Archive | April 2014

Clearing the Air

The US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the EPA on regulating coal pollution.  Somewhat surprising was that it was a 6-2 vote w/ Alito recusing himself.  Unsurprisingly the 2 dissenting were Scalia and Thomas.  Roberts is turning out to be an interesting justice.  Definitely conservative, but not the anti-liberal type Scalia and Thomas are.  Lots of other important cases are going to be coming out.  I hope he continues to be more reasonable than I expect.  Especially since I think Kennedy might be more likely to go that route as well if he has another conservative to follow.

Updated Military

The US’s military budget is large. Very large. In terms of people it is the second largest. So where does the money go? I’m not going to pretend to understand it all. Certainly sending people to distance locations to fight is expensive. Certainly there is waste. I sometimes wonder how much it would cost to do something different. What if the military was not dedicated to fighting, but to public service?
Fighting is important of course. Gotta be able to defend our corporate interests. But the fights today aren’t enough. Stability is what’s needed, not something fighting tends to bring (except for the complete annihilation type, but that’s not looked kindly about these days). So what brings stability? Infrastructure. Services. Supplies. Work. Things much of the US could use a bit more of too. So why not have a military that can bring all those to whatever foreign local we want to control and also to domestic locals?
Yes we already have civic departments that are supposed to help with those things. And the military does help with some civic projects. But why not more? How many private contractors get payed bloated amounts to do things our military does? We have a highly organized and trained established armed force that gets asked to fight and protect people and then when they’re done, they get ignored. How many veterans could be helped by having continued service aiding in bettering the US at home? How much better would many of our troops in training be served if they go to practice some of those nation building skills at home first?  Wouldn’t that be a better investment than fancy toys that are irrelevant to most modern warfare?
I realize this isn’t very specific or necessarily coherent. This just seems like a situation where several problems could solve each other.

Rage and saddness

They say some people want to burn down the world. Right now I can sympathize.



Abortion is a topic that has engaged a fair bit of my time.  Despite this, I have trouble putting my thoughts down regard it.  One problem is that my stance on abortion is quite straightforward.  I see nothing immoral inherit in it.  Not really a fascinating read that, though a rather controversial one.  The other problem is that so many others have written or talked about abortion much more skillfully than I can hope to.  The best I suspect I can do for now would be to explain why have the view I do when so many do not.

I arrived at my current view only after a lot of exposure to the debate around the topic.  The first stance I ever had on abortion was to be against it without exception.  I had that stance because that’s the one I was told to have.  I don’t mean someone explicitly told me to be against it, but I heard enough people say it is wrong without any counter-point to believe it.  Conveniently I didn’t have to think about it.  Eventually I did though.  I encountered some counter-point, found out that some people didn’t think it was a horrible sin only committed by evil harlots.  I won’t give a step by step account of my evolution.  I’m sure I wouldn’t remember ever step.  The most important contributions I think would be my departure from religion and my education, mainly in biology but not exclusively.

Without religion telling me what was right and wrong I had two choices.  Either hang onto the morality I had and rationalize it, or re-examine and redefine my morality.  I did the latter.  Eventually.  It took a while because it was a while before anything challenged the anti-choice view I had.  However, when it did, the rationalization I had didn’t match with what I had come learn.  Anyone familiar with the debate about abortion would recognize the rationals.  Abortion is wrong because it’s killing a living human.  Wrong to kill a living human?
I’m not a pacifist.  I can understand that viewpoint to an extent.  It has a certain consistency and coherence, even the absolute pacifism that holds it is wrong to harm another being even if it is in defense.  That’s not a common position taken by those who argue against abortion though.  So what is actually meant?  Most of the explanations I’ve seen amount to a type of special pleading with either a dash of religion and/or biological ignorance.  ie. humans are special because they are ensouled/unique/smart and a fetus has arbitrary and possibly non-existent trait an adult has, so it is the same as an adult.  I’m sure many who are anti-choice would object to that characterization, in which case I’d welcome a novel justification.

But that’s only half the problem.  Perhaps there is a coherent and honest argument out there for why it would be wrong to kill a fetus.  But to say it means abortion is wrong, it has to reach an even higher bar.  It would have to mean the killing of that fetus is more wrong than a human person having that fetus in and feeding off of ir body against ir will.  Again I’m not an absolute pacifist, self-defense is fine with me.  And even then we aren’t quite done with the raised bars.  Wrong and “should be illegal” do not overlap completely.  So the anti-choice must also show that abortion is a wrong that the government should have an interest in preventing. (That’s to convince me.  I’m afraid the government has rather different criteria on being convinced regarding legal matters.)

Right now I’ll give things a .1 out of 2.5.  That’s because I do think some reasonable arguments could be made that causing the death of a fetus late in its development is wrong.  That doesn’t carry much weight however, since abortions only happen at such late times when something has gone horribly wrong and even if that were not the case they still wouldn’t be more wrong than using another’s body against ir will.


Saudi Arabia has reported an increase in the number of people with MERS.  This is not something to worry about in and of itself.  An increase in reported infections does not mean more infections.  It may, but it is just as likely that doctors are just looking for it more now that they know to do so. And finding out there are more people getting infected than previously observed could also show us that the mortality rate isn’t as high as the current reported rate (~1/3).

There is concern that MERS will end up behaving like SARS did and become a global epidemic.  So far this hasn’t happened, in part because it doesn’t seem to transmit between people very easily and might also not actually be that deadly.  With the early scrutiny being placed on MERS it is unlikely to become a problem even if it does mutate.  Except for one heightened risk factor: pilgrimages.  If the virus mutates to become more communicable amongst people, it will be much more difficult to control its spread with a lot of people entering and leaving Saudi.  If MERS does mutate, will Saudi and other countries be willing (or even able) to put in place the same controls that helped contain SARS, especially if they would interfere with the Haj and other pilgrimages?

More unsuprising news

The US is an plutocracy with a democratic facade.


Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business
interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens
and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide
substantial support for theories of Economic Elite Domination and for theories of Biased
Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism.

It seems to be an interesting read.  I’ve mostly only skimmed it so far.  The methodology is lacking some precision, but they are at least up front about that.  Some questions that come to my mind are: How do you control for voter turn out when considering Majoritarian Electoral Demorcary and how do we change things?  Given that just over half of the eligible electorate actually participates in elections, there seems to be a possible disconnect between the general public’s interest and the voting public’s interest.  In fact, voter turnout is biased in many ways.  So that leads to the question: do those who actually vote influence policy, even if the general public does not?  If they do, then the answer to my second question is to get more people to vote.  I don’t know how to do this.  I know many people are apathetic, many because they don’t see their vote as influencing policy.  This attitude might be self-fulfilling.  Otherwise, getting money out of politics might help.  I won’t be holding my breath waiting for that.

h/t: Ophelia

Echo chambers of hate

The Southern Poverty Law Center has a report that isn’t much of a surprise.  Many places on the internet serve as an echo chamber.  Like attracts like after all.  If the attraction is that of hating, then such a space will serve to bolster that hate.  This can certainly occur in meatspace, but as many have observed, the internet seems to lessen many people’s inhibitions, making them feel free of consequences.  At a hate based site, such as those reported on, do the feeling free of consequences and echo chamber effects act synergistically?  What is it that tips people over into murderer mode?  From first impressions, it seems like these individuals have lost any personal purpose, and then through a viscous cycle become obsessed with hate.  It seems like the various law enforcement and security agencies about would do well with keeping an eye on these sites for those who seem to be finding purpose at them.

And who at these sites have more purpose than those who run them?  I suspect these people are the least likely to actually go out and start killing, but they seem to be complicit, just as the leader of any terrorist organization.  Yet they claim they don’t support or condone such actions, so far avoiding consequences.

NSA bleeding hearts

Bloomberg reports that the the NSA has been using the heartland bug to do some of their spying.  As the article points out, the spy agency has to make a choice in how it is trying to protect people’s security.  Do they inform the people who can fix it of the bug, or do they exploit it to gain information?  Someone has to make the call of which would better serve general security, and not knowing the relevant details I can’t fault making the choice either way.  However, the NSA would have a lot more credibility with me if they were more transparent about what they have done.  They say they weren’t using the heartbleed exploit, which may be true.  Based on their track record of denying doing thing that are then revealed they did I’m not inclined to trust them.  I don’t expect them to publicize what they are doing, but once called out on something, being honest about it would at least make them seem less villainous.



Growing organs

There are a couple of new reports out today of lab-grown organs being successfully transplanted into people.  The organs in question are a vagina and a nose.  So far all lab-grown organs that have been transplanted are relatively simple, using only one or two types of cells and with the primary function being structural.  Progress beyond this point faces the problem of figuring out how to get more cell types to fit together in more intricate ways so that the organ’s proper function can be performed.  I suspect that for many more complex organs, aside from simply growing the cells and getting them in the right configuration, a training period will also be needed.  None of our organs start out at 100% function.  They go through a long development period before they are let loose.  I think figuring out the right way to train an organ is going to be as important as just getting all the cells together.


Articles in question: