31 January 2008

Democracy (what is it good for):

Tyler Cowen says:

The lesson is this: democracy is a very blunt instrument. Especially as it is found in the United States, democracy just isn't that smart or that finely honed or that closely geared toward truth or "progressive" values. (NB: Democracy in smaller, better educated, ethnically homogeneous nations is, sometimes, another story.)

But unlike one of my esteemed colleagues, I believe that we should revere democracy as one of the modern world's greatest achievements. [...] The future is far more likely to have "too little democracy" than "too much democracy." I do believe in checks and balances, but within a broadly democratic framework, such as we have in the United States.

That all said, we should not demand from democracy what democracy cannot provide. Democracy is pretty good at pushing scoundrels out of office, or checking them once they are in office. Democracy is also good at making sure enough interest groups are bought off so that social order may continue and that a broad if sometimes inane social consensus can be manufactured and maintained.
On the one hand, this means that, insofar as it can be considered to be at all goal- oriented (goals being things like fairness, high standard of living, etc.) democracy seems to function in a biased random-walk style, with each movement being more-or-less arbitrary and only corrected if a major error results. On the other hand, biased random-walk has turned out to be implicated in several neurological models for how we learn (here are more technical and less technical descriptions of some neuro models incorporating random-walk) as well as explaining how bacteria are able to locate food without a brain or sensory organs. So I'm inclined to find this similarity encouraging, since I think social processes are at their best when they replicate the interesting processes that have already evolved to solve astoundingly complex problems.

28 January 2008

Two oddly interesting green sites

Here are two things I found more interesting than I expected to:

Latter-Day Sustainability: What it sounds like, environmentalism with a Mormon twist. (via Gristmill.) In the interests of comparison, I went looking for other religiously-tuned enviro blogs, and turned up one Jewish one which seems to be focused on living the sustainable lifestyle. Others?

Greenwashing Index: A site for viewing and rating (and occasioanlly debunking) ads making positive environmental claims on behalf of companies or products. A couple of examples:

(Currently rated 4.41 out of a possible 5 demerits)

(Currently a 4.2)

A newly discovered science blog:

This (from Adventures in Ethics and Science) makes me want to have children, immediately, right now. Although from what I hear, it takes a little while before they are old enough to converse at all intelligently about thermodynamics.

More on science, policy, and candidates

Following up on my Science Debate 2008 post, I've discovered a new resource for finding out what your representatives and preferred candidates have said about science and policy (good, bad and ugly): the Science, Health and Related Policies (SHARP) Network. It has a cool interactive wiki interface, and provides more depth than ontheissues.org. (HT: Scientific Activist.)

Related, here in Colorado the House is considering HB 1001, providing money for bioscience proof-of-concept research (following up on last year's HB1360, Bioscience Discovery Grant Program) and commercialization. Colorado is also providing funding for biofuels proof-of-concept work, and rumors abound that more money is coming along to solidify Colorado's foothold in renewable energy/cleantech, maybe from Governor Ritter's office. (Speaking of Ritter, I seem to be the only one who thinks it's funny when he uses his usual bullet-point style to talk about the four key growth areas he's identified for Colorado: Bioscience! [BAM] Energy! [BAM] Aerospace! [BAM] and... Tourism. One of these things is not like the others...)

Hillary Clinton, Republican Unity Candidate

I was talking with someone over the weekend about the Obama/Clinton decision, and desperately wish I'd been the one to put it so excellently:

[Barack Obama]'s much better positioned to pick up some of the pieces of the shattered GOP coalition, against either McCain or Romney, than HRC is. She could well be the only person in the world capable of re-forging that coalition. Think of her as the Republican unity candidate.

Books, intelligence, and SAT scores

Via Marginal Revolution, I found books that make you dumb, a website using Facebook to correlate a college's most popular books with its average SAT/ACT scores. It's clear from the methodology that there are quite a few problems with this, including but not limited to correlation vs. causation. But it's a fun list anyway.

-Lolita, 100 Years of Solitude and Atlas Shrugged are some of my favorite books that are linked to high SAT scores. Ender's Game, The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter books are in the high-ish middle area.

-"The Holy Bible" is linked to low scores, while "The Bible" and the Book of Mormon fall squarely in the middle.

-Most surprising low-score correlation: Fahrenheit 451.

23 January 2008

How to: bioengineer mosquitoes to stop spread of disease

Via Wired, I learned about Oxitec, a UK company making improvements on the 'sterile insect technique' currently used for some types of for pest management. In standard SIT, radiation-sterilized male mosquitoes are released into the wild, where they'll mate with wild-type females but cause the females' eggs to be non-viable. This has worked okay, but is not that scalable because the radiation step is tricky and tends to deplete your stock of male mosquitoes. In Oxitec's technique, the males are genetically altered to be dependent on tetracycline, which they are fed until release into the wild. Their offspring will also be tetracycline-dependent, and so will die before reaching reproductive maturity. Ultimately, this is all in the service of eradicating mosquito-borne diseases like Dengue fever, malaria, and so on.

Like many experiments in genetic engineering, this has the potential to be a pretty environmentally-friendly way to do the job (compared to, say, massive use of pesticides) but like most people I have a hard time shaking the feeling that somehow, it could all go terribly wrong. I'm inclined to call this vague sense of impending bio-engineered doom "Jurassic Park Syndrome."

Detritus of the American Dream

This is smart:

Maybe you think the American Dream is about getting a good job and earning more money than your parents. But the American Dream used to be about moving west and buying land, and now we see that as something for older generations that doesn’t apply to us. So maybe the idea of more money and better jobs is the new detritus of the American dream [...].
As I say, this is smart (even though PT isn't the first to say it) but I continue to be puzzled by her overall 'generationism' -- a word I didn't know existed until I went looking for an appropriate description of her view that Generation-Y has a fundamentally different, and better, sense of work-life balance than Generation-Boomer. I seem to know an awful lot of people my age and younger who are totally committed to working long and hard and sacrificing a personal life -- I think some of them have early retirement in mind, but this is stupid, because (1) life is not like dinnertime, where you have to eat your vegetables before you get dessert, and (2) retirement would be boring. On the other hand, everything I know about defining work success in a way that actually makes you happy, I learned from my mom. So I'm sympathetic to Penelope's vision of the future, where careers are complementary to -- not competitive with -- relationships, but I'm suspicious of the idea that all people born after 1980 have this intuition naturally built into their psyches.

22 January 2008

A very good, non-melodramatic MLK tribute:

Sand in the Gears' The Dividing Line:

I think people hated King because he spoke unsafely. He illuminated what Solzhenitsyn called the line dividing good and evil, the line that runs through every human heart. That is surely dangerous business. [...] I wonder where the prophets of this generation are. Where are the ones who will illuminate that line in every heart? It is so much easier to draw lines between people, between a virtuous Us and a nefarious Them, than to say: This is the evil we do, the evil I do.

17 January 2008

"My God, man. Drilling holes in his head isn't the answer!"

Neurophilosophy has a short post summarizing the US history of the 'ice-pick lobotomy,' occasioned by a new PBS documentary on the subject. This was in the 1930's and 1940's, mostly; the doctor who pioneered the 'treatment' drove around the country teaching others the finer points of the technique. Evidently this became popular for use in managing 'troublesome' children, bearing some similarities to our massive over-medicating of kids with Ritalin starting in the 1990's.

Libertarian archetype: the stubborn old coot

Wired's Tony Long on libertarianism. An odd piece, mostly about how Ron Paul is a wacko. In general I'm on board with the sentiment behind this -- I'd be both embarrassed and alarmed to have RP as our chief executive. But not great journalism, as it takes Ron to be representative of actual libertarians, who are usually a bit more intellectually sophisticated. Tony Long is kind of like somebody's cantankerous grandpa -- some of what comes out of his mouth is blatantly offensive and incorrect, some is surprisingly insightful, all of it is delivered in a patented 'independent old coot' style. Come to think of it, Mr. Long bears a striking resemblance to (and shares a last name with) a certain famous fictional libertarian old coot.

Why a presidential debate on science is a good idea

This is a day early, as I usually try to limit link posts to Fridays, but I advise you to go check out Science Debate 2008, a petition calling for presidential candidates to discuss their positions on science and tech policy, medical innovation, and the environment. What's good about this is that it's not merely an attempt to get candidates to reveal their own positions on stem cells, global warming, evolution and other prickly subjects -- interesting questions but not necessarily relevant to policy matters. But candidates' views about federal support of stem cell or cleantech research? Very relevant. (Many bloggers seem to be missing this distinction when they poke fun at the idea of politicians debating 'science'.)

Russell's Blog has a funny script for how a true presidential science debate might go. A science-policy debate would probably be somewhat less exciting, but maybe a good way to make sure candidates are at least minimally conversant with these issues -- which ultimately have a huge impact on human quality of life -- as they now have to be with health care mandates, oil policy, and so on.

15 January 2008

News on the food regulation front

Yesterday the Soil Association (the British organization in charge of certifying organic foods) announced that cosmetics, food and clothing made using nanoparticles will not be classed as organic in the UK.

Today the FDA declared that meat and dairy from cloned animals is safe to eat and will not require any additional labeling in the US. The Wired article notes:

Food producers say they're not about to put cloned meat on American dinner plates, as the procedure is too expensive and inefficient, and a third of U.S. adults say they won't eat cloned meat regardless of its approval. Instead, farmers will purchase cloned animals to serve as breeding stock for their entire herds.

I'm not sure yet how I feel about cloned meat in any form, but I'm disturbed that if/when it arrives, it won't be labeled similarly to the way irradiated meat must be labeled. I expect that we're in for another category of voluntary certification to go alongside 'organic' and 'natural,' capturing this concern about bioengineered food. Here's a question -- how come the dairy industry asked the FDA in the 1990's to allow them to voluntarily label their products rBGH-free, while the meat industry appears to be resisting the mandatory irradiated-meat labels?

14 January 2008

Career options for INTJ's

Penelope Trunk says all and only INTJ's are strategists (as opposed to managers). I happen to be an INTJ, so I followed her links and ended up at this page containing Jungian descriptors of the Myers-Briggs types. For INTJ's, here are the top 5 'favored careers,' in order:

-forensic scientist
-systems analyst

3/5 of these careers are ones I considered at one point in my life -- guess which ones? Now here are the top five 'disfavored careers,' in order:

-advertising executive
-job in entertainment industry
-art therapist

I have done all but one of these, speaking in general terms.

Anyway, PT is right on here:

People do what their strengths are regardless of what their job description is. Real leaders will lead in any situation they find themselves. Real writers will always write, no matter what their day job is. And real strategists will always think in terms of the conceptual future, from any job they have.

A great sentence:

"If we had wheels, or moved along the ground on our bellies like snakes," Lakoff argues, "math might be very different."

From a very fascinating article about recent research showing that physical motion is intimately tied in with cognition at all levels (via MR). What impressed me most about this piece, aside from the research, is that it contains several paragraphs summarizing the history of mind-body theory, Descartes up through modern cognitive science.

George Lakoff's Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things is the most enjoyable and fun non-technical linguistic text I've read (a small sample).

Why libertarians should learn to be friendly

This is true:

Given the relative rarity of libertarians, both in the public eye and in general, most people’s judgment of libertarianism will be based on a very small sample – often a sample size of one. If the first libertarian someone meets is a smart, reasonable, decent person, they will come away with a positive impression and possibly a willingness to explore further. If the first libertarian someone meets is a wild-eyed lunatic, on the other hand, they could easily write off libertarianism as the ideology of wild-eyed lunatics. [...]

This is why, when I talk to young libertarians about how to spread their ideas, I say they should think of themselves as ambassadors for the movement. That means, first and foremost, presenting themselves as fundamentally decent people that you would actually want to have a beer with [...].
This personality thing is a problem for libertarians, even the most reasonable, articulate, non-moonbat varieties. Sampling errors aside, there's a well-recognized phenomenon wherein views expressed by people we admire and like are more persuasive merely by being associated with that person. (Mormons seem to get this, in a big way.) Friendly people are far more successful at spreading their beliefs (cf. meme theory). And libertarians, even the smart articulate ones, tend to come across as intellectual, elitist, even snobby at times (especially in person, as opposed to in the blogosphere). Maybe this is because on average, libertarians spend way more time identifying and thinking about their beliefs than people of more standard political persuasions, thus making them more conversant with political theory and/or somewhat scornful of the unthinking multitudes. Whatever the reason, libertarians (and I don't except myself here) may need to make a special effort to be approachable and friendly and, well, nice, in addition to the traits Glen identifies above.

Claremont Colleges blogging: the good, the bad...

As a Claremont Colleges alum, I feel I should note that The Claremont Conservative (run by a student from Claremont McKenna) made the AFF short list for best conservative or libertarian campus blog. However, I should also say that I think the Ben Casnocha blog is a much better example of what's good and likable about the Claremont McKenna crowd.

07 January 2008

Small: the new Big?

This trend seems perfect for certain parts of California and Colorado, in that it’s both expensive AND environmentally friendly. I predict it will (someday) revolutionize the real estate market, by making extra-small, extra-high-tech houses like these the new status symbol.