chimpanzees Share Forbidden Fruit by Kimberley J. Hockings, Tatyana Humle, James R. Anderson, Dora Biro, Claudia Sousa, Gaku Ohashi, and Tetsuro Matsuzawa.

However, there are no snakes involved. Rather, we are talking about high-risk food here, such as meat, or cultivated plant foods. Cultivated by Humans, that is, not Chimpanzees. It is the later food type that Hockings et al focus on.

The sharing of wild plant foods is infrequent in chimpanzees, but in chimpanzee communities that engage in hunting, meat is frequently used as a ‘social tool’ for nurturing alliances and social bonds. Here we report the only recorded example of regular sharing of plant foods by unrelated, non-provisioned wild chimpanzees, and the contexts in which these sharing behaviours occur. From direct observations, adult chimpanzees at Bossou (Republic of Guinea, West Africa) very rarely transferred wild plant foods. In contrast, they shared cultivated plant foods much more frequently (58 out of 59 food sharing events). Sharing primarily consists of adult males allowing reproductively cycling females to take food that they possess. We propose that hypotheses focussing on ‘food-for-sex and -grooming’ and ‘showing-off’ strategies plausibly account for observed sharing behaviours. A changing human-dominated landscape presents chimpanzees with fresh challenges, and our observations suggest that crop-raiding provides adult male chimpanzees at Bossou with highly desirable food commodities that may be traded for other currencies.

Quite interesting. And I must admit it's a bit surprising to me that such things haven't been well documented in the past - either with sharing of crops or with meat sharing, though there is some knowledge about the later. From the article, it would seem that the behavior differs quite a bit from chimpanzee group to chimpanzee group, at least when it comes to meat sharing, but there seems to be a common tendency for males to share meat with females.

Food sharing is observed throughout the animal kingdom, albeit at varying levels and complexities. Hypotheses proposed to explain food sharing behaviours in chimpanzees [for reviews], [see 1,2] range from cognitively simple explanations, such as begging intensity [3], to more complex sharing strategies, such as reciprocity [4]. Within chimpanzee communities that engage in hunting, meat is reportedly used as a ‘social tool’ [5]; alliances and affiliative relationships are cemented by gifts of meat. Long-term data from Mahale in Tanzania suggest that alpha males use meat sharing as a coalition strategy, never sharing with potential rivals such as beta or younger adult males [6]. However in Taï, Ivory Coast, hunters receive a share of meat if they participated in the hunt, regardless of the identity of the possessor [7]. The ‘meat-for-sex’ hypothesis suggests that males share meat with females either to gain immediate access to swollen females [8], [9] or to establish or strengthen an affiliative relationship and thus increase future mating opportunities [10]. Additionally, as meat is typically energetically costly and risky to acquire for chimpanzees, sharing with others may advertise an individual's strength and prowess [11]; simply possessing a desirable item may draw positive attention to an individual, enhancing the latter's social status [12], [13].

The article suggests that if we learn to understand the behaviors and motivations for chimpanzees, we could also learn something of our own kind's behavior.

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New Skeptic's Circle is up!

The 69th Skeptic's Circle is up at Unscrewing The Inscrutable

It's a pretty big one this time.

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News from Iraq

Last month, seven active-duty soldiers in Iraq wrote an op-ed about the war there: "The war as we saw it". The link goes to a Salon reprinting of it. The reason Salon asked NY Times permission to use it, is that two of the authors of the op-ed were killed last Monday. One of the authors were wounded in the head already before the op-ed was brought in the NY Times, which raises some questions, as Joan Walsh rightly says:

Tragically, Staff Sgt. Jeremy Murphy, another of the seven authors, was shot in the head in Iraq before the Op-Ed was published and is being treated at the National Naval Medical Center in Maryland. What does it mean that in the last month, three of the seven Op-Ed authors have been gravely wounded in Iraq, two of them fatally? I'm not jumping to any dark theories, though I hope Mora's mother and the other families get answers to all their questions. At minimum, it's a stunning and awful coincidence that should work to focus us on the awful waste of lives in Iraq today. As President Bush prepares another speech Thursday night, more "Stay the course" denial, this time dressed up as an announcement of a troop reduction, let's hope Congress examines the deaths of Omar Mora and Yance Gray and decides: Enough.

I think that there is no need for any dark conspiracy theories. These people were on active duty in a war-zone, and their experiences led them to write an op-ed about how the situation there is worse than it would appear from the US media. Unfortunately, what has happened to them after writing their op-ed, bears this out.

This should lead to politicians to re-evaluate their stance on Iraq, but unfortunately I doubt that it will happen.

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Lazy linking

A few posts and articles that I found interesting enough to link to.

Via Sara Speaking, I found “Do you understand where you are? over at Group News Blog.

Zuzu, over at Feminsite points to the news that the estranged husband of national evangelist Bynum, Thomas Weeks, has been charged with assault on Bynum. Weeks is a bishop, and shares an international ministry with Bynum. Must be that famous Christian love in action.

Over at Orcinus, there is a number of great posts up, but the one that really stands out, is David Neiwert's post Of Whales and Heritage - perhaps because the subject is so unusual, even for Orcinus?

Via Orac, I see that Prometheus' blog, A Photon in the Darkness, has moved. Orac also links to three great posts by Prometheus on "Myths and Legends of Autism".

Tangled Bank #88 is up at Behavioral Ecology Blog.

I am unsure on how I stand on GM food - on the one hand, I can see the utility of it, on the other hand, I must admit that I simply don't trust the testing in the US. However, it's not really a big issue for me, since I live inside the EU, which has some barriers towards GM food.
There have been at least one study in the past that shows that customers prefer GM food when facing the choice between GM food and unmodified food. This seems a bit counter-intuitive to me, but intuition has a tendency to be wrong.... or maybe not - Tim Lambert explains why that particular result might have been reached: Would you eat wormy sweet corn?
A 2003 paper in the British Food Journal by Powell et al described an experiment that found that, given a choice between genetically modified sweet corn and the regular kind, consumers preferred to buy the GM corn by a factor of 3 to 2. However, Stuart Laidlaw reported that the experiment was flawed -- there was a sign above the regular sweet corn saying "Would you eat wormy sweet corn?", while the corresponding sign over the GM corn said "Here's What Went into Producing Quality Sweet Corn". The experiment shows that consumers prefer GM corn to wormy corn, but they may well prefer regular corn to GM corn if they were both presented as worm free.

Seems like an perfect example of how now to conduct science.


Monday, September 10, 2007

Finally some substantial criticism of atheist books

We all know that there has been a bunch of succesfull so-called "new atheist" books out in recent times. Hitchen's God Is Not Great, Dawkins' The God Delusion, Harris' The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation etc.

There have been numerous criticisms of these books, but so far they've been less than impressive. One insipid type of criticism of Dawkins' book became so widespread that PZ Myers made a counter-example based upon a classic fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen: The Courtier's Reply.

I've read the books that I've mentioned above, and I do have some problems with parts of them, especially Harris' The End of Faith, which is why I was pleasantly surprised when I came across a substantial criticism of some of the atheist books, that dealt with the actual points in the books.

I have a problem with the title of the article, since this sort of atheism isn't "new" in any meaningful way, especially not outside the US. However, it's still worth reading.

The New Atheism

Note that the author of the article, A. J. Chien, starts off with making clear that the central argument of the books is quite valid, and that most criticism of them is meaningless. The author writes

Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens have been widely reviewed, but it seems to me these few central points have scarcely been addressed. One common criticism, for instance by Terry Eagleton, is that Dawkins overlooks the many variants of Christian belief. But any variant that maintains an interventionist God is subject to Dawkins’ arguments; if there’s any that doesn’t, then it isn’t what Dawkins is addressing. So the criticism is pointless. Criticism like Tanenbaum’s is likewise typical: simply asserting the existence of moderate believers is easy, but just repeats what has been granted and ignores the argument about them.

I think the points made here are well worth repeating.

Now, on to the criticism. The author, rightfully in my opinion, objects to the attribution of terrorism to Islam, which is made especially by Harris and Dennett (who I haven't read), ignoring the other quite possible reasons, such as wanting revenge. This was something I also felt was lacking in Harris rather simplistic explanation for terrorism. It's true that religious fundamentalism makes terrorism much easier, but an additional motivation would seem necessary to me.

There is also some quite reasonable criticism of Harris' claims of good intentions by the US (and its allies) as something distinguishing from e.g. Islamic countries.

The only thing I feel is missing from the criticism, is a denouncement of Harris' implicit (and nearly explicit) endorsement of torture. Reading that part of The End of Faith nearly made me throw it away in disgust.

All in all, interesting to read a review of atheist books that actually deals with the content.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

Been a bad week on the death front

Madeleine L’Engle has died, 88 years old. She is most famerous for her book A Wrinkle in Time, but had written numerous other books.

The world's greatest tenor (and I say this without intending any slight to Placido Domingo) has died. Luciano Pavarotti at his best had a voice which like we'll likely never hear again. I'm not a huge opera fan, though I can appreciate it, but even before the first concert with the 3 tenors, I was impressed by Pavarotti. Unfortunately his voice went downhill in later years, but I can still remember Pavarotti singing together with Domingo and Carreras and simply outshining those two great talents.

There was also a right-winged Christian fundamentalist who died in the US, but who cares.

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Mentally ill children given up for foster care

Via Readerville, I became aware of this.

Mental Illness Sends Many to Foster Care

Almost one of every four children in Virginia's foster care system is there because parents want the child to have mental health treatment, a report commissioned by the General Assembly states.

The study -- the result of a months-long examination of the state's foster care and mental health services -- chronicles the difficult decisions that thousands of Virginia parents have made to relinquish custody of their children to the foster care system so they can get mental health services that are otherwise unavailable or unaffordable.

We are speaking of up towards 25% of all foster children in Virginia, or, going by the numbers in the article, 23%. 23%. That's 2008 children. If mental health care had been freely available for free (or at an income based cost), there would be 23% less foster children in Virginia.

And it's not isolated to Virginia.

Last year, the federal government found that at least 12,700 children were placed in foster care or juvenile jails only because they needed mental health treatment. The study called it a significant problem in every state.

Given the numbers from Virginia, I think it's safe to adjust that number quite a bit upwards.

This is an example of the human costs of the lack of an affordable health care system (such as universal health care), which ends up costing society a lot more in the long run.

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Did the Tasmanian Tiger loose to the Dingos?

Via a comment to one of PZ's posts over at Pharyngula, I came across this piece of news. Unfortunately I can't find the comment where the link was posted, so I can't give proper credit to the orginal poster.

Tasmanian tiger's weaker bite gave dingoes the edge

The Tasmanian tiger probably died out because of competition from the dingo, whose stronger head and neck could better handle the stresses of tackling bigger prey, according to research on the animals’ skulls. The new study challenges the theory that humans were mainly to blame.

First of all, I dislike the mis-use of the word "theory" here. It was at best a hypothesis, which was considered as one possible explanaition (the other hypothesis was that the extinction was caused by the Dingos). So the findings are not quite as revolutionary as the lead paragraph makes it sound.

What I find quite interesting about this study, is that it's based upon some computer models, where the scientists modelled the skulls of Dingos and Tasmanian Tigers.

Using a series of CT scans of the skulls, they created sophisticated computer models of the animals' heads. They then studied the stresses on the skull, jaw, teeth, and muscles around the skulls while they simulated the biting, tearing and shaking of prey.

They found that as the size of a struggling prey animal got bigger, so too did stresses at the back of both the skulls. But differences in skull geometry, and the amount of muscle that would have been attached to the back, meant that these stresses were relatively much higher in the thylacine.

So, in other words, Dingos could hunt larger animals than Tasmanian Tigers. Combined with the later's larger size (according to the article, they were 70% heavier than dingos), and there is a distinct evolutionary advantage to the Dingos.

The study can be found behind a pay-wall at the Proceedings of the Royal Society, though a abstract can be read here

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Scientology members charged in Belgium

Couldn't happen to a nicer group of people.

Charges against Scientology in Belgium

After a ten-year investigation, Belgian prosecutors have charged twelve members of the Church of Scientology. The accusations include fraud, extortion, illegal practice of medicine, and infringement of privacy law, among others. The decision opens the way for Scientology to be considered a criminal organization.

Scientology is not recognized as a religious organization in Belgium. Not that it would have made any difference in the charges against them, though I am sure Scientology will play the "religious prosecution" card.

I seriously hope that they will be classified as a criminal organization. That could lead the way for rewoking their status as a religious group in other European countries, such as Denmark.

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Monday, September 03, 2007

Are people willing to pay for privacy?

According to Wired, the answer to this question is no.

The Privacy Market Has Many Sellers, but Few Buyers

The focus of the article is new start-up companies that, for a relatively low amount of dollars, protect peoples' privacy. Trouble is, that people won't pay for it, and that those companies really can't do much to protect your privacy.

One of the companies the article mentions in passing is ReputationDefender, who we have seen in the past against AutoAdmit, where they had a good case, and Wesley Elsberry, where they certainly didn't have a good case. Those two cases pretty much shows the impotence of companies like ReputationDefender, who cannot actually provide you with any service that you couldn't have done yourself - in the AutoAdmit case, a good lawyer would have been as efficient, and in the later case, no person can do anything to force Elsberry to remove the content ReputationDefender (and their client) objects to.

The Wired article gives another example of the impotence of these privacy companies.

"I think it would be difficult for any company to claim they can really opt you out when they can't go back to the source and take you out of the public record," says Jennifer Barrett, global privacy leader for Acxiom, a $1.4 billion data broker. "When consumers pay for a service like this, most expect universal opt-out. When the number of (marketers) who contact them (with junk mail) doesn't change very much, they'll say 'this didn't do much good.'"

These problems is why people probably won't start using those services in any real numbers.

In Europe, and especially in Scandinavia, there are strict privacy laws, which protects people against the sort of data-mining described in the article. For compaines to be allowed to contact me, I have to explicitly opt-in. It's not even legal for companies to leave the "send me news" checkbox checked when I register on a website. This is the sort of things that is needed to ensure people can get the privacy they want - not private companies working on behalf on customers, but laws protecting customers. Such laws should also make it illegal for companies to share customer data (which it is in many countries, including the EU).

Another big thing people can do to protect their privacy, is to be careful about datasharing on the internet.

I am not as big on privacy as some people I know (I know people in the IT business who have managed to have zero internet presence), and I'm fairly easy to track down due to the fact that I post under my own name, and I am listed in the phonebook (the fact that I have an unique name doesn't help). I've participated actively on the internet since it was quite young (only a couple of years old), and I've profiles on a number of social network places (one of which, LinkedIn, regularly results in contacts regarding potential jobs). However, I am somewhat careful never to go into details about my private life, and even less my professional life - one thing you won't find here are descriptions of what work I do at my company's customers (except perhaps in broad vague terms).

This kind of behaviour is much more conductive for privacy than hiring any privacy company.

So all in all, I think the Wired article is right in that few are willing to pay for privacy, and given how ineffective/inpotent the companies offering to protect your privacy is, this is entirely understandable.

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