Gene Therapy Successful Against Tumors

August 31, 2006

National Geographic reports the good news:

Two of 17 people with advanced melanoma—a deadly form of skin cancer—who underwent experimental treatment with the engineered immune cells saw their tumors shrivel.

A year and a half after therapy began, the two patients were declared free of the disease.

“This is the first example of an effective gene therapy that works in cancer patients,” said Steven Rosenberg, chief of surgery at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, and leader of the research team.

The therapy has so far been applied only to melanoma patients. But the researchers are optimistic that their treatment can be used for many other types of cancer.

The team has already engineered similar immune cells for more common tumors, such as breast, lung, and liver cancers.

The research appears in tomorrow’s issue of the journal Science.

Granted, there’s a lot to be skeptical about, and I don’t think that this partial success is much consolation to the 15 patients who still have cancer. But every big advance begins with a small step; Jenner’s vaccine took time to catch on, too.

A year ago, I read Biology as Ideology, a book that claims that modern genetics is based on a warped ideology and has no medical applications; back in 1991, Lewontin said that the Human Genome Project would be a waste of money and gene therapy was a pipedream. Fifteen years later, scientists may have just found a cure for cancer by genetic engineering.

Just classism

August 31, 2006

Gordo interprets my comment about the social mobility study’s race differential to mean,

So there is quite a bit of opportunity for mobility in the US … for white people. For African-Americans, though, income mobility is virtually nonexistent. No wonder so many white Americans believe that America is a land of unparalleled opportunity. For them, it is.

Thomas Frank and a lot of other liberals wonder why it’s so difficult to appeal to conservative, working-class whites on purely economic grounds. I think that this study contains a good part of the answer.

In fact, although white social mobility is higher than the overall figure, it’s still fairly low. There aren’t enough black people in the US to make that significant an impact. The numbers I gave for the bottom quartile are staggering, but that’s largely because that quartile has nearly equal numbers of blacks and whites; for all other quartiles, the income mobility figure is almost identical to the white-only figure.

The international comparison I gave is based on another set of data, so I can’t calculate the whites-only mobility for the US. However, the study I quoted says that the r^2 correlation between parents’ and children’s income is 0.431, of which 0.062 is due to race.

So, if you’ll allow me to engage in bad math a little bit, if the same 62:431 ratio applies to the regression coefficient, we get that for whites only, the USA’s regression coefficient is 0.47*(1-(62/431)) = 0.4, just less than in France, and significantly more than Germany. For the record, France and Germany got their figures without race correction, despite being more racist than the US.


August 31, 2006

Joe Lieberman’s campaign ran an ad depicting sunrise, which was really reversed footage of a sunset. Incredibly, some people think it’s a real issue.

The amount of voting irregularity (read: fraud) in Mexico is simply astounding. The courts apparently adhere to the philosophy that every vote should be counted, except in areas that lean toward Obrador.

Keith Olbermann decided to bash Rumsfeld in prime time, comparing him and the rest of the administration to Neville Chamberlain.

The reason 17 people in New York have died of fenatyl OD in the last 16 months compared with 200 in Chicago is that New York is a major hub for illegal drugs, so the local supply tends to have higher quality.

Britain’s going on a new binge of censorship because a sex addict watched hardcore porn and then murdered a woman (hat-tip to Avedon). Update: it’s not clear if it was murder, or consensual play gone awry. Note to my parents: if I engage in risky play and accidentally die, do not go on a moral crusade. It won’t help anyone, and I’ll be dead so I won’t care.

Racism and Classism

August 31, 2006

The Center for American Progress has a nifty study about income mobility in the US, which looks at how much there is (or, more precisely, isn’t), what factors influence it the most, how it compares over time, and so on. It also has a short international comparison, which should lay waste to the libertarian argument that the US is the land of opportunity. Read or at least skim the entire thing, but here are a few key findings:

– The regression coefficient between parents’ and children’s income is 0.47 in the US, 0.5 in the UK, 0.41 in France, 0.32 in Germany, 0.27 in Sweden, 0.19 in Canada, 0.18 in Finland, 0.17 in Norway, and 0.15 in Denmark.

– The difference between white and black social mobility is huge, so statistically significant that its p-value is 0 to 3 decimal places. Of all whites born in the bottom quartile, 32.3% stay there and 14.2% go to the top; of all blacks, it’s 62.9% and 3.6% respectively.

– While the difference between non-Hispanic whites and Hispanics (a 27% income gap) is reduced to statistical insignificance (15%, p = 0.19), such as income and education, the difference between blacks and whites is barely affected, dropping from 33% to 28% and remaining significant at p = 0 to 3 decimal places.

Among the subjects I’ve been meaning to write about is racism, and the different kinds of it in the world. This certainly strengthens my view that American racism against blacks is something unique and different from American racism against other ethnic groups, which mirrors the most common forms of racism in the rest of the Western world.


August 31, 2006

There’s a raging debate on Feministing that boils down to one participant saying that Mexican-American culture is steeped in Hispanic nationalism and anti-Anglo racism and is not integrating into American life. About the one fact that participant can cite is “a recent 2002 zogby poll 58% of hispanics agreed with the statement that ‘the territory of the united states southwest rightfully belongs to Mexico,’ 28% disagreed and 14% were unsure.”

Now that would be damning, if it were true. First, WorldNetDaily says the poll is of Mexicans, not Mexican-Americans. Second, I can’t find evidence of the poll anywhere on Zogby’s website. The most I can find on Zogby’s website is a Zogby in the Media part. In other words, someone probably made it up somewhere in order to justify hating Mexicans, and the right-wing media picked up on it.

The End Times

August 31, 2006

Hat-tip to Echidne:

[Link] In a perfect world, a reporter at last week’s press conference with George Bush and Tony Blair would have asked Bush, in the presence of his principal European ally, if he believes the European Union is the Antichrist.

Although it sounds like the kind of Pat Robertson lunacy that makes even the wingnuts run for the nearest exit, it’s a question Bush should be forced to answer. Bush and other leading Republicans have lined up behind a growing movement of Christian Zionists for whom a European Antichrist figures prominently in an end-times scenario. So they should be forced to explain to the rest of us why they’re courting the votes of people who believe our allies are evil incarnate. Could it be that the central requirement for their breathlessly anticipated Armageddon — that the United States confront Iran — happens to dovetail so nicely with the neoconservative war agenda?

At the center of it all is Pastor John Hagee, a popular televangelist who leads the 18,000-member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas. While Hagee has long prophesized about the end times, he ratcheted up his rhetoric this year with the publication of his book, “Jerusalem Countdown,” in which he argues that a confrontation with Iran is a necessary precondition for Armageddon and the Second Coming of Christ. In the best-selling book, Hagee insists that the United States must join Israel in a preemptive military strike against Iran to fulfill God’s plan for both Israel and the West. Shortly after the book’s publication, he launched Christians United for Israel (CUFI), which, as the Christian version of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee, he said would cause “a political earthquake.”

Of course, moderate Republicans would shrink at the thought. Why, of course they aren’t that bad! They support the war on Iran for secular, rational reasons! Their kill-all-Muslims rhetoric is the center between moonbats who don’t want to embark on a costly bombing that will kill many civilians and still achieve nothing, and wingnuts who want to bring on Armageddon. Except, of course, that

Republican National Committee Chair Ken Mehlman told the group that “no regime is more central to the global jihad” than Iran. Just two days before, Newt Gingrich and John McCain made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows to sound the same message, leading Benny Elon, a member of the Israeli Knesset, to comment to the Jerusalem Post that their remarks originated with Hagee.

Benny Elon may be an extremist who thinks Israel should rule both Israel and Palestine and the region’s Arab inhabitants must be thrown off to Jordan, but he’s honest. Unless I see strong evidence that McCain, that maverick who was considered a possible Kerry running mate in 2004, is not connected to Hagee, I can presume he is.

What’s really happening is that a group of powerful Christian theocrats is at one extreme. That includes McCain, whose moderate persona is as real as the liberal persona of Howard “I opposed the war on Iraq as soon as I realized it was an oil well of votes” Dean. The other extreme isn’t the left; it’s Ahmadinejad, Al Sadr, and Nasrallah.

We the people who just want to live our lives peacefully without being bombed and without bombing others for no good reason are the sensible side of all this. As far as I’m concerned, Hagee’s 18,000 followers and 18,000 followers of Sadr can go to an island and kill each other all they like.

Hagee doesn’t fear a nuclear conflagration, but rather God’s wrath for standing by as Iran executes its supposed plot to destroy Israel. A nuclear confrontation between America and Iran, which he says is foretold in the Book of Jeremiah, will not lead to the end of the world, but rather to God’s renewal of the Garden of Eden. But Hagee is ultimately less concerned with the fate of Israel or the Jews than with a theocratic Christian right agenda. When Jesus returns for his millennial reign, he tells his television audience, “the righteous are going to rule the nations of the earth When Jesus Christ comes back, he’s not going to ask the ACLU if it’s all right to pray, he’s not going to ask the churches if they can ordain pedophile bishops and priests, he’s not going to ask if it’s all right to put the Ten Commandments in the statehouses. He’s not going to endorse abortion, he’s going to run the world by the word of God The world will never end. It’s going to become a Garden of Eden, and Christ is going to rule it.”

The real question shouldn’t be directed to Bush, an unpopular President who’s becoming more and more of a lame duck as time passes. It should be to McCain: why do you support John Hagee, a man who wants to trigger conflict in Iran in order to cause Armageddon?

With any luck, the Religious Right will vote him in the primary and the issue will stick, making even Hillary Clinton electable.

Affirmative Action

August 30, 2006

I’m not going to say anything about affirmative action now, but please go to this post on the Sideshow and click on the comment thread, and see what kind of stupidity anti-AA proponents can come up with. SLC’s “Israel basher” tag is nothing compared to being asked “Since you support discrimination, what’s wrong with discrimination against black people?”.

The Capital-M Movement

August 30, 2006

Belledame’s back in business with a post about the perennial “You should moderate your lifestyle – for the good of the movement” stupidity, complete with quotes that I was sure were just a sex-positive strawman until I saw real sex-negative feminists make them.

But that’s not what this post is about; I’ve recently learned that sex-negative feminism can be safely ignored, and anyway sex-negative conservatism is way more powerful. Rather, what it’s about is Belledame’s point,

The whole “you must curb your stereotype-pandering appearance and/or lifestyle/subcultural choices for the sake of the Movement” business is, simply put, crap. It was crap when the polite suited and tied white middle-class homosexuals were pulling it on the “flaunting” drag queens and butch dykes (who were the ones getting their heads busted and their asses in the jails); it’s crap when well-heeled, well-assimilated ethnic minorities use it on their “ghetto” or “country” or “FOB” or “lazy” brethren and sistren; it was crap when the socialists of Orwell’s day were bitching out their fellow travellers for “bourgeois” practices like keeping a rose garden; and it’s crap here, too.

On the one hand, it takes a fascist to tell people that they must change a personal lifestyle that hurts nobody. It’s a basic liberal tenet that if the personal is the political, then it has to be your own choice. If you don’t want to politicize your lifestyle, it’s fascist for other people to politicize it for you. It doesn’t matter what their exact reason is: they can be governmental moralists, or movement moralists, or religious moralists, or whatever.

On the other, “these arguments are all alike and aren’t to be listened to” is a real annoyance. Suppose I think that the inclusion of ethnic minorities is misplaced since what Bill Cosby is exhorting blacks to do is very different from what sex-neg feminists exhort sex-pos feminists to do. Belledame’s framework is one that will automatically refute everything I say in defense of that view, regardless of whether it’s true.

And generally, when your argument can’t be refuted by anything, it’s already been refuted.

Porn and Rape

August 30, 2006

Anyone who has had the misfortune of arguing with a sex-negative radical feminist about anything that could tangetially be related to porn, rape, or sex, will know about all the shoddy studies purporting to prove a positive link between porn consumption and rape. Avedon Carol has done a tremendous job at refuting the main ones, but then again PZ has refuted many anti-evolution arguments and yet their supporters still promulgate them.

Now, adding to a body of studies that look at porn and rape but fail to find a positive correlation, Undernews reports a new study showing a negative correlation.

The incidence of rape in the United States has declined 85% in the past 25 years while access to pornography has become freely available to teenagers and adults. The Nixon and Reagan Commissions tried to show that exposure to pornographic materials produced social violence. The reverse may be true: that pornography has reduced social violence. . . The decline [is] steeper than the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression. . . There were 2.7 rapes for every 1,000 people in 1980; by 2004, the same survey found the rate had decreased to 0.4 per 1000 people. . .


National trends are one thing; what do the figures for the states show? From data compiled by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in 2001, the four states with the lowest per capita access to the internet were Arkansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, and West Virginia. The four states with the highest internet access were Alaska, Colorado, New Jersey, and Washington. . .

While the nationwide incidence of rape was showing a drastic decline, the incidence of rape in the four states having the least access to the internet showed an actual increase in rape over the same time period. This result was almost too clear and convincing, so to check it I compiled figures for the four states having the most access to the internet. Three out of four of these states showed declines (in New Jersey, an almost 50% decline). Alaska was an anomaly: it increased both in internet access and incidence of rape. However, the population of Alaska is less than one-tenth that of the other three states in its category.

Ann Bartow says that this study is shoddy for a variety of reasons, not including the two that, judging by what Undernews posted, are the most damning. The main problem with her criticism is that she uses the wrong set of statistics, namely the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, which details reported sexual assaults. Since only about 40% of all rapes in the US are reported, and this rate has been trending up, the UCR is worthless. The study actually uses the National Crime Victimization Survey, which blunts most of Ann’s criticisms.

That said, from what it seems, the study has two major weaknesses. First, while the American rape rate has decreased more than the general violent crime rate, it generally follows general violent crime trends. There are two exceptions, 1980-1985 and 2000-2005, when rape fell without a general decrease. I think it’s an excellent idea to investigate what happened in 1980 and 2000, but increased porn consumption probably isn’t it.

And second, the state data is a farce. Can you say “mediating variable”? More poverty leads to less net access and more rape.

Really, so far the evidence suggests that porn is connected to rape like ice cream consumption is connected to watching reality shows.

Pro-Israeli Left, Pro-Palestinian Left

August 30, 2006

In general, today being pro-Israeli is considered a right-wing position, while being pro-Palestinian is considered left-wing. In fact both are ultimately left-wing, though they clearly represent different kinds of left-wing politics. The characteristic pathologies of each side are either common to radicals of both leftist and rightist flavors or unique to the left.

First, the pro-Israeli position is not traditionally right-wing. The traditional right in every country with a visible Jewish minority is anti-Semitic: Pat Buchanan, Jean Marie Le Pen, Jörg Haider, even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The early Zionists and their allies were liberals and socialists concerned with the rights of Jews, just like the American civil rights movement was with the rights of blacks.

In fact, it’s largely an accident that the most rabid pro-Israelis in the US and Europe are right-wing, owing to several triggers, including the particular form of Evangelism that came to dominate American fundamentalism, the rise of American neo-conservatism, and the shift in the mainstream European right from hating Jews to hating Arabs.

But the pro-Israeli position is ultimately derived from an equal rights movement, and still talks like one. Telling a supporter of Israel that Israel discriminates against Arabs elicits the same reaction as telling an American civil rightist that blacks discriminate against non-blacks. Suggesting pragmatism in Israeli foreign policy elicits the same reaction as touting realism to a Western leftist.

Meanwhile, pro-Palestinians have just as much claim to leftism. Their position derives primarily from anti-imperialism. Israel in their view a colonial state dominated by white people (who, incidentally, have no compunctions about discriminating against Mizrahi Jews) that occupies a third world state and kills its civilians based on flimsy pretexts.

While part of this concern is humanitarian, the anti-imperialism left has always cared about whites killing non-whites than about non-whites killing non-whites. Israeli atrocities are relatively well-known because they happen close to the first world, like the Serbian genocide and unlike Burmese atrocities, or for that matter American atrocities in Latin America. However, this obvious bias can only account for part of the focus on Israel, since Chomsky and Said seemed to be silent on Serbia.

Some of the two sides’ pathologies are more or less universal among political movements. Allegations of media bias are a good example: the best way to know someone’s politics is to ask him what he thinks CNN’s bias is. Finding excuses for the movement’s own side’s atrocities is another.

But most pathologies are uniquely left-wing, or at least were before the right appropriated them. The civil rightist nature of Zionism leads its supporters to view any opposition to Israel as anti-Semitic, including opposition on pragmatic grounds. Martin Luther King said that pragmatism in the case of one particular march was misguided; hence pragmatism is misguided everywhere.

At the same time, the anti-Imperialist nature of pro-Palestinianism ensures that pro-Palestinians view every Israeli act as oppressive. Killing civilians is one thing; assassinating terrorists at zero civilian casualties is another. In their quest to portray Israel as a dirty aggressor, they often end up justifying Hamas as a liberation movement, or extrapolating from Israel’s collaboration with Ahmad Yassin in the 1970s that Israel engineered everything up to and including Hamas’s rise to power.

On all traditionally conservative issues – immigration, police power, gender, the military – the standard line is to appear realistic and, as a result, tough. It’s only on Israel that right-wingers start talking about root causes and eschew any form of realism. Even the justifications for violence are indistinguishable from Trotskyist apologetics.

At the same time, the pro-Palestinian left uses general anti-imperialism to inspire it to hold entirely nutty positions about Israel. Some go as far as saying that it’s an illegitimate state; many others just talk about the heroism of suicide bombing. And to date I haven’t seen any pro-Palestinian commentator attribute Israel’s problems to its incompetence rather than concoct grand conspiracy theories.

Look, Hamas is an Islamist terrorist organization. You don’t negotiate with it because you want to, but because you have to since that’s who the Palestinians elected. Self-serving bullshit about who’s braver, or who gets the shorter end of the media stick, or who started the conflict, produces among the stupidest debates I’ve ever seen.

And ranting about general goals makes just as much sense as proposing as a matter of policy that the US colonize Alpha Centauri by 2020. Think of not killing civilians as a parameter you have to work anti-terrorism policy within. But talking about the details of how to get two parties that hate each other to stop murdering each other’s civilian populations is crucial.

Manatees, on the other hand…

August 29, 2006

…are apparently smarter than previously believed. They still don’t seem sentient, I think, but they are far more intelligent than their brain-to-body-mass ratio had scientists believe.

Far from being slow learners, manatees, it turns out, are as adept at experimental tasks as dolphins, though they are slower-moving and, having no taste for fish, more difficult to motivate. They have a highly developed sense of touch, mediated by thick hairs called vibrissae that adorn not just the face, as in other mammals, but the entire body, according to the researchers’ recent work.

The entire article is worth reading, but for those of you who are too lazy or can’t access even the blog-friendly NYTimes articles for some reason, there are several crucial snippets, some of which have implications concerning my last dolphin post.

The smooth surface of the manatee’s brain — it generally has only one main vertical fissure, or sulcus, and no surface ridges to speak of — is more puzzling, Dr. Reep concedes. The brains of virtually every other mammal bigger than a small rodent show some degree of folding. And scientists have generally taken the human cortex, a study in ridges and crevasses, as a model of higher-order mental process, assuming accordingly that brain convolution is a sign of intelligence.

“I would make a guess that if you showed a manatee brain to a modern neuroscientist, to this day, most would consider that the manatee is not very smart, that idea is so ingrained,” Dr. Reep said.

But he added that scientists still know almost nothing about what drives the development of brain formation. Evolutionary lineage appears to have an influence. The brains of primates tend to have different patterns of convolution than those of carnivores, for example. And mechanical factors like brain size and the denseness of neural tissue in the cortex may play a role.

Basically, manatees evolved a low brain-to-body-mass ratio because they simply enlarged in order to provide insulation from the water and digest food more efficiently. A similar effect applies to dolphins, 20% of whose body mass is blubber, but it’s apparently far stronger in manatees.

On the other hand, I do have to take exception to the idea that the lack of prey and predators helps manatees keep intelligent. Basic body functions, such as regulating motion and detecting hunger, are something basal that intelligence is built on top of. Hunting and avoiding prey are integrated into higher cognitive functions, so removing them doesn’t remove the need to have extra brain mass.

Certainly part of human intelligence derives from our instincts as hunters and hunted. Since some of the most ingenious inventions – the bow and arrow come to mind – are based on hunting, it’s safe to assume that without the need to predate and avoid being eaten, and more importantly without the brain functions involving that need, we’d be significantly less smart.

If the manatee has high intelligence, it must have skills that are roughly analogous to hunting and avoiding being preyed on, or at least equal in complexity. For instance, it might have very good foraging skills, or have a large brain section devoted to analyzing touch (what’s the Latinate word for that anyway?). But these would likely require many neurons, synapses, and axons, which could easily be more than it actually has.

Dolphin Intelligence

August 29, 2006

Coturnix attacks the recent piece of research claiming that dolphin intelligence is vastly overestimated. For example, attacking the main notion of the paper, which is that the dolphin brain has plenty of insulating glia and relatively little cognitive gray matter, he says,

Wow! Since when are glia “insulating material”? A few years ago, for my Neuroscience class, I had to remember at least 10 functions of glia – not one of them having anything to do with insulation, or even structural support. It’s all about function – neurons and glia work together to process information. Anyway, I will blame this on the stupidity of the reporter as I doubt that anyone with such archaic ideas would ever be allowed to dissect a dolphin and publish a study in a decent journal.

It’s already been dealt with, but I’ll repeat it here: by Coturnix’s own admission, there’re glia, and there’s white matter. White matter plays a support role; glia, at least according to the paper he attacks, insulate.

Now, obviously there’s experiential evidence for dolphin intelligence. I had it in mind when I talked about the paper here for the first time. I know about the mirror test, the tool-making, and the complex play, though apparently the paper reanalyzes the whistles as a fairly simplistic thing rather than a real language.

What Coturnix is really getting at is that putting down cetacean intelligence is based on anthropomorphisms. But anthropomorphism is inevitable, in a way: evidently, we’re looking for intelligence in dolphins rather than investigating scenarios like gravity-based life (as opposed to chemical life).

In fact, the existing evidence of high cetacean intelligence is pretty anthropomorphic. Dolphins communicate more-or-less verbally; hence they’re intelligent. Dolphins use tools; hence they’re intelligent. Dolphins are smart hunters; hence they’re intelligent.

On the other hand, brain data seems pretty objective. We can take into account the difference between the way cetacean brains operate and the way primate brains operate; we can measure neurons and synapses; we can look at information processing. Cognitive data is harder to misinterpret than behavioral data.

The USA’s Economic Inequality

August 29, 2006

Rachel at Tinkerty Tonk writes about how inequality in the USA isn’t that bad. She approvingly cites the following number-fudging bit:

How we’re supposed to read this is that the USA has a very uneven income distribution, that the poorest 10% only get 39% of the median income, that the richest 10% get 210%. Compare and contrast that with the most egalitarian society amongst those studied, Finland, where the rich get 111% and the poor get 38%. Shown this undoubted fact we are therefore to don sackcloth and ashes, promise to do better and tax the heck out of everybody to rectify this appalling situation.

But hang on a minute, that’s not quite what is being shown. In the USA the poor get 39% of the US median income and in Finland (and Sweden) the poor get 38% of the US median income. It’s not worth quibbling over 1% so let’s take it as read that the poor in America have exactly the same standard of living as the poor in Finland (and Sweden). Which is really a rather revealing number don’t you think? All those punitive tax rates, all that redistribution, that blessed egalitarianism, the flatter distribution of income, leads to a change in the living standards of the poor of precisely … nothing.

In reality, of course what matters isn’t the median but the mean. The ratio of the median to the mean is an important indicator of inequality, and as it happens, the USA’s ratio appears to be really low. Going by the statistics of the 2005 Human Development report, we get the following picture:

In the USA, the poorest 10%’s average income is 19% of the national mean. In Sweden it’s 36%; in Japan it’s 48%; in Norway it’s 39%. Norway’s GDP per capita, adjusted for inflation, is about the same as the USA’s; Japan and Sweden’s are about 30% less. The Norwegian bottom decile therefore makes twice as much as the American bottom decile; the Swedish bottom decile makes almost half again; and the Japanese bottom decile makes almost twice.

Similarly, the bottom 20%’s average income is 27% of the national mean in the US, 48% in Norway, 46% in Sweden, and 53% in Japan. So the Norwegian bottom quintile makes 70% more than the American one, the Swedish bottom quintile makes 20% more, and the Japanese bottom quintile makes 45% more.

This may not apply specifically to the bottom 20%, but Swedes and Norwegians get to work less than Americans, too. The average American works 1777 hours per year, the average Japanese 1828, the average Swede 1316, and the average Norwegian 1328. So Norway not only has the same inflation-adjusted GDP per capita as the US and gives its bottom decile twice the purchasing power as in the US, but also manages to do that while working its population 25% less.

I’ve only now finally understood

August 29, 2006

There’s a lot of sociological research that shows that homemakers and people caring for elderly parents full-time suffer from abnormally high rates of depression. This doesn’t apply to people who work in domestic service or in nursing homes, who typically have separate work and family lives and who often have coworkers or employers to talk to.

In fact, something like this was the main charge of The Feminine Mystique: that the dominant social system then and there, which required that women not hold any jobs outside home or educate themselves beyond the bare minimum necessary for housewives, was mentally destructive.

Not that the plural of anecdote is data, but I can add another data point to that. Over the last 24-36 hours, I’ve finally gotten the idea of how it all works. All it takes can be 36 hours of doing nothing, and mental atrophy ensues. Obviously there’s a huge difference between 36 hours, which are largely the calm before the storm that is grad school, and 36 years, but it’s a difference of degree, not kind.

So now I finally get it. Previously, I knew the phenomenon, and I knew in a very vague sense why it happened. But now I know exactly how it happens, and just how damaging it is. First, you get bored. Then you do repetitive tasks to interest you, but after a while they become draining. A housewife cleans repeatedly; I read the same blogs over and over. Then your brain starts atrophying, and soon you would like to just sleep but can’t since you can’t sleep 24/7.

I know I’ll get over it. I have a grad student orientation in 4 hours and 20 minutes, and either way I expect to need to work 80 hours a week doing math one week from now. But the countless women pushed out of the public sphere by sexist men, doomed not to have any meaningful job simply because their prospective employers don’t like working mothers, won’t.

More on Algebraic Number Theory

August 29, 2006

I promised that I’d explain later the crucial complication with the proof that 26 is the only integer sandwiched between a square and a cube. In fact, that complication permeates the entire discipline, and the more advanced methods it uses seem to largely be about getting around it.

First, there’s the complication is that I ignored units. In a ring with 1, a unit is any element that divides 1. The element 1 is always a unit, as is -1. Similarly, two elements that divide each other, or, if you will, have a unit quotient, are called associates. It’s important with squares, because for example -4 is associated to a square, but isn’t a square itself.

In the case that uses SQRT(-2), it’s not a problem, because the only units are +/-1, are -1 is a cube. But the ring that uses SQRT(2) has infinitely many units: 1, -1, and all the multiples and quotients resulting from SQRT(2) – 1, since (SQRT(2) – 1)(SQRT(2) + 1) = 1. In fact, the degenerate solution to the equation, x = +/-1, y = -1, is based on factoring 1^2 – 2 = (-1)^3 as (1 + SQRT(2))(1 – SQRT(2)) = (-1)^3.

Although in this particular equation this is the critical complication, in fact there’s an even bigger one, which in this case fortunately works out: I didn’t prove unique factorization.

Rational integers can be factored uniquely, up to reordering and multiplying by units: 6 = 2*3 = 3*2 = (-2)(-3). No list of primes other than one associate of 2 and one associate of 3 can generate 6. You probably learned this in elementary school, though obviously you didn’t get to see any proof.

In fact, some extensions of the integers can similarly be uniquely factored, including both the SQRT(-2) and the SQRT(2) extensions. However, not all can: if you extend the integers using SQRT(-5), you get 6 = 2*3 = (1 + SQRT(-5))(1 – SQRT(-5)). All of these four factors have no factors in the ring except themselves, 1, and their associates; it’s not like 12 = 2*6 = 4*3, in which case the underlying factorization is 2*2*3.

Without unique factorization, the entire argument that both factors of a cube must be cubes if they have no factors in common falls apart. This is because what this argument relies on is writing the cube as a product of its prime factors. In plain English, 216 = 2*2*2*3*3*3; taking the factors 8 and 27, we get 8 = 2*2*2 and 27 = 3*3*3, so 8 and 27 are cubes.

Obviously, this doesn’t work anymore when there is more than one factorization. In the SQRT(-5) extension, 36 is a square, but factoring it as 2*3*(1 + SQRT(-5))(1 – SQRT(-5)), we get that 2*(1 + SQRT(-5)) and 3*(1 – SQRT(-5)) have no common factors except units, but neither is square.

Good news in Lebanon

August 28, 2006

Gordo reveals that Hezbollah is not getting as much support from the Lebanese population as they hoped for.

According to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, the militant group would not have kidnapped two Israeli soldiers if it had known that Israel would retaliate with raids that killed more than 1,000 Lebanese:

“If there was a one percent possibility, we would not have done that. We would not have done any capturing.”

After the raids in Gaza following the abduction of a soldier, it’s hard to see Israel’s incursion in Lebanon as anything other than “known response to known stimulus.” If Nasrallahh is now trying to say that Israel’s actions were unforseeable, it probably means that the people of Lebanon haven’t been as appreciative of Hezbollah’s reconstruction efforts as Nasrallah might have hoped. Maybe they resent being used as pawns in a bloody political game.

The people of southern Lebanon seem smarter than those of Israel, who mostly support the government even when it deliberately provokes Hamas in order to be able to excuse continuing the occupation.

Benedict XVI Seeks Divorce with Evolutionary Biology

August 28, 2006

Tip of the hat to PZ for bringing to our attention the fact that the Catholic Church is moving away from evolution and toward creationism, a mere decade after John Paul II declared 150 years too late that Darwinian evolution was a correct theory. Says the Grauniad,

Philosophers, scientists and other intellectuals close to Pope Benedict will gather at his summer palace outside Rome this week for intensive discussions that could herald a fundamental shift in the Vatican’s view of evolution.

There have been growing signs the Pope is considering aligning his church more closely with the theory of “intelligent design” taught in some US states.

Naturally, this is fairly surprising, since I considered Benedict, John Paul’s protégé, to be no different in his views from his predecessor, only not displaying Wojtyla’s preference for interfaith outreach and gentle rhetoric.

But just as surprising is the Grauniad’s take on it, which is as weaseling and superficially objective as this of any US paper. The Grauniad is traditionally not only unabashedly leftist but also pro-science (see e.g. here for a good evisceration of alternative medicine).

Nowhere in the article is it stated that all biologists accept evolution as a fact and virtually all accept Darwinism or a later modification of it, such as neo-Darwinism or evo-devo, as a sound theory. Not content with a he-said-she-said article, the author quotes a few people in defense of creationism but none in defense of evolution.

A prominent anti-evolutionist and Roman Catholic scientist, Dominique Tassot, told the US National Catholic Reporter that this week’s meeting was “to give a broader extension to the debate. Even if [the Pope] knows where he wants to go, and I believe he does, it will take time. Most Catholic intellectuals today are convinced that evolution is obviously true because most scientists say so.” In 1996, in what was seen as a capitulation to scientific orthodoxy, John Paul II said Darwin’s theories were “more than a hypothesis”.

In fact, Tassot is not a scientist at all; he has a philosophy Ph.D., and one creationist describes him as “President of the Cercle Scientifique et Historique (CESHE), a Catholic organization standing for the inerrancy of Scripture including, of course, creation.” While I have nothing against philosophers, I recognize that they aren’t scientists.

And, of course, “in what was seen as a capitulation to scientific orthodoxy” is a textbook example of using the passive voice for obfuscation. The subject of the sentence is crucial: creationists saw John Paul’s acceptance of evolution as a capitulation, whereas scientists cheered, or at least those who cared about the Pope’s edicts did.

The British press’s greatest strength is its lack of fear of taking sides. This exposes the reader to a variety of views, so long as he is willing to read not only the Grauniad but also the Torygraph. Without that wide spectrum of side-takers, all the British press is is a bunch of low-quality tabloids and one public outlet whose head resigns whenever it criticizes the government too much.

Voting Systems

August 28, 2006

I’m going to take a break from the algebra posts for a few hours and concentrate on a very applied area of math, electoral systems. The best-known one in the English-speaking world is, of course, plurality vote (or, if you’re a Brit, first-past-the-post): a few candidates run for office, and the one getting the most votes wins.

Electoral reforms, at least those that don’t focus on proportional representation, which is another matter entirely, generally advocate an alternative called IRV, or instant runoff vote (or alternative vote, or preference vote, again depending on the country). That’s a real shame, given that IRV is barely an improvement over plurality, and is of no use at all if you want a real multi-candidate election.

Because Anglophone countries are so used to two-party systems, in which additional parties are mere spoilers, the examples used to illustrate IRV in action tend to focus on a scenario with only two viable candidates, which is the only scenario in which IRV works.

You may have seen the following configuration: 45% of the voters are Republicans, 40% are Democrats, and 15% are Greens. In plurality, the 15% are sufficiently pissed off at the Democrats that they vote Green, guaranteeing the Republicans a victory. In IRV, they vote Green > Democratic > Republican, so their candidate is dropped and his support goes to the Democrats, guaranteeing them victory.

The number of bloggers who stop at that special case is astounding. To show that IRV helps, you need to pick one of two paths: the empirical path, which involves showing that IRV has changed politics for the better where it is used (which it hasn’t), and the theoretical path, which involves showing that IRV is sound in general.

In fact, IRV is not sound at all in general. First, the spoiler effect is fully revived when a third party becomes viable. If in the example above, the Greens siphon 10% from the Democrats and 3% from the Republicans, we get the same situation, with the Democratic candidate winning 58-42 in the second round.

Now, suppose that 3% of the Republican voters want to ensure that the Republican wins nonetheless, by voting G > R > D instead of R > D > G. The first round result then becomes 39 R, 30 D, 31 G, and the Democrat is dropped. Since in such a situation the remaining Democrats will likely be fairly centrist, it’s safe to assume at least half of them put R in second place, throwing the electing to the Republicans.

Plurality has its problems, but at least you can’t make a candidate win in it by voting against him.

Even without pernicious tampering like that, there’s a serious spoiler effect. Suppose that the above situation with the Republican winning is in fact the voters’ true preferences, that is that the Greens get 31% and their second-place votes are 28-3 Democratic. These 28% are in effect spoilers now, since their preference for the Democrat over the Republican no longer registers; to register it they must vote D > G > R instead, just like in plurality.

There are serious alternatives to plurality, but they are used by experts more than by reformers. Approval vote seems to be the mathematicians’ choice; it has a fairly good and intuitive strategy for deciding who to approve, and it never gives voters the incentive to approve a candidate but disapprove a candidate they like more.

Range voting gives the voters more choice than any other voting system; unfortunately, strategizing about where to place candidates except the most- and least favored could be the dictionary definition of “complicated.”

Condorcet is a good system that allows you to rank the candidates, and only starts breaking down in a very restricted case; not only must the election feature at least three viable candidates, but also there have to be at least two disjoint political axes with each candidate’s voters displaying specific perceptions of which is more important.

For an example of the above with Condorcet, consider Mexico, which has a center-right corrupt party (PRI), a less corrupt rightist party (PAN), and a less corrupt leftist party (PRD). In theory, if Mexico used Condorcet instead of plurality, it could break down if PRD and PRI voters’ second choices were PRI and PAN respectively based on ideology, and PAN voters’ was PRD based on non-corruption. In practice, what happens is that the PAN’s second choice is based on ideology as well; the voters’ choices are less clear, but I think PRD and PAN voters have equal proportions of PRI-second-choicers.

Algebraic Number Theory

August 28, 2006

After explaining one elementary technique in number theory, I should write about what motivates some of the basic ideas of algebraic number theory by means of a somewhat more complicated proof, namely that 26 is the only integer sandwiched between a square and a cube.

In order to find other numbers similarly sandwiched, we need to solve each of the equations x^2 + 2 = y^3 and x^2 – 2 = y^3. Apart from a few degenerate solutions in which x or y is zero, we only know one integer solution: x = +/-5, y = 3, which corresponds to 25 and 27.

This time, we can’t take quadratic residues, because of that pesky third power. All we can do is tell that x and y are odd; if one is even and one is odd, then the equations say that an odd number and an even number are equal, whereas if they’re both even, then we have a problem since y^3 is divisible by 8, whereas x^2 +/- 2 isn’t even divisible by 4.

It would be great if we could factor the left-hand side… which is a problem, since neither 2 nor -2 is a perfect square. But let’s forget about that hurdle for the moment and try factoring anyway.

We have x^2 + 2 = (x + SQRT(-2))(x – SQRT(-2)). So instead of working just with regular integers – which I’ll call rational integers because they’re all rational numbers – we can work with regular integers, plus the square root of -2. In particular, we work with the set {a + b*SQRT(-2): a and b are integers}, consisting of numbers like 5, 3 + SQRT(-2), -3 – 4SQRT(-2), etc. Since it’s possible to add, subtract, and multiply numbers like this normally, this set forms a ring.

Now, let’s look at the two factors, (x + SQRT(-2)) and (x – SQRT(-2)), a little more closely. In particular, let’s look at any common divisors they have, except the trivial ones 1 and -1. Any common divisor will have to divide their difference, 2SQRT(-2) = -SQRT(-2)^3. So this common divisor is SQRT(-2), 2, or 2SQRT(-2), which is divisible by SQRT(-2).

That means that x + SQRT(-2) is divisible by SQRT(-2), or, if you will, that x is divisible by SQRT(-2). But x/SQRT(-2) = (x/2)SQRT(-2), and we’ve already proven that x is odd, so there’s a contradiction, and the two factors have no common divisors.

If they have no common divisors, then they’re both cubes. This is fairly common sensical: any prime factor that divides the first factor has to divide y^3. So its cube must divide y^3, too, which means it divides the first factor, or else the first and second factor are both divisible by that prime.

So there’s a number, call it a + bSQRT(-2), such that (a + bSQRT(-2))^3 = x + SQRT(-2). Expanding the left-hand side, we get that a^3 + 3a^2*bSQRT(-2) – 6ab^2 – 2b^3*SQRT(-2) = x + SQRT(-2). Both the rational-integer and the SQRT(-2) parts must be equal, so we have 3a^2*b – 2b^3 = 1, where a and b are rational integers.

Now we have enough to apply simpler tricks. The left-hand side is divisible by b, so b has to be +/-1. If it’s -1, then we get -3a^2 + 2 = 1, or 3a^2 = 1, which is absurd since a is a rational integer. If b = 1, then we have 3a^2 – 2 = 1, or 3a^2 = 3, which means a = +/-1.

If a = 1, then (a + SQRT(-2))^3 = -5 + SQRT(-2), so x = 5. Similarly, if a = -1, then x = -5. Then y = 3 and we get 26.

We can do exactly the same thing with the other equation, only this time we work with SQRT(2). All the steps work exactly the same, only we end up with 3a^2*b + 2b^3 = 1. In that case, b = 1 gives 3a^2 = -1, a contradiction, and b = -1 gives 3a^2 = -3, another contradiction.

So 26 is really the only number sandwiched between a square and a cube… supposedly. I say “supposedly” because I lied to you a bit – actually, there’s one or two very important things left to check that I didn’t check here. In this case they work, but they don’t have to, and I need to show that they work. But that’s for next time.

Terrorist Organizations

August 28, 2006

Via Majikthise: a New York businessman was arrested for making the Hezbollah TV station available in the area on the grounds that this constitutes dealing with a terrorist organization. The BBC has the story:

A US businessman has been charged with offering broadcasts of Hezbollah’s al-Manar satellite television station to customers in the New York-area.

Javed Iqbal, originally from Pakistan, is accused by prosecutors of doing business with a terrorist entity.

A lawyer representing Mr Iqbal said he knew of no other case where a person had been accused of breaking US law by offering access to news outlets via satellite dish.

Prosecutor Stephen A Miller had argued against granting him bail, indicating more charges were likely to be filed.

“The charge lurking in the background is material support for terrorism,” the Associated Press news agency quotes him as saying.

There’s a certain hypocrisy that lurks behind the conventional definitions of crime and terrorism, which in effect restrict them to crime committed by poor people and terrorism committed by non-state organizations. Commenting on Majikthise, Dabodius justifies that arrest on the grounds that “Hezbollah is still designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S., among other reasons because it has killed more Americans than any other such organization except Al Qaeda. Their welfare operation and the votes they get are irrelevant to their status as a terrorist organization which bombed a JCC and Israeli embassy in Argentina, and was rocketing Israeli cities this very month.”

This argument makes a lot of sense, provided that you’re willing to scrap the idea of free speech and apply the same reasoning to every organization that causes harm. But unless you’re okay with India cracking down on anyone who deals with Coke, the US cracking down on anyone who deals with big tobacco, Mexico cracking down on anyone who deals with Monsanto, and Iran cracking down on anyone who deals with BP, you’re a hypocrite. All of these destroyed many more lives than Hezbollah through greed and criminal negligence, and yet I don’t see anyone refer to them as terrorist organizations.

PZ Myers talks about the IOKIYAC defense – “it’s okay if you’re a Christian” (for example, it’s okay for a pharmacist to refuse to hand out medicine to people based on a political ideology if he’s a conservative Christian). IOKIYAC applies here too, only now C stands for corporation.