Monday, December 11, 2006

Are you still reading this?

We have moved to Scienceblogs. Adjust your links!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Googlebombing the election

As part of a larger project to provide information about incumbents in tight races, we offer this list of news accounts.

Jon Kyl Rick Renzi J.D. Hayworth John Doolittle Richard Pombo Brian Bilbray Marilyn Musgrave Doug Lamborn Rick O'Donnell Christopher Shays Vernon Buchanan Joe Negron Clay Shaw Bill Sali Peter Roskam Mark Kirk Dennis Hastert Chris Chocola John Hostettler Mike Whalen Jim Ryun Anne Northup Geoff Davis Michael Steele Gil Gutknecht Michele Bachmann Jim Talent Conrad Burns Jon Porter Charlie Bass Mike Ferguson Heather Wilson Peter King John Sweeney Tom Reynolds Randy Kuhl Robin Hayes Charles Taylor Steve Chabot Jean Schmidt Deborah Pryce Joy Padgett Melissa Hart Curt Weldon Mike Fitzpatrick Don Sherwood Lincoln Chafee Bob Corker George Allen Frank Wolf Mike McGavick Dave Reichert

Monday, August 21, 2006


Thoughts from Kansas is moving! As of around now, the Scienceblogs version of Thoughts from Kansas is live, and all new posts will live there.

I'll be putting big reminders up here, and will do all I can to move you over there.

RSS junkies can either switch to the Sb RSS, or wait for me to switch the existing feedburner feeds to grab that. It's your call.

Blogger has been good to me for the last 2 years, and I'll miss the occasional inexplicable outages. Hopefully I won't have to miss any you regulars. The new site will be just as good, if not better. So change your links, update your homepage settings, and help warm up the new digs.

I'd especially appreciate long-time readers' suggestions about favorite posts that might help new readers learn what TfK is all about.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Why the Nazis?

As Dr. Myers helps Francis Collins protect his name, it remains important to remember that "Darwinism" does not and could not justify Nazism.

That won't stop the heinous folks at the Coral Ridge Ministries from spending a million bucks promoting the absurd link, but it's worth remembering why it's false. We can turn, as Nick Matzke has, to professional historians like Robert Richards, who recently wrote: "It can only be a tendentious and dogmatically driven assessment that would condemn Darwin for the crimes of the Nazis."

Or, like RSR, we could show how the particular linkages offered between Darwin and Hitler are tendentious, dogmatically driven, and plain wrong.

But there is a simpler way. The problem with these analyses is that there's nothing Darwin said that could have inspired a normative political philosophy. He observed how the world works, how A follows B. Whether it ought to in a given situation is entirely different, and Darwin didn't address those sorts of normative questions.

Hitler's horrific acts did not come from the idea that certain unfavorable traits could be removed from a population by selective breeding; that realization stretches back through thousands of years of human civilization. Darwin may have formalized the logic of it, but he did so by considering the accumulated wisdom of pigeon-fanciers, dog breeders and livestock producers. There was no secret in that regard which Darwin elucidated. Hitler's flaw lay not in recognizing an obvious truth about the world, but in identifying ethnic origin as an unfavorable trait, and in seeking to use the force of government to effect selection on that and other traits. The idea that natural selection ought to be government policy simply doesn't originate in Darwin. Darwin identified a natural process, a process that works all on its own.

Darwin did not produce a normative philosophy, he provided a descriptive and predictive theory. Newton did the same, as did Einstein. We cannot then claim that the normative philosophy of Nazism derived from Darwin's scientific work.

Some will claim that the normative portion, the part where certain groups were deemed lesser, comes not from the science, but from Darwin's rhetoric. Darwin does occasionally refer to racial groups in a way that suggests that some are superior to others. But in this regard, he was not innovating. He was a reflection of the biases of his day, biases which he was able to overcome. Indeed, if anything, a philosophy derived from Darwin is fundamentally egalitarian. As I said before:

Humans have evolved as long as fruit flies and bacteria. While apes are in decline worldwide, insects are ever more diverse and numerous. A phylogeny doesn't let you call one branch better than another. That's a radical egalitarianism, and it applies at all levels. You respect all people, and all life, because every being is a result of an incredible process, extended in time and space – a struggle against oblivion.
That egalitarianism, the idea that all people, and all races, and all species, share some essential element, is fundamentally Darwinian, and is a powerful counterforce against genocide, as it was for Darwin against slavery.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Unpopular President, Senators

SurveyUSA managed to sneak the results of their poll on presidential approval and their poll of senator approval out without my noticing.

Last month, Kansas was the 13th most approving state, it is now the 20th, tied with Democratic stronghold Hawaii and swing-state Pennsylvania. There are only four states where the President has positive net approval, and all those states still give him better than 50%. Oklahoma, Idaho, Wyoming and Utah remain outliers in so many ways (some quite nice).

Looking under the hood, we find that net approval in Kansas has dropped from 7% to 19%, a stunning shift back towards the sort of numbers we saw three months ago, and suspected were outliers. Disapproval among Republicans hasn't risen as much as it did then, he enjoys 31% net approval rather than 20% in May, but both are well below the 40-50% it's been for the intervening two months.

Approval among Independents actually rose since last month (and fell since two months ago, and rose since three months ago). Independent opinion is spinning wildly over the last three months, but this months numbers also track well with those from May. Democrats seem to have hit a wall at 10% approval.

Conservative support for the president has reached the lowest point in SUSA's polling of Kansas: 60% approval, 22% net approval. That shift is encouraging to some extent, since it makes it possible to use the President as a wedge against even core Republicans, but shifting conservative opinion won't ultimately win Democrats seats in the legislature or the House.

We'll all have to meditate on what it means that Democrats are less approving of the President than liberals are, but again, those are fairly safe votes in the end. The battle is fought for moderate votes, and moderate approval of the President is unchanged for the third month running. At 60% disapproval, elected officials won't be playing up their friendship with the President to moderates, but it's disappointing to see that group unchanged while the electorate as a whole moves so much.

Three months ago, the President's changing approval rating was driven largely by western Kansas, as was the subsequent reversal of the trend. Beginning in April, the President's approval rating was at 54%, then dropped to 39%, returned to 60%. Last month it slid to 57%, and this month has reached the midpoint at 50%.

Wichita's brief flirtation with majority approval of the President ended, and eastern Kansas continues to disapprove at substantial percentages.

Looking at the Senators now, we find that Roberts went from last month's excellent showing as the 37th most popular senator to a disappointing 74th. Sam Brownback dropped one slot, from 67 to 68. The major change in his polling is a drop in approval by Democrats and a rise among Independents. Other groups remain unchanged.

Pat Roberts saw his net approval among Republicans drop 10 points, following an 11 point rise over the previous three months. Approval among Democrats has reached a new low for the time since the NSA spying was revealed, and approval among Independents is also at a historic low. Conservative approval dropped (to an anemic 60%) without a change in disapproval, moderates returned to net disapproval and liberal approval is remarkably high at 40%.

Expect numbers for the Governor soon, which should be very interesting to see.

Barnett presents plan to pay for tax cuts

Cut school aid.
Also of interest in the article, Barnett says "Why have we not been growing? It's because we're a high-tax state, and we're not a business-friendly state," but the article points out that "In May 2004, Forbes magazine named Kansas the nation's most business-friendly state, and in March, a national corporate relocation firm said Kansas was among the top 10."

Out of touch is an understatement.


Various people are asking Are We Fighting 'Islamic Fascists'? This in response to the President's claim that, "This nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom." David Ignatius (linked above) says "I have been pondering since [last week] his description of the enemy. What are 'Islamic fascists,' and does this phrase make sense in describing America's adversaries?" Ed Brayton chimes in that, while he isn't wont to agree with the President, he sees the similarity. I confess that I do think that that makes the phrase sensible.

Both writers point to similarities in the practices of the Taliban or al Qaeda to the Nazis (not so much of a comparison is drawn to Mussolini or Franco). And the similarities are difficult to miss. Here's the problem. While it's true that one can find parallels between what we are fighting in Afghanistan and what we fought in Nazi Europe, the parallels don't match the definitions of the relevant terms. It's true, as Ignatius points out, that the Nazis and the modern enemy are both anti-semitic, but a pro-semitic fascist is not impossible, certainly not by definition. And non-fascists have certainly been anti-semitic as well, and have been anti-gay, anti-music, anti-women's suffrage, and anti-literature, all problems that Brayton cites as comparisons. These are not, then, defining traits of the fascist.

It isn't a sufficient condition for something to be fascist that it be bad. Fascism means something, and we forget what it meant and means at our peril. As Dave Neiwert wrote in his excellent "Rush, Newspeak and Fascism": "As 'fascism' has been bandied about freely, it has come loosely to represent the broader concept of totalitarianism, which of course encompasses communism as well." The historically minded will recall that communism and fascism were opposing forces. The United States managed to prevent either ideology from gaining a foothold, and while our vigilance against the former can relax, the latter remains a threat in our domestic politics.

Neiwert quotes scholar Roger Griffin, who explains fascism as palingenetic ultranationalist populism, where palingenesis refers to a phoenix-like rebirth. Griffin explains:

If fascism is defined in terms of a core ideology of ultra-nationalism that aspires to bring about the renewal of a nation's entire political culture, then the picture changes. The features so firmly associated with it in the popular historical imagination cease to be definitional. Instead they can be seen as external and time-bound manifestations of the central ideological driving force that is its only permanent feature: the war against the decadence of society and the struggle for national rebirth.
Fascism was and is an essentially nationalist movement. The fasces were symbols of a united nation. Our enemy is, as we've all come to understand, stateless. It may be tribal, but it is transnational and panethnic. In this regard, it is more similar to Marxism than to fascism. Ignatius misses this point in his discussion of fascism as a rejection of transcendence. Yes, there is an element of transcendence that al Qaeda rejects, but it is also a fundamentally transcendent movement. It transcends political boundaries, and idealizes a transcendent set of laws.

What we face in al Qaeda is not fascist, because it is not a nationalistic movement. Nationalism was a tool to rally the middle class, and al Qaeda neither rallies a nation nor a middle class. It draws from the dispossessed of many societies, and in doing so, charts a different course than fascism did. As such it is more dangerous than fascism, because it can spread more readily. Fascism's nationalistic character means that it must mutate drastically to find a foothold in a new nation. Fascism briefly flourished in the KKK and the Silver Shirts of this country, but could not tap into a broader cultural tradition. A nationalist movement can't be borrowed from abroad, it must be domestic, and so fascism failed in the US as it did in France.

Islamic totalitarianism (a more correct term, which refers to the vigorous authoritarianism of the fascists, the communists and other movements) has essentially taken over the niche that communist ideology played in the developing world. It represents a way of rejecting the West and the changes that are happening to the developing world. During the Cold War, that's what communism did. With its collapse, the developing world has found a new ideology to balance against the West. It isn't fascism now and it wasn't during the Cold War. It is totalitarian, and deserves opposition. It also deserves to be called what it is.

Friday, August 18, 2006

AIDS testing

Two recent comments on the 25th anniversary of AIDS took up a similar call, one in the New England Journal of Medicine, the other from Scienceblogger Tara Smith.

Both essentially argue for the broadening of HIV testing in American society. The NEJM piece largely recycles the history of debates about testing for HIV in the general population, and state limitations on what testing can be mandated. Tara explains:

Currently, the testing paradigm in most areas is patient-instituted, and involves the three C's: consent, confidentiality, and counseling (generally before and after the test). If HIV testing were increased, a concern is that the quality of counseling could decrease, due to the lesser availability of trained professionals to discuss the implications of the test with patients. This could leave individuals whose test came back positive for HIV floundering, unsure what to do next, how to receive treatment or protect their loved ones from infection (or discuss that possibility with them), and unversed in dealing with the stigma that may follow a diagnosis of infection with HIV.

For these reasons, it's unlikely that any kind of universal testing will occur anytime soon.
When it was found that prenatal treatment with anti-retrovirals could decrease the chance of mother to child transmission, some states instituted mandatory pre-natal screening, but even that didn't spread. The stigma of HIV/AIDS is too great, and before the disease could be controlled effectively the testing was too close to a death sentence to make it mandatory.

As the NEJM points out, this sort of exceptionalism is no longer merited in an age where treatment for HIV/AIDS can extend lives for decades after an early diagnosis.

There's another case for change, one that is as true now as it was 25 years ago. Controlling the spread of the disease requires the standard tracing of sexual partners that's commonplace with syphilis and other STDs. Such mandatory screenings, matched with appropriate treatment and counseling before and after, could drastically cut the spread of HIV in society.

There is, however, a good argument against universal mandatory screening – excess false positives. In the course of an unrelated discourse a while back, I explained it as follows:

If you pick a random person off the street and test for HIV, a positive result is most likely not an undiagnosed case of HIV, but a false positive. For instance, the standard ELISA test used for HIV gives a false positive only 1 in 67 times. There are 300 million people in the US, and about a million are HIV+. If we tested everyone, we'd get 4.5 million false positives, meaning that the chances of someone with a positive test result actually being sick would be less than 1 in 5.

There are two things that make the testing that actually happens more accurate. First, every positive ELISA is verified with a second test, one that is more expensive and complex. ELISA catches 99.7% of true HIV+ cases, and sweeps up some extra. The second test weeds out that extra part. Average cost is held down by only testing likely cases.

The second thing that makes ELISA accurate is that it's not mandatory. We don't apply it at random, it's applied to people who think they are at risk. The fraction of HIV+ people among those who engage in risky activity is greater than the proportion of HIV+ people in the population at large, so the number of false positives decreases.
In the comments to that post, I was asked about Washington, DC's program to test every resident of the District. I replied:

The argument there is that, since 1 in 50 DC residents have AIDS, even more are HIV+. Even with a 1.5% false positive rate, your odds of actually being HIV+ given a test result remain high when the rate of infection in the population may well be above 3%. In a sense, the argument would be that living in DC is itself a risk factor.

Nationally, the infection rate is around 0.76%. At that rate, a positive test result is twice as likely to be a false positive as a real positive. At five times that infection rate, the odds are better than 2:1 that a positive result is an actual infection.
Mandatory testing will leave a lot of people in fear and confusion, unless the testing is done with tremendous care and and careful explanations. Telling 3 million people they might be infected when they aren't will cause mass panic, and to no good end. We need an end to exceptionalism, but not through universal screening. Universal screening itself would be exceptional. What we need is to treat HIV like other STDs, remove the veil of secrecy enough to implement effective partner notification and testing. The ACLU has listed some serious privacy and effectiveness concerns with such programs, but also suggests ways that programs of partner tracking could be made more effective.

Pot, meet kettle

The DI's "Evolution News And Views" blog complains that LiveScience's "'All About Evolution and Intelligent Design' is neither all about evolution, nor is is it all about intelligent design."

Which is rich coming from a blog that, despite being hosted at "", has no evolution news.

Proof of Hanna/Barbera's scientific accuracy

YogistealsVia Schneier's discussion of the human/bear security trade-off, we learn that:
"There is considerable overlap between the intelligence of the smartest bears and the dumbest tourists."
This seems like a good time to remind people that, once upon a time, tourists in Yellowstone would smear their offspring with honey to get pictures of their brood being licked by a bear. They were consistently surprised when the bear gave a little nip in the process.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Random quotations

Apparently this is what we're doing:

The rules: "Go here and look through random quotes until you find 5 that you think reflect who you are or what you believe."
Part of being creative is learning how to protect your freedom. That includes freedom from avarice.
Hugh Macleod, How To Be Creative: 31 Remain Frugal, 08-22-04

We cannot direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails.
Bertha Calloway

America believes in education: the average professor earns more money in a year than a professional athlete earns in a whole week.
Evan Esar (1899 - 1995)

Don't limit a child to your own learning, for he was born in another time.
Rabbinical Saying

It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly American criminal class except Congress.
Mark Twain (1835 - 1910)

And, just because I can, one non-random quotation, from Pete Seeger (and probably Lee Hays before that):

Moderation in all things, even moderation.

Coulter on anorexics

"Anorexics never have boyfriends. ... That's one way to know you don't have anorexia, if you have a boyfriend."--Ann Coulter
So says the freakishly skinny, apparently single punditress.

Thanks to Lindsay for the tip.

Federal judge issues the obvious ruling: Illegal wiretapping is illegal, unconstitutional

In a ruling that I could have predicted last December, a federal judge orders halt to the NSA's illegal domestic wiretapping:
A federal judge in Detroit ordered a halt to the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program, ruling for the first time that the controversial effort ordered by President Bush was unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor wrote in a strongly-worded 43-page opinion that the NSA wiretapping program violates privacy and free-speech rights and the constitutional separation of powers between the three branches of government. She also found that it violates a 1978 law set up to oversee clandestine surveillance.
The ruling first deals with the claims of state secrets privilege, the claim that the case cannot proceed without national security secrets being made public. The group of plaintiffs had simply asserted their claims about illegal surveillance on the basis of public statements, and the court found that the defense of those statements had also been advanced publicly, and so "the court finds Defendants’ argument that they cannot defend this case without the use of classified information to be disingenuous and without merit."

Judge Taylor also found that the plaintiffs had suffered actual harm as a result of the program, that reporters' and researchers' sources and attorney's clients had refused to speak with them over the phone, requiring expensive travel and undermining ongoing 1st amendment protected research and harming the rights of people to obtain effective counsel.

But Taylor continues by explaining that, even if that were not true:

it is important to note that if the court were to deny standing based on the unsubstantiated minor distinctions drawn by Defendants, the President’s actions in warrantless wiretapping, in contravention of FISA, Title III, and the First and Fourth Amendments, would be immunized from judicial scrutiny. It was never the intent of the Framers to give the President such unfettered control, particularly where his actions blatantly disregard the parameters clearly enumerated in the Bill of Rights.
She goes on to cite Hamdi v. Rumsfeld (the 2004 case which had been advanced as a partial defense of the program), and Clinton v. Jones (!).

"Indeed," she continues, "as the perceived need for secrecy has apparently required that no person be notified that he is aggrieved by the activity," and no apparent actions have been taken as a result of it, "no victim in America would be given standing to challenge this or any other unconstitutional activity, according to the Government."

She found that the program violated FISA and the criminal wiretapping laws, and that these violations crossed into constitutional territory. The Fourth Amendment, she reminds us "requires prior warrants for any reasonable search, based upon prior-existing probable cause, as well as particularity as to persons, places, and things, and the interposition of a neutral magistrate between Executive branch enforcement officers and citizens." She held that the program is "obviously in violation of the 4th amendment."

After reviewing the state of the law on separation of powers, including Youngstown and Clinton v. Jones (again), she found that "the separation of powers doctrine has been violated." The AUMF defense did not sway her, since it is general and the specifics of FISA must govern the generality of that resolution. Even if the resolution authorizing force did replace FISA "Defendants have violated the Constitutional rights of their citizens including the First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, and the Separation of Powers doctrine."

The Court issued a permanent injunction against the government, holding that it is "is permanently enjoined from directly or indirectly utilizing the Terrorist Surveillance Program (TSP) in any way, including, but not limited to, conducting warrantless wiretaps of telephone and Internet communications, in contravention of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and Title III."

I'm told that the President, when informed, went back to playing with toy soldiers.

Class Act

Bear BaitingFrom the Merry Wives of Windsor:

SLENDER. Why do your dogs bark so? Be there bears i' th' town?

ANNE. I think there are, sir; I heard them talk'd of.

SLENDER. I love the sport well; but I shall as soon quarrel at it as any man in England. You are afraid, if you see the bear loose, are you not?

ANNE. Ay, indeed, sir.

SLENDER. That's meat and drink to me now. I have seen Sackerson loose twenty times, and have taken him by the chain; but I warrant you, the women have so cried and shriek'd at it that it pass'd; but women, indeed, cannot abide 'em; they are very ill-favour'd rough things.
A few centuries later, such activity is frowned upon, as Troy Gentry is accused of killing a tame bear:
Authorities allege that [country music star] Gentry purchased the bear from Greenly, a wildlife photographer and hunting guide, then killed it with a bow and arrow in an enclosed pen on Greenly's property in October 2004.

The government alleges that Gentry and Greenly tagged the bear with a Minnesota hunting license and registered the animal with the state Department of Natural Resources as a wild kill.

Gentry allegedly paid about $4,650 for the bear, named Cubby. The bear's death was videotaped, and the tape later edited so Gentry appeared to shoot the animal in a "fair chase" hunting situation, the government alleges.
The Elizabethans at least had the dignity to sell tickets when they killed chained bears, and didn't pretend it was anything but cruelty.

Via Jesus' General, who offers Gentry some sage advice.

In which I survey the damage

So Ms. TfK and I are tooling along, minding our business. A walk in the park seemed in order, so we had driven off to enjoy some fine weather. At the left turn into the park, we waited for traffic to stop when the light turned, and then made our quick turn during the yellow.

At least, that was the plan. Someone else, trying to beat the now yellow light, barreled through, sending our car into a 180.

DamageSince I was in the passenger seat, I'm understandably glad that it was the rear tire that got bent on its axle, and the metal of the rear of the car that now hangs in ugly shards beneath the ripped plastic of the bumper. A few feet further forward and TfK would be on indefinite hiatus. My appreciation for seat belts is also considerably enhanced.

Ms. TfK and I caught our breath, determined we were not noticeably injured, and looked around for the other car. It seemed to have stopped, or at least slowed, but given its rapid acceleration away, the cut in speed probably just reflected lost momentum. This was unfortunate, since we were hoping to exchange insurance information, and perhaps offer some friendly tips on what those colored lights at the intersection meant.

Alas, they left, taking with them our hope of recovering the deductible. As luck would have it, they left behind their front bumber, as well as assorted glass shards, and attached to the bumper, their license plate.

BumperA kind soul chased after them and wrote down the same number from their rear bumper. He saw four guys crammed in a crappy old sedan, then came back and sat with us until the police arrived to take his statement. On some karmic level, he helped balance out the truly atrocious thing those guys had done.

The police were excellent, efficient, kind, and informative. The paramedics who came to check us out were amiable and understanding. The AAA tow truck driver had sage advice. The insurance company is an insurance company, morally neutral at its best.

Having the license plate – DWN 1133 – the cops readily identified the owner, and were pretty certain that there was no insurance on the car (reliable sources tell me that's probably because they previously got a ticket for driving without insurance). The police are on the lookout for the vehicle and its owner, but consider their hopes pretty slim.

They expect that, given the Latino last name, the car's behavior, and the number of people in the car, it was probably owned and driven by illegal immigrants. The entire household will probably have the same last name, and will all deny driving the car, or even owning it. And even if the owner were to come forward, he probably doesn't have insurance, let alone the money to pay back the insurance company.

I suppose there's some sort of lesson here. I could talk about how this argues for giving driving licenses to people who will drive anyway, so they can then get insurance, and won't have to skip the scene after an accident. Others would make a case for sending the lot of them back to Mexico, which seems to be a bit late at this point.

But for now, let's rise above that fray and focus on a few important truths.

  1. Seatbelts save lives. Wear yours.
  2. Because of seatbelts and generally safe driving practices, we are alive and unharmed (barring a few aches and pains).
  3. There are assholes in the world, and they drive. Watch out.
  4. There are nice people in the world. Some in uniform, others just doing a favor for someone they never met.
Ms. TfK and I are still a bit shaken up a few days later, but we are largely settling down, and I think my heart rate and blood pressure are back within normal tolerances. Ms. TfK's may still be elevated because she's been dealing with the insurance company.

How you balance points 3 and 4 above, or how you balance the colossal damage to the car against the fact that we seem to have dodged any serious harm, says a lot about how you see the world. We're trying to be upbeat about this.

This isn't a bleg, but the deductible on the repairs is a little steep for two grad students. If you could spare a little PayPal cash, click on the hand in the sidebar.