Sunday, February 24, 2008

In which I am amused by a court ruling

Over the years following US politics, I've read a number of court rulings for one reason or another. Most of them have been pretty straightforward, and frankly quite boring. Others, however, have either been brilliantly written, amusing, or contained some surprising passages.

In the comments to this post over at Lawyers, Guns and Money someone linked to a ruling (.pdf), which was interesting because it dealt with frivolous lawsuits, but not particular noteworthy in its language, until I came to this particular passage:

This Court is quite sure that, if the villagers who heard the boy
cry "wolf" one time too many had some form of reassurance that the
boy's last cry was sincere, they would have responded
appropriately and he would be alive instead of being dinner for the
ravenous canine. If anything, that story teaches that repetitious
tomfoolery can result in disaster for the knave. This Court will not turn
a deaf ear to Plaintiff's future cries. However, it will require Plaintiff to
structure his pleas for help in a more sincere manner so that the
energies of the villagers are not wasted on the repeated runs up the
grassy hill atop which the mischievous boy sits laughing.

Isn't it a joy to see such language when dealing with a serious issue?

Of course, the best ruling I've ever read, is Judge Jones' ruling in Kitzmiller et al. v Dover Area School District et al..

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Feminism on the net

While I am primarily a science blogs, especially these days when I'm busy at work, I also cover other progressive issues, such as feminism. I'm neglected that aspect lately, and while I have a couple of ideas to some posts related to that subject, I don't expect to get around to covering those before after my exam on March 5th.

Fortunately, I'm only small-fry when it comes to feminism, and there are much better resources on the internet. It seems like the Utne Reader has become aware of this (not that they are better than me, but the fact that there are great feminist resources on the net - they don't even know I exist).

The article gives a short introduction to feminism on the internet, linking first to the most well-known. I am a great fan of all those mentioned, but I still find it quite good that the writer of the article, Danielle Maestretti, went a little further, and found some of the other great feminist blogs, and ended up with a more diverse list than we normally see in these articles (while still leaving out the "feminists" on the right).

I could of course mention many other great feminist sites, and you'll find many of them on my blogroll (please visit them), but as an introduction to the feminist blogsphere, Maestretti did a great job.

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Sunday, February 17, 2008

New piece of medicine research

I came across this piece of interesting news: Some researchers have found out that it's possible to treat Staphylococcus aureus with an anti-cholesterol medication.

Staphylococcus aureus is a very hard bacterium for the immune system to combat, to a large degree because its color pigmentation protects it. The researchers found that the treatment with the anti-cholesterol medication blocks the pigmentation of the bacteria, leaving it open for attacks from the body's immune system.

The research has been pre-released in Science, and the abstract can be found here. Unfortunately, the actual paper is behind a pay-wall.

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Friday, February 15, 2008

New Skeptics' Circle is up

Am pretty busy these days, and since it's my birthday today, expect light blogging the next few days as well.

However, for some good blogging, head over to Bug Girl's Blog and see the newest Skeptics' Circle

Now, I'd better get back to cleaning my apartment, since I'm expect guests in a few hours, and my apartment is really not in an acceptable state.

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

Why economics is scary

In a recent NY Times column, Paul Krugman mentioned a paper that showed some parallels between the current US economic, and five major economic crisis in the past.

At his blog, he links to it (or rather, he links to a blog that links to it.

Is the 2007 U.S. Sub-Prime Financial Crisis So Different? An International Historical Comparison* (.pdf) by Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff

To sum it up, the current US situation shows many parallels to earlier financial crisis that caused year-long recessions in the countries in which they took place. It might be that the US escape this, but it will probably take hard work from the next US president to do so.

Edit: The Chronicle of Higher Education has more (via The Big Picture).

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Bartering among chimpanzees

Somewhat related to my last post, PLoS One also has an interesting article, this one about bartering among chimpanzees.

Chimpanzee Autarky by Sarah F. Brosnan et al.


Economists believe that barter is the ultimate cause of social wealth—and even much of our human culture—yet little is known about the evolution and development of such behavior. It is useful to examine the circumstances under which other species will or will not barter to more fully understand the phenomenon. Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) are an interesting test case as they are an intelligent species, closely related to humans, and known to participate in reciprocal interactions and token economies with humans, yet they have not spontaneously developed costly barter.

Methodology/Principle Findings

Although chimpanzees do engage in noncostly barter, in which otherwise value-less tokens are exchanged for food, this lack of risk is not typical of human barter. Thus, we systematically examined barter in chimpanzees to ascertain under what circumstances chimpanzees will engage in costly barter of commodities, that is, trading food items for other food items with a human experimenter. We found that chimpanzees do barter, relinquishing lower value items to obtain higher value items (and not the reverse). However, they do not trade in all beneficial situations, maintaining possession of less preferred items when the relative gains they stand to make are small.


Two potential explanations for this puzzling behavior are that chimpanzees lack ownership norms, and thus have limited opportunity to benefit from the gains of trade, and that chimpanzees' risk of defection is sufficiently high that large gains must be imminent to justify the risk. Understanding the conditions that support barter in chimpanzees may increase understanding of situations in which humans, too, do not maximize their gains.

I was under the impression that chimpanzees traded somewhat similar to humans (though without the use of money), but obviously this not the case. From what I got out of the article, the chimpanzees didn't quite seem to grasp the concept of money when introduced to it, and often traded in non-beneficial ways because of this. While this is not too surprising, given that they don't use money themselves, observation of other forms of bartering showed similar behavior.

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Development of the human species' mathematical ability

PLoS biology has an incredible interesting article up on the study of the Evolutionary and Developmental Foundations of Mathematics by Michael J. Beran.

Understanding the evolutionary precursors of human mathematical ability is a highly active area of research in psychology and biology with a rich and interesting history. At one time, numerical abilities, like language, tool use, and culture, were thought to be uniquely human. However, at the turn of the 20th century, scientists showed more interest in the numerical abilities of animals. The earliest research was focused on whether animals could count in any way that approximated the counting skills of humans [1,2], though many early studies lacked the necessary scientific controls to truly prove numerical abilities in animals. In addition, both the public and many in the scientific community too readily accepted cases of “genius” animals, including those that performed amazing mathematical feats. One such animal still lends its name to the phenomenon of inadvertent cuing of animals by humans: Clever Hans. Hans was a horse that seemed to calculate solutions to all types of numerical problems. In reality, the horse was highly attuned to the subtle and inadvertent bodily movements that people would make when Hans had reached the correct answer (by tapping his hoof) and should have stopped responding [3]. One consequence of this embarrassing realization was a backlash for the better part of the 20th century against the idea that animals could grasp numerical concepts. The second, more positive consequence, however, was that future researchers would include appropriate controls to account for such cues.

Beran goes on to explain how the current research shows that animals operate on approximations, rather than concrete numbers, much the same way that humans do when prevented from counting while comparing two sets of items. What's more interesting, in my opinion, is how much our symbolic representation of numbers actually mean for our math ability. Not only on the grand scale, but also on smaller problems.

Human mathematical abilities, of course, are highly dependent on symbolic representations of number. A recent paper by Diester and Nieder published in PLoS Biology shows that brain areas critical to processing symbolic and analogue numerosities in humans also support numerical processing in monkeys [38]. After monkeys learned to associate Arabic numerals with specific numbers of items, the researchers recorded from single neurons in the PFC and IPS when monkeys judged whether two successive analog arrays were the same in number or whether an analog array matched a numeral in a pairing. PFC neurons were selectively responsive to given numerical values, presented in either analog or symbolic formats. In other words, the PFC in monkeys seems to be involved in the association between symbols and numerical concepts, and it builds upon the capacities of the IPS to encode approximate numerical information early in quantity processing. By four years of age, the IPS in human children is already responsive to changes in the numerosity of visual arrays [39], but the parietal cortex shows a more protracted developmental trajectory for the representation of symbolic numbers. Specifically, children who have not yet become proficient with numerals show elevated PFC activity in response to numerals, whereas parietal areas seemingly take over as proficiency with symbols emerges [40,41]. In adult humans, representation of numerical information across many formats (numerals, analog stimuli, number words) relies substantially on parietal areas [42].

So while our brains are hardwired to math, we can only utilize it fully when using symbolic representations.

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

Lazy linking

Another round of blog posts that I thought might interest other people.

Mike Dunford has written a long and informative post on the mental problems surfacing in the US Military: Mental Health and the Rapidly Breaking Army. It's depressing reading, but a must-read in my opinion. When reading it, I couldn't help thinking about the story that surfaced back in March about mentally unfit soldiers being deployed (I covered it here).

On to a more light-hearted subject. I expect that most science bloggers are aware of the recent radio debate between PZ Myers and Geoffrey Simmons, a senior fellow from the Discovery Institute (a mp3 can be found here). While most of the coverage, including from the ID crowd, has focused on the pounding Simmons took, tinyfrog addresses Simmons' errors more specifically.

David Neiwert points us to Jet Heer's great take-down of the so-called scholarship of Johan Goldberg’s book Liberal Fascism. While speaking of Neiwert, I would be amiss, if I didn't mention his annual fund-raising effort. I know I'm a little late in mentioning it, but I would still recommend people to donate whatever they can spare. We need good informative bloggers like Neiwert out there.

Skatje seems to be interested in languages, and shares with us some information about an obscure language: Gothic.

Via feministing, Susan Wood gives a reason for feminists to support Hillary Clinton. I am not in favor of any of the current two top candidates among the Democrats, and would be happy if either of them became presidents. Still, it's good to hear such stories about the candidates.


Yet another Middle Eastern internet cable broken

As some of you might be aware, there have been some serious issues with Middle Eastern and Asian internet traffic the last few days, ever since two cables were damaged. It's expected to take up to two weeks to fix them.

Now, Paul Krugman points out that a third cable has been damaged.

That's pretty bad.

Arabian Business has more

I am currently working on a project using a team of Indian developers to do some of the development. We had some difficulties just from the first incident, and I expect that tomorrow will be worse.

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Killer dolphins

Murderous dolphins. Those two words don't go together in most peoples' opinion. Yet, we now know that dolphins are not necessarily the peaceful animals that their image project.

The Telegraph reports: Killer dolphins baffle marine experts

New evidence has been compiled by marine scientists that prove the normally placid dolphin is capable of brutal attacks both on innocent fellow marine mammals and, more disturbingly, on its own kind.

Film taken of gangs of dolphins repeatedly ramming baby porpoises, tossing them in the air and pursuing them to the death has solved a long-term mystery of what causes the death of so many of these harmless mammals - but has left animal experts baffled as to the motive.

Another mystery is that the animal 'murders' have only been reported in two parts of the world - along Scotland's East Coast and in America off the beaches of Virginia, where even more alarmingly, the victims were scores of the dolphins' own young.

Of course, this is hardly news, so I wonder why the Telegraph present it as such. We also know that male dolphins gang up and rape female dolphins. All in all, dolphins are pretty good at PR.

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Saturday, February 02, 2008

I support the call for a science debate 2008

We are reaching a point where the US primaries are going into their last phase, and while a number of important issues have been raised and addressed, science and technology have had little coverage so far. This is nothing new, since science and technology have figured little in any US presidential election, but given how important those very issues are right now, this should change.

This is why I fully support the Science Debate 2008 initiative, first largely started by bloggers and science journalists, but now supported by what appears to be the entire scientific community in the US, with the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Sciences throwing their considerable weight behind the initiative. And it's not just scientists, business people realize the importance of these issues as well, which explains why the Council on Competitiveness (a coalition of business executives, labor leaders and university presidents) has also joined the supporters of the initiative.

Given the fact that I am not a US citizen, one could ask why I feel that I should endorse this initiative. That's a good question, and also to a large part why I haven't spoken out in support before. However, thinking about the issue, I think it's important for everyone, and not only for people living in the US. There are several reasons for this, but the most important one is that science is a global collaboration, and we simply cannot afford to have such a major player as the US not be part of it. While science would continue without support from politicians, a large amount of science funding comes from federal sources. On top of that, the political climate has a large impact on what can and will be researched. This can either be directly, though law prohibiting certain venues of research, or indirectly, through prioritizing funds etc. While I don't think that the US will ever reach Soviet-era anti-science, there is no doubt to my mind, that the efforts of people like senator Inhofe have had a negative impact on the research on global warming.

A presidential debate on science will show citizens where the candidates stand on these very important issues, and allow them to vote accordingly.

Again, I endorse the Science Debate 2008 initiative, and concur with their statement:

"Given the many urgent scientific and technological challenges facing America and the rest of the world, the increasing need for accurate scientific information in political decision making, and the vital role scientific innovation plays in spurring economic growth and competitiveness, we call for a public debate in which the U.S. presidential candidates share their views on the issues of The Environment, Health and Medicine, and Science and Technology Policy."

Website for Science Debate 2008

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On the evilness of companies

Scientific American has a long article up on whether companies have to be evil to survive.

Do All Companies Have to be Evil? by Michael Shermer

In the 1987 film Wall Street, Michael Douglas’s character, the high-rolling corporate raider Gordon Gekko, explains why America has lost its standing atop the industrial world: “The new law of evolution in corporate America seems to be survival of the unfittest. Well, in my book you either do it right or you get eliminated.” He elaborates:

The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed—for lack of a better word—is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms—greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge—has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed—you mark my words—will not only save Teldar Paper but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.

In the now famous “greed” speech, we find several myths that I hope to bust in this article: that capitalism is grounded in and depends on cutthroat com­petition; that businesspeople must be self-centered and egotistical to achieve success; that evolution is selfish and only winnows and never creates; and, of course, that greed is good.

Humans are by nature tribal and xenophobic, and thus evolution has enabled in all of us the capacity for evil. Fortunately, we are also by nature prosocial and cooperative. By studying how modern companies work, we can gain insights into the evolutionary underpinnings of our morality, including concepts such as reciprocity, altruism and fairness. When we apply these evolutionary findings to economic life, we learn that Enron and the Gordon Gekko “Greed Is Good” ethic are the exception and that Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” motto is the rule. Two conditions must be present to accentuate the latter: first, internal trust reinforced by personal relationships, and, second, external rules supported by social institutions. The contrast between Enron and Google here serves to demonstrate what in corporate environments creates trust or distrust.

I think Shermer makes some really good points, but I won't really go into the article here. Instead I will go more into what I think of the subject at hand.

Back in the days when I started at business college, one of the newer focuses were to ensure that students also learned some ethics, and not just cold management. This was caused by some rather spectacular cases of fraud, comparable in some sense to Enron, though obviously on a much smaller scale (Denmark being a much smaller economy after all). Those cases resulted in some rather noteworthy law changes, at least one suicide, and several jail terms.

In spite of such cases, I don't really believe that companies are evil, since I don't really believe that people are evil as such. People are greedy, and therefore companies should be regulated and kept under supervision, but that something for a different discussion.

These days, I mostly work in IT projects in financial companies. If there ever were companies that you would expect to be evil, or greedy, then it would be financial companies. Interestingly enough, I haven't found this to be the case - of course, a lot of that has to do with the fact that that sector is heavily regulated in Denmark, and thus the possibilities are limited, but a lot of it has something to do with the fact that many of the people in this sector are somewhat idealistic.
Yes, they try to make money, but they are very focused on the fact that they are actually helping customers making very important decisions, on which their entire future can be based.

So, what I am trying to say, is that companies certainly don't have to be evil, or even greedy. If the company culture is right, then it's quite possible to have a profitable company, focusing on their customers' needs, rather than profit.

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Snipes acquitted of tax fraud

Quite surprising, actor Wesley Snipes has been acquitted of tax fraud.

The NY Times reports:

The actor Wesley Snipes was acquitted of the most serious charges against him on Friday in the most prominent tax prosecution since Leona Helmsley, the billionaire hotelier, was convicted of tax fraud in 1989.

Mr. Snipes was found not guilty on two felony charges of fraud and conspiracy. He was also acquitted on three misdemeanor charges of failing to file tax returns or to pay taxes, but was convicted on three others. He faces up to three years in prison.

Mr. Snipes had become an unlikely public face for the tax-denier movement, whose members maintain that Americans are not obligated to pay income taxes and that the government extracts taxes from its citizens illegally.

Snipes' two co-defendants, a prominent tax denier and a disbarred accountant, were on the other hand convinced on separate felony count. Since Snipes relied on their advice, it clearly demonstrates that while Snipes are getting off relatively light, it's not because of the court buying into the legal arguments, but rather because he is considered less guilty of fraud than the ones who gave him the fraudulent advice.

Considering the legal minds helping Snipes, I am actually surprised he got off so lightly. Just look at this example from the NY Times article:

Kenneth I. Starr, a New York accountant who had long prepared Mr. Snipes’s tax returns, testified that he dropped Mr. Snipes as a client after he refused to pay taxes. Defense lawyers tried to attack Mr. Starr’s credibility, portraying him as dishonest and the target of a grand jury inquiry — accusations that Mr. Starr rebutted by pointing out that he was a witness before the grand jury, not its target.

Why would anyone that incompetent be allowed to practice law? Of course, at least some of them were part of the tax denier movement as well:

The lead lawyer among the six representing Mr. Snipes, Robert G. Bernhoft of Milwaukee, has been under a federal court order since 1999 barring him from selling materials that supposedly relieve people of the need to pay taxes.

Normally, I wouldn't care much about celebrity cases like this one, but Snipes is using the standard rhetorics of the tax denier movement, which is heavily represented in the far right circles like Christian Identity.

I find it a bit problematic that Snipes was acquitted over something that was obviously fraudulent, but it's good that the advisers were found guilty. Now, it's going to be interesting to see what kind of jail time Snipes gets. He faces up to 3 years, and I would suspect that he'll get a fairly heavy punishment within that frame.

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