Post-Slump Links

March 11, 2007

Since every hour that passes I’m more certain I’m not going to keep blogging, here are a few good links for your perusal:

Stuart Staniford of the Oil Drum explains carefully why the Saudi production decrease is due to peak oil rather than a voluntary reduction. The minutiae of the Saudi production curve are more consistent with a post-peak slump rather than with a voluntary reduction meant to give Saudi Arabia the power to flood the market at any given time.

C. L. Hanson notes that the two basic principles of relationships – that people have the right to say no to sex and that people shouldn’t sleep with anyone but their partners – are incongruous. As such, she talks about how cheating can save relationships.

Stentor rebuts market-based arguments against environmental legislation. He explains specifically that air pollution needs to be curbed collectively since air is naturally a shared resource. This isn’t an especially novel argument – the tragedy of the commons is a recognized market failure – but some libertarians’ hostility to it requires repeating it more than should be necessary.

Melissa Franklin, Harvard’s first tenured female physics professor, speaks at a conference about women in science that has just given her an award. She recounts experiences ranging from students’ crying because they couldn’t finish their problem sets to sexual assault.


Consonant-Level Links

March 10, 2007

See the above post (soon) for an explanation of the motivation of this roundup’s theme. But for now, suffice is to say that people with 500 hits a day need links more than people with 5,000.

Kristjan Wager delves into John Hawkins’ dishonest column in greater detail than I did; he not only looks at the study in question and shows how the numbers compare with Hawkins’ point, but also proposes a hypothesis explaining the observation.

Jessica Dreadul links to two reproductive rights-themed news pieces, one about Chile’s lowering of the age barrier to parental consent to emergency contraception and another about an attempt to prevent pharmacists from arbitrarily denying women in Georgia EC.

On The Politburo Diktat, there’s a long, engaging thread about the war on Iraq and whether the US is irrevocably doomed and has nothing better to do than cut and run.

Shelley reports a breakthrough in research into curing hearing loss. While her lab is trying to cure deafness by infecting ear cells with benign viruses, another lab has achieved results by directly compensating for a deficient protein.

Bean notes that one group of people in the US who are especially impacted by the nastiness of the prison system are the mentally ill, who are often tortured with solitary confinement.


Carnivalia

March 1, 2007

The seventh installment of Philosophia Naturalis, the quadriweekly carnival of physics and technology, is up on Geek Counterpoint; the highlight is John Conway’s two-part series about the search for the Higgs boson. The next carnival will be posted on March 29th; the carnival webpage is here. Note that although the host is not yet publicly posted on the carnival webpage, the next available hosting opportunity is on 5/24.

The 33rd Carnival of the Liberals is up on Blue Gal in a Red State. The next edition will be posted on Brainshrub on 3/14.

The 108th Carnival of Education is up on Dr. Homeslice. No highlight is offered, although there were a few possible candidates. The 109th carnival will be hosted on 3/7 on What It’s Like on the Inside.

The Skeptics’ Circle is now up on The Second Sight, with a special numerology theme. The highlights are Hlynes’ takedown of yet another a scare story about genetically modified food and Phil Plait’s rant about the story of the creationist who got a Ph.D. in geoscience and made national headlines.

And, of course, remember that the Carnival of Mathematics is up on Michi’s Blog on 3/9 and the next Carnival of the Godless will be posted on Hell’s Handmaiden on 3/4.


Ezra Opens a Second Front in the War on Science

February 28, 2007

Ezra’s latest post complains that the media doesn’t pay enough attention to partisan thinktanks. The idea is that it doesn’t matter that a study is hopelessly biased, as long as it has 500 pages of pretty graphs. Now, I know it’s attractive to project the diametric opposite of your own view onto the mainstream media. However, that’s not a very good methodology for discussing politics.

Social sciences have an outrageously low signal to noise ratio. How couldn’t they? They a) attract people who’re on average less smart than those who do natural sciences, b) give people a lot more incentive to stick to indefensible conclusions, and c) has a proliferation of methodological minutiae that can get you any result you want. For instance, multiple regression analysis depends on the variables you enter so much that the same data can be shown to lead to wildly different conclusions.

With so much chaff and so little wheat, people have to develop mechanisms of throwing out the junk. One good mechanism is the rule of thumb that if a thinktank disagrees with an academic study, the thinktank is always wrong; to take a slight refinement, academics whose chairs are funded by ideologically motivated thinktanks, like John Lott, are barely more reliable than thinktanks.

Right now, the media gives equal credence to peer-reviewed studies and to thinktank hatchet jobs. Even if it does what you imply it should, it won’t improve matters much. Laypersons won’t be any more informed, and experts won’t learn anything new.

A single news article can only offer a cursory analysis of scientific debates, and is hardly more informative than, say, direct-to-consumer drug advertising. It’s impossible to write a 1,000-word New York Times article doing justice to, say, debates within biological community about evolutionary developmental biology. And that’s an issue where it’s relatively easy to produce rigorous research; when you venture into economics, things get exponentially harder.

It’s possible for a newspaper to publish a debate between Lewontin and Dawkins, or even to commission both to write regular features about evolution. But what’s the point? Professional biologists, who know all the relevant facts and have been familiar with those debates for decades have already decided. There’s no point in a rematch in a far less professionally competent arena.

The same principle applies to social sciences. When a thinktank publishes a research, the ideal media’s reaction should be to ignore it. There’s nothing that privileges thinktank fellows over real economists enough to exempt them from peer review. Likewise, there’s nothing that privileges ordinary people’s views. Serious scholars may not be able to describe poverty or unemployment in lurid detail, but frankly the media could use fewer heartwrenching stories and more facts.

The layperson doesn’t need to know anything more than what mainstream expert opinion is, and to what extent expert opinion can be trusted (more so on climatology and evolutionary biology than on welfare economics and political science). If he cares enough to delve into the subject, that’s what books and professional reviews are for. The mainstream media can never be a substitute for scholarly books and articles; even semi-popular magazines like Scientific American are inferior to actually reading what current research is.

Check out my post on religion and welfare. The post has 1,500 words; counting graphs and tables as a number of words taking equal space, the study it critiques has 15,000. And the post doesn’t do anything that I’d expect of similar coverage in the mainstream media: literature review, quoting other experts, actually checking the data, fleshing out alternative theories. In its most cursory form, therefore, a satisfactory critique needs to be about a tenth its object study’s size. When the study in question has the 500 pages the hack Ezra quotes brags about, it takes 50 to take it apart.


Carnival Announcements

February 24, 2007

The March 1st edition of Help Us Help Ourselves will be posted on Feministe; submit your posts by comment- or trackback-spamming Jill’s announcement post.

The 55th meeting of the Skeptics’ Circle will be posted in five days on The Second Sight. Submit your woo-debunking to EoR by email.


Saturday Science Links

February 24, 2007

I think it was Squashed who was enamored enough with my science-themed link posts on Appletree that he suggested making it a regular weekend feature. Always happy to oblige, here’s what my net has come up with:

Shelley notes that scrub jays plan ahead, a cognitive trait previously thought to be unique to humans. In one experiment, the birds were conditioned to expect food in the morning in one room but not in another; those in the breakfast-less room then stored food each night. In another, each room had a different kind of food; the birds then stored each kind of food in the room filled with the other kind.

She also links to a study that shows that children of alcoholics have reduced mental development. Now, you’d think it’s because women who consume alcohol during pregnancy ruin their fetuses’ brains. But in fact, it’s both genetic and environmental, with no gender component; the senior author explicitly says that “There were no differences between the effects of maternal and paternal drinking.” My guess is that the groups that treat all women as pre-pregnant are not going to issue gender-neutral warnings to individuals not to become alcohol-dependent.

Tara writes about the gloriously pro-science President of Gambia, who is trying to use prayer to cure AIDS. The good news is that people must see the President in person to get prayed for, limiting the scope of the pseudo-treatment somewhat. The bad news is that the President demands they stop taking anti-retroviral drugs.

Mark at Cosmic Variance explains the equation e = mc^2 using a thought experiment. The basic point of the thought experiment is that since light is a wave, it imparts momentum, so conservation of momentum eventually implies mass-energy equivalence.

Orac’s Friday Dose of Woo features biodynamics, a pseudoscience that emphasizes the need for not only organic farming but also various processes that are supposed to make crops spiritually healthy. Biodynamic requires farmers to apply eight specific substances to the soil, all of which take me back to the days when I read the AD&D Dungeon Master Guide‘s section on magical items.

GrrlScientist writes about the sea changes in the continental shelf waters of the northwest Atlantic. What had been previously attributed to overfishing of cod is now recognized to be primarily the result of climate change. The main change is reduced salinity, caused by a) greater snowmelts in the Arctic, and b) climate-driven shifts in wind patterns that alter ocean currents.


Saturday Link Roundup

February 17, 2007

I wanted this roundup to be science-themed, but there’s been too few linkworthy science posts and too many political posts. Still, starting with the science, GrrlScientist reports about how sulfur particles cause some global cooling, which can be exploited to mitigate global warming. The only thing I have to say about that is to recall the Futurama episode where Fry says at a ski resort, “It’s a good thing global warming never happened.” Leela retorts, “It did, but the nuclear winter balanced it out.”

Orac writes about the dilemma of whether to allow individuals access to experimental drugs. He comes down strongly on the side of not allowing, explaining that,

The entire ruling also seems to rest on a misperception that there are “miracle drugs” out there that we will have to wait years for because the FDA is too slow to approve them. However, if there really were such a “miracle drug” that was amazingly effective compared to anything we have now, a large randomized phase III trial would not be necessary to detect its efficacy. Indeed, its efficacy would almost certainly show up in even a small phase I trial. There’d be examples of amazing tumor shrinkage or even outright cures. In reality, we don’t see these things in Phase I trials, because there are no miracle drugs, at least not yet. Because the effects of most new drugs against various tumors tends to be less than miraculous, we need Phase III trials to determine safety and efficacy.

Kevin Alexander Gray of Black Agenda Report skewers Obama as a bland, white-identified politician who’s not listening to the black community’s concerns. Obama happens to be black, but he’s not the black voters’ candidate; black voters prefer Clinton, who they’re backing by several percentage points more than whites do, while supporting Obama by no greater numbers than whites do. It could be due to unfamiliarity, but it could also be due to Obama’s failure to tap into traditional sources of black support.

Matthew Yglesias turns his attention to Iran. Scott McLemee has an entirely misguided column on Inside Higher Ed that accuses liberals of not caring about Iranian democracy. Matt Yglesias notes that he has no idea what he’s talking about. After all, American conservatives want to bomb Iran, a surefire way to cement support for the regime, while the liberals are letting the regime crumble under its own weight.

Via Ars Mathematica I found a long article in the New York Magazine about praise and self-esteem. The two-line conclusion is that praising children’s intelligence will only hurt them by making them complacent and causing them to view failures as embarrassments, while praising their effort will make them work harder. In addition, praise needs to be specific – e.g. “It’s good that you can concentrate for so long” – or else it will be perceived as disingenuous. Draw your own conclusions about education.


Tuesday Small Hours Links

February 13, 2007

There are so many good links from the last day or two.

Jessica Dreadful breaks another abortion ban story from South Dakota, this time with exceptions for rape and incest in order to make the bill more palatable. But even then, the rape and incest exceptions are created with the most draconian restrictions possible.

[Link] The bill would allow rape victims to get abortions if they report the rapes to police within 50 days. Doctors would have to confirm those reports with police; doctors also would have to give blood from aborted fetuses to police for DNA testing in rape and incest cases.

The Commissar explains exactly what is wrong with the Bush administration’s accusations of Iranian support for Iraqi militants. Instead of trying to doubt the intelligence that was used to gather the conclusions, he shows why the conclusions themselves are implausible.

At the recent US military briefing about the Iranian mortar shells given to Iraqi Shiite militias, it was reported that these super-bombs have killed 170 US troops since June, 2004. I’m sure that Shiite IED’s have killed American troops in Iraq. How many overall? If the Iranian EFP’s have killed 170 Americans, what fraction is that of the total.

(…)

Of the 553 (82+471) where the sect of the attacker can be reliably inferred, 15% of these deadly IED attacks were committed by Shiites. Extrapolated to the full set, that would be 144 overall. That’s right. Only 144 Shiite-IED related deaths since June 2004.

Ezra has a three part series on the horrors of prison rape. While he doesn’t use the wonky style we all know and love, his posts still come off as very strong. He notes,

According to the Justice Department, “[in] 2005 there were 3,145 black male sentenced prison inmates per 100,000 black males in the United States, compared to 1,244 Hispanic male inmates per 100,000 Hispanic males and 471 white male inmates per 100,000 white males.” This is important. The relative infrequency with which white Americans enter prison, particularly for extended periods of time, surely effects the political urgency of prison reform. Indeed, it’s likely the reason overall legislation pushes in the other direction — towards overcrowding and longer sentences and less rehabilitation.

Brent reproduces a letter about the invisibility of atheists in the US. Since atheists are impossible to immediately discern from theists, bigoted Christians can get away with assuming that everyone in their lives who is a good person shares their religion. Based on that, he urges atheists to come out publicly.

First, misconceptions about us abound because of this invisibility. People don’t realize that we are their doctor, their teacher, their spouse or the nice guy that just held the door for them. The only face of naturalism a person is likely to see is a militant one. Is there any doubt that the image of naturalists would improve overnight if politicians, stars and athletes would come out?

d of Lawyers, Guns and Money comments on a statement by Bill Kristol about Obama that makes Joe Biden look like the second coming of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, W. E. B. DuBois, and Frederick Douglass all rolled into one. Kristol says Obama would’ve supported pro-slavery politicians in the 1850s. d notes,

When Kristol suggests — wearing his arrogant smirk like a badge of honor — that Barack Obama “would have been for Douglas in 1858,” he seems not to know one important historical fact. According to the laws of Illinois in 1858, Barack Obama would not only have been incapable of voting for Stephen Douglas, but he also would not have been allowed to enter the state in the first place. In 1853, Illinois passed one of the most restrictive black codes in the so-called “free north.” Blacks from other states were permitted to remain in the state for ten days; if they did not leave, they were subject to arrest and temporary enslavement — they would be sold to bidders who would be entitled to their labor until the mandatory $50 fine had been worked off. If the offending individual remained in Illinois after his or her release, the fines increased by $50 increments for each subsequent offense.

In her latest basic concepts post, Shelley turns to prions, the proteins that cause mad cow disease. Although they are proteins rather than organisms, they have the capability to mess with existing proteins in a way that makes them infectious in a way.

The protein that prions are made of is found throughout the body normally(called PrPc), although what their non-disease function is is not yet known. These proteins are encoded by the PRNP gene, and mutations in this gene are responsibly for inherited prion diseases. The disease-state prion protein is called (PrPSc) and is resistant to proteases which would normally denature a protein and render it harmless. The theory of how prions become infectious to other proteins is detailed below.

Abbas reproduces a letter by Waleed Hazbun, a visiting professor at the American University of Beirut. Hazbun describes the city,

Walking down the streets of the Hamra district of Beirut I think to myself that more cities across the Arab world should feel this way. Even as the city is re-dividing itself politically and police and security forces stand watch over public spaces, key buildings, and the residences of leading politicians, Beirut remains a urban, cosmopolitan environment. By invoking this term I do not refer to the fancy shopping districts with Euro-American name brand shops, the haut-hipsters hanging out a Starbucks (or even the much cooler De Prague), or the late night dancing parties going on at the trendy clubs. Beirut is a costal Levantine city that has never been cut off from other Mediterranean cities and trade routes nor fully isolated from its Arab/Islamic hinterland. It is not a show case ‘modern’ city built next to a museumfied medieval era ‘madina,’ like Tunis nor an artificial metropolis emerging out of a desert landscape due to royal patronage or the flows of petrodollars. It is more like Istanbul and how cities on coast of Mandate Palestine might have developed in some alterative reality.

Also on 3QD, Dhiraj Nayyar writes about the parallels between India and the US. India is aspiring to global superpower status, complete with economic domination and massive exportation of culture. But the social problems of the US pale in comparison with those of India.

Can India possibly claim to be superpower, the new emperor, just because some of it’s corporates are taking over firms abroad. Corporate might hasn’t turned into well-being for the majority of the people who still languish in poverty, illiteracy, hunger: basically dismal human conditions. Even possessing a few nuclear weapons doesn’t change this fact. And if half a country’s population cannot read, feed or cloth itself, what does that say about the empire? Even the American empire seems hollow when it is estimated that one in six people in the US is functionally illiterate, a large number of them live in poverty, where poverty is often a function of race, and where hurricanes like Katrina leave the mighty government fumbling for solutions.

Tyler expresses skepticism of much-hyped developments in quantum computing. In principle, quantum computers can factor integers in polynomial time, compared with exponential time for normal computers. In practice, constructing a quantum computer is about as feasible as fusion power at this stage. Tyler explains,

An actual working 16-qubit quantum superconductor that can overcome decoherence and the ubiquitous errors that plague any effort to build a computing device on quantum principles would be quite an achievement. It would indeed be interesting to do a full scale quantum computation, perhaps actually executing the Shor factoring algorithm. But A.) 16-qubits isn’t going to cut it and B.) they’ve been ominously reserved about releasing any results for professionals and academics to evaluate. And needless to say, with the grandiose proclamations the folks at the company have made, I’m skeptical.

Zuzu rips into the third chapter of Dawn Eden’s book, The Thrill of the Chaste (the parts Zuzu quotes sound as unintelligent as the title).

The chapter opens with a description of a continuing education course on “Living Single.” Dawn reads the description — which is all about helping people confidently navigate the single world, whether they’ve never left it or are re-entering it — and all she sees is “lack.”

She would, wouldn’t she?

I mean, her whole life, she’s felt lacking, and though she’s changed her strategy, her goal is the same: get married. Thing is, as she does so many times, she breezes right by the point. The course is designed to alleviate some of the social pressure that single adults feel to be in a couple, that they are in fact lacking something. It’s designed to help people understand that they don’t need to be in a couple to have fulfilling lives. But Dawn just sees the course as evidence that women are mired in a pathetic, pop-culturally-dictated “single lifestyle” that is all about lack — that lack being, of course, lack of a man and lack of God.

Finally, Bora collects all Darwin Day posts in one big link post. I haven’t had time to look at them yet, but you should.


News or Links, Take Your Pick

February 4, 2007

Guestblogging on Ezra Klein, Ankush notes that Edwards is even more of a waffler than he comes off in Ezra’s interview. He notes that Edwards blames the war on intelligence failure, and rebuts,

Today, I’d like to see a presidential candidate grapple with the questions that should be raised about why so many politicians — including, if you supported the war on the basis of WMDs, you – were so wrong when it was far from inevitable. What do you plan to do about promoting and reconciling dissent within the intelligence agencies? How should a President seek out conflicting viewpoints and process the contradictions? What should be the default presumptions when, as is often the case, you have very little intelligence to work off of? Are you concerned that Washington is dominated by a fairly homogeneous, vaguely hawkish group of foreign policy types, many of whom aren’t particularly good at what they do? In essence, why were you wrong in interpreting the evidence about Iraq and what do you plan to do in order not to be wrong the next time?

Edwards’s claims that the intelligence was irretrievably tainted and that everyone was wrong about the wisdom of war — claims which, to be fair, are frequently made by many, many other politicians and pundits — are so demonstrably false as to be borderline offensive. I appreciate his sincerity about his regret over the tragic costs of this war, but, so far as evaluating one’s participation in bringing this disaster about, expressing such regret is quite literally the least you can do.

A few days ago, Hamas and Fatah set a record by holding their fire for a whole day. But as the second day of quitting smoking chocolate coffee indiscriminate violence is always harder than the first, it didn’t work out very well, and Palestinian civilians are living in fear again.

Gazans have long been accustomed to violence. But until recently, the fighting was between local militants and Israeli forces, and the lines of battle were clear.

The last few weeks of fighting between Hamas and Fatah gunmen have taken on a different feel. Gunfire can erupt at any time, poorly trained fighters shoot at random, and the target isn’t always known.

Rudy Giuliani is still not “in it to win,” but is saying there’s a “good chance he’ll run.”

He has emphasized his steady hand dealing with the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. However, his moderate stances on gun control, abortion, gay rights and other social issues could be liabilities for him in a GOP presidential primary that includes hard-core conservatives as a central voting group.

For instance, in November, South Carolina voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional ban on same-sex unions.

“The fact is I appeal to conservative Christians the way I appeal to everyone else,” Giuliani said at a news conference. “I don’t think you have separate appeals to people.”

Giuliani is right. A very big constituency in the South includes people who think it was a mistake to give black people civil rights; Giuliani has a lot to sell them. Another big constituency hates it when non-conformists have free speech; Giuliani can placate them, too. Before Southern conservatives had God, guns, and gays, they had blacks.

Foodconsumer.org has a compilation of information about the HPV vaccine, which Texas Governor Rick Perry has just made mandatory for all girls aged 11-12.

Tony Blair is not only a lame duck Prime Minister, but also under immense pressure to quit now rather than in the summer. It’s not the brown-nosing of Bush or the religious fanaticism that turned the people off, but a corruption scandal involving cash for honors.

The ICM survey for the Sunday Express found that 56 per cent of the public want him to go now rather than wait for his planned summer departure.

The poll found that 43 per cent of Labour supporters feel it is now time for him to step down.

The survey also reveals a loss of trust in the Blair regime with some 66 per cent believing that evidence relating to cash-for-honours allegations has been covered up by people in Downing Street.

Victoria Brittain notes that there is such a thing as Islamic feminism, and that it has achieved several successes in rolling back discriminatory laws in Muslim-majority countries.

Embattled Muslim women, suffering the burdens of the worst cultural attitudes to rape and adultery enshrined in medieval laws in Pakistan and Northern Nigeria; or the sexual violence and rolling back of their rights, unleashed by the war in Iraq; or the targeted killings of women activists in Afghanistan, are turning for help to Muslim women’s groups. From those in Morocco and Malaysia, in particular, the skills of self-help training, experience of long legal battles, linking scholars and activists, are in great demand.

At government policy levels some, Islamic women activists’ campaigns are having successes large and small in some surprising places: Morocco’s Moudawana (religious personal statute laws differing from civil law) have recently been revised after 30 years of struggle; in Turkey’s Ministry of Religion there is a cautious beginning by some scholars to work on the highly sensitive area of questioning the historical basis of the hadith (sayings and deeds attributed to the Prophet) which seem misogynist; and in Indonesia’s rural areas teaching materials are being revised.

The Democratic Party is waffling about abortion, as its candidates deemphasize it more and more in order to appeal to Dominionist voters.

Day believes it is the beginning of getting some voters back into the fold. “If I had a nickel for every person who came up to me and said ‘I used to be a Democrat and I’d come back if they changed their stance on abortion,’ we’d be back to a 290 majority like we had in the 1970s.”

Day’s analogy is correct but incomplete. If the Democrats appeal to Dominionists, they’ll be back to a 290 majority in the House like in the 1970s; and like in the 1970s, they’ll have Southern conservatives hold key committee chairmanships that they’ll use to push the entire party to the right.

Skatje writes about homosexuality and the religious nuts who have a problem with it.

You let your bible tell you to shun gays, but you don’t pay attention when it tells you to shun women on their period? The bible says a lot of ridiculous things. You shouldn’t take the “unnatural affections” being a sin bits any more serious than the parts where it says to dash your enemy’s children against rocks or stone disobedient women to death. The reason I figure for including the part about homosexuality in the bible is the same reason they include various sorts of washing, staying away from dead bodies, etc. At the time these things were written, they didn’t know about bacteria and how disease works. They just knew that if you did such and such, you’re less likely to become ill. Anal sex can be unsanitary without the proper precautions. Back then, it was probably a good idea not to stick that there. I’m also undoubtedly sure that homosexuality is mentioned because the bible is notorious for disapproving of things that are different or unusual. Not very good justification though. Don’t let the bible tell you to hate stuff, ‘kay? Use your own head.

The best quote comes from commenter Azkyroth, who mocks a theistic commenter who confuses “canon” with “cannon,”

Also, “canon” is the official Christian doctrine; “cannon” are what they’ve been using to spread the canon since the cannon was invented.

Hat-tip to Robin: Timothy Garton Ash responds to Pascal Bruckner, who accused him of being an Islamist apologist after he criticized Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Pascal Bruckner is the intellectual equivalent of a drunk meandering down the road, arguing loudly with some imaginary enemies. He calls these enemies “Timothy Garton Ash” and “Ian Buruma” but they have very little to do with the real writers of those names. I list below some of his misrepresentations and inaccuracies, with a few weblinks for the curious.

Pascal Bruckner speaks in the name of the Enlightenment, but he betrays its essential spirit. The Enlightenment believed in free expression, without taboos. Because I disagree – courteously, precisely and giving clear reasons – with the views of a woman of Somalian origin, Bruckner does not hesitate to imply that I am a racist (he calls me “an apostle of multiculturalism,” then describes multiculturalism as a “racism of the anti-racists”) and a sexist (“outmoded machismo”, “the spirit of the inquisitors who saw devil-possessed witches in every woman too flamboyant for their tastes”). This is exactly the kind of blanket disqualification that he himself criticised in an article in Le Figaro entitled “Le chantage a l’Islamophobie,” (reprinted from Figaro here) deploring the way any critic of Islam is (dis)qualified as an Islamophobe racist. Except that here he is the blackmailer. Voltaire would be ashamed of him.


Conservatives Love Science

February 3, 2007

The Economist is predicting that the report on climate change, which concludes beyond any reasonable doubt that it is anthropogenic, will be uncontroversial. The idea is that since climate change skeptics have largely retreated to the line that climate change is anthropogenic, but it’s impossible or undesirable to do something about it, nobody will publish political hit pieces about the study.

Fat chance (via Majikthise). The American Enterprise Institute is already trying to bribe scientists to write negative articles about the report.

Scientists and economists have been offered $10,000 each by a lobby group funded by one of the world’s largest oil companies to undermine a major climate change report due to be published today.

Letters sent by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), an ExxonMobil-funded thinktank with close links to the Bush administration, offered the payments for articles that emphasise the shortcomings of a report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Travel expenses and additional payments were also offered.

The Guardian article doesn’t say whether anyone has taken the offer up yet, but given that as time passes, the AEI’s image becomes more ridiculous because of such incidents as this one, I don’t think anyone will. The Economist is right insofar as real scientists have abandoned climate change skepticism.


Friday Link Roundup

February 2, 2007

Ann notes that HPV causes not only cervical cancer but also penile cancer, and wonders if it means legislators will be less squeamish about mandatory vaccinations.

Jenny Dreadful complains about people who argue for expanding birth control in the third world as a measure of environmental population control. Population pressure in third world countries too far away from the first world to induce massive emigration does increase the pressure on natural resources, but by less than the increase in population. The more global the issue is, the less this population growth has an effect: population explosion in Madagascar has contributed to soil erosion, a local issue, but not at all to climate change.

G. Willow Wilson writes about the Cairo Book Fair, which attracts a gigantic number of people every year. She worries mostly about the proliferation of religious propaganda:

It would be one thing if the religious texts in question were copies of the Qur’an and hadith and jurisprudence, but too often they are mere propaganda: texts that claim shaving one’s beard is a worse crime than adultery, for instance; because adultery is a momentary offense, but habitual shaving accrues bad deeds for as long as you do it, potentially years and years. I have seen Wahhabi books devoted entirely to the supreme virtue of fear.

Pam notes that Pope Benedict XVI can’t control his own church:

A yawning gulf between the stern doctrines preached by Pope Benedict and the advice offered by ordinary Roman Catholic priests has been exposed by an Italian magazine which dispatched reporters to 24 churches around Italy where, in the confessional, they sought rulings on various moral dilemmas.

(…)

Another journalist posed as a researcher who had received a lucrative offer to work abroad on embryonic stem cells. With the extra cash, he said, he and his wife could think about starting a family. So should he take up the post?

“Yes. Yes. Of course,” came the reply.


The Carnival of the Liberals, and Other Links

January 31, 2007

COTL number 31 is up on Pollyticks.

In related links, Kevin Hayden has a tribute to Molly Ivins, who’s just succumbed to breast cancer; Edward at A Fistful of Euros writes about the divergence between the healthy economic growth of Spain with the sluggish one of Germany; and Shelley links to an Ask an Expert feature that explains why people can’t tickle themselves.


Educational Links

January 29, 2007

Mark CC has a post explaining the basics of formal logic as well as the difference between syntax and semantics.

Logic, in the sense that we generally talk about it, isn’t really one thing. Logic is a name for the general family of formal proof systems with inference rules. There are many logics, and a statement that is a valid inference (is logical) in one system may not be valid in another. To give you a very simple example, most people are familiar with the fact that in logic, if you have a statement “A”, then either the statement “A or not A” must be true. In the most common simple logic, called propositional logic, that’s a tautology – that is, a statement which is always true by definition. But in another common and useful logic – intuitionistic logic – “A or not A” is not necessarily true. You cannot infer anything about whether it’s true or false without proving whether A is true or false.

In line with the theme of studies about racial or gender bias, here‘s a study that shows that legal immigrants to the US make more money when they have lighter skin or bigger height, even after controlling for other possible variables (via Retrospectacle).

Whether and how quickly immigrants assimilate into the U.S. labor market is an issue of great policy importance and controversy. Using newly-available data from the New Immigrant Survey 2003, this paper shows that new lawful immigrants to the U.S. who have lighter skin color and are taller have higher earnings, controlling for extensive labor market and immigration status information, as well as for education, English language proficiency, outdoor work, occupation, ethnicity, race, and country of birth. Immigrants with the lightest skin color earn on average 8 to 15 percent more than comparable immigrants with the darkest skin tone. Each extra inch of height is associated with a 1 percent increase in wages.

Ruchira Paul of Accidental Blogger writes about Noor Inayat Khan, a Muslim Indian who volunteered to engage in espionage for the British in World War Two.

After a hurried (and rather incomplete) training in England, she was posted in Paris as the first woman radio operator for the SOE, entrusted with intercepting Nazi wireless transmissions. This gentle, shy and talented young woman became a thorn in the side of the German military – an unlikely, intrepid, wily spy, expertly eluding capture. Noor was later betrayed by one of her own colleagues. Captured, questioned and beaten by the Nazis, she was deported to Dachau for her non-cooperation, where after further beatings and torture, she was shot. At the time of her death Noor was thirty years old. According to her biography (and the testimony of her captors), she died without divulging any secrets and the last word she uttered was liberté.

Via Pharyngula: in honor of Charles Darwin’s upcoming 200th birthday, the Beagle Project is planning to rebuild the Beagle and sail along the same path Darwin traveled along.

Imagine: 2009, and a replica Beagle sailed around Capre Horn and through the Pacific by an international crew of young scientists sails into The Galapagos as part of a recreation of the Voyage of the Beagle. That, surely will be the TV picture of the Darwin 2009 celebrations. How can Darwin’s 200th anniversary pass without that happening? Donate, and help us give a new generation of young people the chance to see a replica Beagle built and launched, and the opportunity to head for horizons of their own.


The Blank Slate and Other Phantom Theories

January 29, 2007

I keep posting my 3QD columns increasingly late. My most recent one, about Pinker’s The Blank Slate and the inconsistencies between how it portrays the world and how the world actually is, was up only at 8:42 pm even though we’re supposed to have them up and running by midnight between Sunday and Monday.

The most important one liner from the entire post is in my opinion, “The truth is never oppressive” – or, in its fuller version, “the truth, or what a reasonable person would believe to be the truth, is never oppressive.” I then show that on the contrary, the views Pinker holds about gender and apologizes for about race fail any scientific reasonable-person standard.

The spine of the article is four paragraphs about a third of the way through, including that one liner.

The relationship between Pinker and Lewontin is an interesting one. Pinker notes that although Lewontin claims that he thinks the dominant force in evolution is the interaction between gene, organism, and environment, in terms of social implications he ignores everything but environment. On that Pinker is certainly right: Biology as Ideology is an anti-science polemic that distorts facts to fit Lewontin’s agenda (my take on Lewontin was subsequently debated in length here). However, Pinker commits the same transgression: he says he believes in the sensible moderate view that human behavior is determined by both inborn and environmental factors, and goes on to not only ignore the implications of the environmental part but also defend racists and sexists who have used pseudoscience as cover.

For instance, he starts by ridiculing people who called Richard Herrnstein a racist for a 1970 paper about intelligence and heredity. Although the paper as Pinker describes it is not racist per se, Herrnstein was indeed a racist. The screed he published with Charles Murray in 1994, The Bell Curve, is not only wrong, but also obviously wrong. Even in 1994, there were metastudies about race and intelligence that showed that the IQ gap disappears once one properly controls for environmental factors, for example by considering the IQ scores of children born to single mothers in Germany by American fathers in World War Two.

The truth, or what a reasonable person would believe to be the truth, is never oppressive. If there is indeed an innate component to the racial IQ gap, or to the gender math score gap, then it’s not racist or sexist to write about it. It remains so even if the innate component does not exist, but the researcher has solid grounds to believe it does.

However, Murray and Herrnstein had no such solid grounds. They could quote a few studies proving their point, but when researchers publish many studies about the same phenomenon, some studies are bound to detect statistically significant effects that do not exist. By selectively choosing one’s references, one can show that liberals are morally superior or morally inferior to conservatives, or that socialism is more successful or less successful than capitalism. At times there are seminal studies, which do not require any further metastudy. There weren’t any in 1994, while existing metastudies suggested that the racial IQ gap was entirely environmental. As I will describe below, the one seminal study [link added] done in 2003 moots not only Murray and Herrnstein’s entire argument but also much of Pinker’s.

As in my other scathing book reviews, there are some parts I would’ve liked to rebut but couldn’t without breaking the article’s flow. Things that would’ve made it into the post if I’d written it in bullet point format include,

1. Pinker’s scare campaign around Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon. Hardly anyone cares for them anymore, especially for Dworkin. Even Brownmiller felt the need to compare Dworkin’s speeches to revival tents in a paragraph praising Dworkin’s passion.

2. The general use of abstract moral principles against social movements. Proponents of torture advise opponents of torture to speak only in moral terms and ignore the fact that torture is ineffective; sexists advise feminists to only attack obvious discrimination and ignore the fact that men and women are cognitively nearly identical.

3. The reemergence of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, largely due to the discovery of the Pirahã’s inability to master basic counting. Chomsky’s transformtional grammar is the only serious challenge to Lockean empiricism, which Pinker tars by associating it with the phantom theory that is the blank slate.

4. Relational models. Pinker quotes Alan Fiske’s theory of four relational models – market pricing, communal sharing, equality matching, and authority ranking – and claims that equality matching is the most common to support his claims. In fact there’s no criterion that can determine which is more common; for what it’s worth, equality matching is the weirdest of the four in some precise ways.

5. The Larry Summers controversy, in which Pinker defended the assertion that women are innately worse at math than men. There’s no obvious EP-derived hypothesis why it should be so, and even if there were, it would fail to conform to reality, since women can and often are as good at math as men. Feminist activism has changed a lot; Columbia’s progressed from having its first female Ph.D. student in math 20 years ago to having a 50-50 incoming class this year.

6. Education. I have no idea where Kim Gandy’s getting her numbers from when she says boys and girls are 99% identical in learning, but the basic point that the differences in cognition are small is right. Stentor has a link to the relevant research somewhere in his archives. I allude to this point in the post, but don’t explicitly mention this research.


Science Versus Non-Science

January 27, 2007

Olvlzl joins many pundits in falling flat on his face when trying to attack Dawkins’ book. He invokes the usual equivocation of scientific knowledge with theology, failing to note that the two are entirely inequivalent. He also proves my point about religion in the media, which his post partly inspired, in factlessly suggesting memetics could lead to restrictions on free speech.

Not making any apologies here: non-scientific knowledge doesn’t have and shouldn’t have the same respectability as scientific knowledge. Why should it? The most advanced social sciences, psychology and economics, are at about the same point physics was in 1650. Less advanced ones have barely, or not even, gotten to the acceptance of Copernican astronomy. Theology and critical theory aren’t even up to Roger Bacon’s standards, and probably never will be.

In 2007, I say that the rational layperson must accept scientific authority on issues such as physics, climatology, evolutionary biology, medicine, and chemistry. In 1707 or even 1807, I wouldn’t; I’d instead say that a rational person must educate himself in natural philosophy and form his own opinions.

Likewise, disciplines that are as intricate as the natural sciences were in the 18th century aren’t subject to the same tyranny of peer review. There’s a wide body of knowledge about economics today, just as there was a wide body of knowledge about biology in 1820. Many people recognized the fact of evolution, though they couldn’t adequately explain it. Linnean taxonomy had been standard for decades. Malthus had already published his essays on population, although they still hadn’t gained wide acceptance.

Paul Krugman wrote, “Economics is harder than physics; luckily it is not quite as hard as sociology.” I’d put biology somewhere between physics and economics, since its first serious overarching theory was developed in the 1830s (economics has never had anything so rigorous as Darwinism; at best, it’s where biology was just before Darwin).

Not coincidentally, a reasonably educated layperson can be completely up to date about the main ideas of economics and the evidence for and against them. It wouldn’t be enough knowledge for setting interest rates, but it would be enough for evaluating major proposals in fiscal policy or development economics.

And that’s one of the two most advanced social sciences. Economists and psychologists keep looking up to physicists, but they already sit fairly close to the academic tower’s top. In contrast, theologians, who have yet to produce even one non-trivial truth, sit in its basement.

What the people who attack Dawkins for not knowing about theology miss is that theology isn’t even non-science; it’s non-knowledge. It’s so detached from reality and so useless that it’s as relevant even to a debate about religion as is Pokémon mythology. Dismissing it out of hand is one of the few things Dawkins gets right.

Ironically, the best criticism of the book is the one that goes the other way: why does Dawkins spend so much time attacking intellectual gnats, instead of writing something intelligent about the politics of religion? The most annoying thing about people like Dawkins and Harris is their inability to get beyond totalizing religion. Dismissing theology is good, but the entire point of such a dismissal is to avoid having to spend time on unproductive discussions about religion.


Fuel Cell Breakthrough Reported

January 26, 2007

Via Stochastix: a new advance in fuel cell technology has made its oxygen reduction catalysis rate faster by a factor of 90.

The slow rate of oxygen-reduction catalysis on the cathode – a fuel cell’s positively charged electrode – has been a primary factor hindering development of the polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cells favored for use in vehicles powered by hydrogen.

“The existing limitations facing PEM fuel cell technology  applications in the transportation sector could be eliminated with the development of stable cathode catalysts with several orders of magnitude increase in activity over today’s state-of-the-art catalysts, and that is what our discovery has the potential to provide,” said Vojislav Stamenkovic, a scientist with dual appointments in the Materials Sciences Division of both Berkeley Lab and Argonne.

Stamenkovic and Argonne senior scientist Nenad Markovic are the corresponding authors of a study whose results are now available online from the journal Science.  The paper, entitled Improved Oxygen Reduction Activity on Pt3Ni(111) via Increased Surface Site Availability, reports a platinum-nickel alloy that increased the catalytic activity of a fuel cell cathode by an astonishing 90-fold over the platinum-carbon cathode catalysts used today.

It’ll be a great irony if at the precise moment American politicians grumblingly accept the need to reduce oil use via regulation, the fuel cell will become an economically viable way of powering cars.

Note that although fuel cells use another finite resource, platinum, the rise of platinum production will take sufficient pressure off oil. In addition, while oil has a biotic origin, which means it’s impossible to harvest outside Earth, platinum is likely available on the Moon or on asteroids, making additional harvesting a matter of investing in space technology rather than of conserving a very limited resource.


Bush Lies on Climate Change

January 25, 2007

In the State of the Union, Bush promised to cut gas consumption, and acknowledged climate change for the first time. So far, so good. If he were serious about it, I’d even partly cut him some slack for promoting new federal subsidies of ethanol.

However, he’s against stricter emissions regulations, will only raise gas taxes if someone kidnaps one of his daughters, and is still against the Kyoto Protocol. Thus Bush-style conservatism went from “The world isn’t warming” to “the world is warming but it’s because of sunspots” to “the world is warming and it may or may not be anthropogenic” to “the world is warming but it will be good” to “the world is warming but market-based solutions are the best” to “the world is warming and government regulations are needed but Kyoto is bad.”

The President, who has been facing ever-increasing domestic and international pressure on the environmental issues, also clarified that he had no plans to move back from his decision to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol.

The Kyoto agreement was designed to cut greenhouse gases that lead to an overall increase in temperatures around the world. But President Bush pulled out of Kyoto in 2001, contending it would damage the U.S. economy and that would give poorer countries obligations as well.

On climate change as well as on health care, Bush realized that there was a serious problem, so he promptly declared an ill-considered solution that conflicts with reality-based politics.


A Rule of Thumb About Science

January 25, 2007

A good rule of thumb about any scientific issue is that you’re not allowed to disagree with mainstream scientific opinion, unless you’ve studied the field in sufficient depth to have a serious, intelligent conversation with an expert. In case there are several competing views instead of one mainstream, you’re not allowed to strongly swing one way or another.

Of course, “not allowed” means “not allowed if you want to be rational.” You’re not allowed to believe in fringe scientific theories, however attractive they might be to your political ideology, just like you’re not allowed to believe in fairies or 9/11 conspiracy theories.

In particular:

1. No matter what your views on fat acceptance or body image are, you must accept that obesity is a major medical problem.

2. No matter what your views on smoking laws are, you must accept that first- and second-hand smoking both cause lung cancer.

3. No matter what your views on race and class are, you must accept that IQ is heritable and measures intelligence fairly decently. At the same time, you must accept that the authors of The Bell Curve have no idea what they’re talking about.

4. No matter what your views on gender roles are, you must accept that there’s a genetic or hormonal component, as well as a huge environmental one.

5. No matter what your views on physics are, you must accept that string theory is a sound scientific theory.

6. No matter what your views on the Kyoto Protocol are, you must accept that global warming is real and anthropogenic and will cause widespread ecological disruption if left unabated.

7. No matter what your views on environmental regulations are, you must accept that DDT is harmful to the environment and encourages resistance to spraying among mosquitos.

Many of the above propositions are the subject of some controversy, but there’s a clear dominant view. I don’t fault Peter Woit for concluding that string theory is unscientific; he’s an expert who knows enough about the theory to make an informed judgment. But to be rational, I shouldn’t side with him just by reading his book, unless I’m prepared to read heaps of mainstream material on string theory.


Outrage Links

January 25, 2007

Lindsay has an ongoing series on Julie Amero, the teacher who is facing jail time because some spyware showed porn to her students. She has an article up on the Huffington Post about it, and a further explanation about why Amero didn’t immediately closed the offending windows.

Steve Gilliard embeds a video of someone who needs a Queer Eye makeover singing “God hates fags.” Personally I was most bothered by the line, “With a man you shall not lay.” It wasn’t the implicit sexism, but the use of “lay” when “lie” is needed (hat-tip to Bruce).

Jenny writes about the history of lobotomy, which was to treat for every psychiatric condition, real or imagined. Lobotomies have a specific purpose: to remove damaged brain tissue. Psychological problems aren’t usually about damaged brain tissue, but rather about overall chemical imbalances. To quote Simon on Firefly, “Why anyone would cut into a healthy brain…”

Skatje complains about nationalist hysteria, as manifested in the American notion that the US flag should have rights (which, incidentally, Clinton is happily flip-flopping on). Skatje comments, “Nationalism terrifies me. A country should never come before human rights. If that’s not a step towards a fascist regime, I don’t know what is. To add to my disgust, America packages nationalism as a virtue called “patriotism.” They’re more or less synonymous, but patriotism is a euphemism.”

Skatje’s dad PZ writes about a political science professor who’s under fire because she sent people an email from her university account asking to “put together a Team Franken.”

Echidne notes that the State of the Union address included lengthy references to freedom in a Middle Eastern context, without saying a single word about the USA’s role in destroying Iraq, or Israel’s role in increasing the sympathies for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Tyler posted a picture of himself. If that’s not outrage, I don’t know what is.

Jill stumbled upon a site for the vanguard of a Christian version of the Taliban‘s dress code for women. Discussion topics on the website include the importance of modesty, the need for women to make sure men don’t sin, and micromanagement to ensure that no behavior, including turning heads, causes men to sin.

On My Left Wing, There Is No Spoon is writing about the Republican threat to filibuster the minimum wage increase in the Senate. My first response is, “How the hell is Reid unable to get cloture on a bill that passed the House 3 to 1?”. My second is the same as There Is No Spoon’s: “I have absolutely no problem with watching the GOP bring Speaker Pelosi’s incredibly popular 100 hours legislation to a dead halt in the Senate by filibustering the one most popular piece of that agenda.”


Friday/Saturday Headlines

January 20, 2007

Crossposted on Appletree, hence the relative paucity of snark:

Study on Nicotine Levels Stirs Calls for New Controls

A Harvard study concluding that cigarette makers have for years deliberately increased nicotine levels in cigarettes to make them more addictive led to renewed calls Thursday for greater federal oversight of the industry.

“Given the harm that tobacco causes, it shouldn’t be a game of cat-and-mouse to figure out what the industry is doing to cigarettes,” said Dr. Josh Sharfstein, commissioner of health for the City of Baltimore.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who is now chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, promised to reintroduce within weeks a bill that would allow the Food and Drug Administration to regulate cigarettes.

North Korea Reports Progress In Talks With U.S. Envoy

North Korea said Friday that progress had been made during talks with the United States this week on its nuclear program, and the top U.S. nuclear envoy suggested the foundation had been laid for more progress when six-nation nuclear negotiations resume.

North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said three days of talks in Berlin between U.S. envoy Christopher R. Hill and North Korea’s main nuclear negotiator, Kim Gye Gwan, had been held “in a positive and sincere atmosphere and a certain agreement was reached there.” No further details were given.

This makes it – what – the four hundredth such negotiation? I’m not sure who’s being more irrational here – North Korea, which keeps spending whatever money it has on the military instead of on making sure people stop starving, or the US, which keeps botching negotiations with North Korea. -Alon.

A Downside to Heralded HPV Drug: Cost, Access

Abington pediatrician Steven Shapiro thinks the new vaccine against cervical cancer is a major medical advance that will benefit all of society.

Even so, he isn’t offering Gardasil to his patients. He says insurance reimbursements don’t cover his costs to buy, store and administer it.

“I’m in practice with four physicians and we simply can’t afford it,” said Shapiro, who also chairs the pediatrics department at Abington Memorial Hospital.

Seven months after the federal government approved Merck & Co. Inc.’s much-heralded immunization for females ages 9 to 26, Gardasil can be difficult for patients to get.

By all accounts, the vaccine could eventually save thousands of lives and billions of dollars annually in this country. But right now, it is a case study in the ragged economics of U.S. health care.

Outspoken Armenian editor shot dead in Istanbul street attack

A journalist who was a prominent member of Turkey’s Armenian community was murdered in Istanbul yesterday in an attack that the prime minister described as an attempt to destabilise the country.

Hrant Dink, 53, a Turkish citizen of Armenian descent, was shot from behind a number of times at the entrance of Agos, the bilingual Turkish-Armenian weekly newspaper that he edited. Television footage showed his body lying face down, draped in a white sheet, on the pavement in front of the office.

(…)

Dink had gone on trial numerous times for speaking out about the mass killings of Armenians by Turks. He had received threats from nationalists who viewed him as a traitor. He was a public figure in Turkey and, as the editor of Agos, one of its most prominent Armenian voices.

Key Aide To Sadr Arrested In Baghdad

U.S.-backed Iraqi forces arrested a top aide to anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in eastern Baghdad on Friday, amid growing signs of stepped-up efforts to quell Sadr and his supporters.

(…)

Nadawi said “the occupation forces are provoking Sadr . . . by these daily operations or every-other-day operations.” The spokesman added that the cleric’s followers “are the only ones demanding and putting a timetable for the occupation withdrawal.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has been pressured by the Bush administration to bring the Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias under control, was not forewarned about the arrest, said Ali Dabbagh, a spokesman for Maliki. Dabbagh said the prime minister was not notified about every impending high-profile arrest.

Privacy Law “Has No Teeth”: Watchdog

Canadian consumers should be “outraged” that a major retailer has been collecting and storing information about their credit and debit card transactions, a leading consumer lobby group says.

Chavez: Castro “Fighting for His Life,” Progressing Slowly

Cuban leader Fidel Castro is “fighting for his life,” Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said in a speech to the state legislature in Rio de Janeiro.

Chavez, who said he spoke to Castro a few days ago by telephone, compared Castro’s battle against a serious intestinal illness with the Cuban leader’s time in the island’s mountains heading the revolution against the Fulgencio Batista government.

“Fidel is again in the Sierra Maestra again,” Chavez said Friday. “He’s fighting for his life. We don’t know; we want him to recover, and he continues progressing, although slowly.”

Maybe after Castro dies, Chavez can take over Cuba, where he won’t have to pretend he’s a democratic leader. -Alon.


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