28 February 2006

On the Backs of the Poor

One thing that you have to admire is the mindless gall with which a supposedly pro-business Republican Administration can ride roughshod over contract law when it comes to the public sector. Consider that Medicare has decided to cut back its reimbursements for psychological services - get this - retroactively. Now I can understand the need to save money, and the need to change a reimbursement schedule. But the heart of Capitalism is that "a deal is a deal." Changing the deal after the fact between private parties is a tort, in this case a breach of contract, which is an invitation to a lawsuit by the damaged party. Were I running a psychological services center, I would refuse to refund the money. I would also refuse to take any new Medicare clients until the matter is resolved.

But this attitude of, "We can do what we want, we're the government," doesn't end there. Consider that it is not unusual for the Social Security Administration to make errors in determining how much money a recipient should get, and further, to fail to discover the error for months or even years. Upon discovery, it is standard procedure to demand immediate back payment, with interest, of any excess amount given in error to the recipient. If the recipient were a business, then the recipient's accounting department could have detected the error and notified the Social Security Administration. But businesses don't get Social Security. People do. And often enough, the person getting Social Security is living a hand-to-mouth existence. There is no way he or she is going to be able to decipher the complex formulae that would show that the pittance he or she is receiving is too great. There is also no way that he or she going to set aside some portion of that pittance as insurance against some bureaucrat's miscalculation. In other words, it is perfectly reasonable to warn him or her that the pittance is about to be reduced. But it is not reasonable to ask for any of it back.

Instead, I recommend improving the system so that the bureaucrats don't screw up as often. If I were part of the Administration I would seek to make government a little less high-handed when dealing with the down on their luck.

26 February 2006

Edge of the Sword

In Christendom it is now Transfiguration Sunday, five days after the Golden Dome of the al-Askari shrine in Samarra was heavily damaged by a gang of bombers. The BBC reports that no organization has come forward to claim responsibility for the attack. Iraq is balanced on the edge of a sword. If it loses its balance or falls apart, the descent into the chaos of a civil war like that which plagued Lebanon for 15 years will be swift and bloody. But there are signs of hope. The Iraqi government has instituted a curfew, and both Shiite and Sunni religious leaders have united in their prohibition of further violence.

There is also a sign of despair. It is not that the joint declaration from the Shiite and Sunni leaders calls for the US to leave Iraq on a specified timetable. It is that they have made no such call for the exit of al-Qaeda, the organization that probably carried out the bombing of the Golden Dome. It is al-Qaeda that has the greatest interest in civil war in Iraq. They would exploit it by providing soldiers for one of the Sunni factions, hoping to achieve dominance in the Sunni provinces. The attack is certainly in line with their recent behavior. "Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia" (as they call themselves) have a history of reaching too far in their use of violence.

Let us look for a Transfiguration in Iraq. Yes, surely the Western troops must leave when the time is ripe. But just as surely, the time is now ripe for the Iraqis themselves to show al-Qaeda the door. It should be clear enough from this incident that al-Qaeda is not the friend of anyone in Iraq, Shia or Sunni, and that further toleration of their presence will only bring more blood, destruction, and desecration.

23 February 2006

For the Beauty of the Earth

I suppose a sufficiently obtuse scientist could concoct a post hoc explanation of why the appreciation of beauty is beneficial to our species, and how it is therefore a product of unguided evolution. But so many species do just fine without such appreciation. No, I rather think our ability to appreciate beauty in such an astounding variety of forms is a gift, as we sing in the hymn:

For the beauty of the earth,
For the beauty of the skies,
For the love which from our birth,
Over and around us lies:

Christ, our Lord, to you we raise
This our sacrifice of praise.

Sometimes, to regain our perspective, we need to turn off the news, let go of our inner voices and thoughts, and just see, just feel.

22 February 2006

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Does Not Exist

One wonders what to do about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is widely rumored to be President of Iran. Recently he is reported to have denied the Holocaust, and in so doing, to have claimed that those who acknowledge the Holocaust (or Shoah in Hebrew) are idolaters, because, in his words, "they hold it higher than God himself, religion itself and the prophets themselves."

It is useless to point out that the Holocaust is better documented than God, religion, and the prophets (we have photographs of the Holocaust, for example). It is useless to point out that there are still living human witnesses to the Holocaust (both victims and perpetrators), while there are no such witnesses to the prophets. Why is this so? Because we humans don't usually dig out the facts for ourselves on every subject of controversy. We make an estimate as to the believability of a truth-claim, and then move on, because we just don't have the time. A short-cut to that estimate is to see if someone you trust and respect as an authority accepts that truth-claim. It is this particular short-cut that dominates traditional societies. So much does it dominate, that a buddy of mine models the spreading of opinion in such societies as a "one-shot Nash demand game" in which the status of one party relative to another determines the direction and likelihood of belief-propagation.

Thus, presenting evidence of the Holocaust won't sway Mahmoud, or his co-believers. Neither I, nor anyone who is not a high-ranking Iranian mullah, have the required status to convince. So, the Virtual Church of the Blind Chihuahua is left with one alternative: we must realize that the evidence for the Holocaust is just as compelling as the evidence for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, himself. In other words, by the standard of evidence prevalent in Iran ...

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does not exist.

I know that this may be hard to accept, but consider that Ahmadinejad, by promulgating a lie (i.e., that the Holocaust didn't happen) brings discredit to his professed religion of Islam. After all, if he should believe such a lie, and teach others to believe it, then one cannot be absolutely sure that he has embraced Islam out of a desire for and knowledge of truth. Therefore, who would have it in their interest for such a man to exist and to be President of Iran? The Jews!

Yes, once again, those super-clever, super-subtle super-beings have duped the Islamic World. The thing known as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not a human, but a Golem! Essentially a Golem is a robot, which is created by, and serves the will of its Jewish master. And we know the Jews can make Golems, because their own literature says they can. In this case, it is clear that the Ahmadinejad Golem has been made by Israel's super-secret Mossad in order to goad the United States into striking against Iran (which would threaten its nuclear energy/weapons complex and its glorious Revolution), and to discredit its Islam.

O People of Iran, you are in peril! Awaken to the danger! Unmask this impostor and be free!

19 February 2006

Less So Intelligent Design

On the positve side, advocates of Intelligent Design try to use concepts from Information Theory that are divorced from physical reality. That is, information is physical - physical interactions must take place for information to be created, moved, or destroyed. And, contrary to the assertions of at least one ID supporter (William Dembski), all three things can happen to information. But that's the positive side. In this post, I want to look at the negative side: the arguments made by the IDers against Evolution.

First, they try to use the notion of irreducible complexity. This is the notion that if you take a part away from a machine, and it stops functioning at all, then that part could not have evolved from nothing through a series of small changes. They try to apply this to biological systems, heedless of its fallacy. For one thing, consider that a substitute, but inferior, part could make the machine work almost as well. There could be a whole sequence of such parts, stretching back into the past. Indeed there could be such sequences for every part of the machine, such that at some prior time, the machine looked and functioned rather differently. Such is the case with living things and their multiplicity of subsystems and parts, many of which are redundant, and many of which are flawed. (Indeed, the theory of systems with multiply redundant, flawed parts seems to account well for the phenomenon of aging.)

Second, they try to show that there simply hasn't been enough time since the beginning of the biosphere (about 4 billion years ago) for life as we know it to have arisen. They note the billions of parts of a DNA molecule, and point out that, given known mutation rates, random mutations could not account for the diversity of life that we now see. However, as I pointed out in my previous post on ID, mutations do not occur randomly. On this planet they are constrained by the stereochemistry of carbon compounds in solution in water. The process of change by mutation is neither random, nor even Markov. DNA , RNA, and their precursors, interacting with their environment are essentially computers with memory. Thus evolution proceeds far faster than the IDers (or most advocates for evolution) give it credit.

So, while evolution is an observed process, and people have testable theories concerning how it happens, ID is not yet one of those theories. It is instead an intellectual and political power-grab by people who would rather believe a comforting myth than stare into the abyss of uncertainty. In particular, by trying to force its way into school curricula, it is an attempt by my fellow believers to co-opt the temporal power of the state to shore up the weakness of their faith.

Well, we in Western Civilization have been down that road before. We have fought our way through the Protestant Reformation and the bloody wars of religion that followed. We should all know by now that when the power of Faith gets in bed with the power of the Government, their union breeds monsters. This is a simple fact of the Human Condition, and it applies to all religions, whether, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or Secularist.

14 February 2006

Anticipation of Reward

I still remember the afternoon, over 40 years ago, when I came home after just finishing the First Grade. I had worked a good fraction of my life for this day, and I had been successful - I was an "A" student. The entire summer, days without number, lay ahead for me to play, to explore, to discover. The greens of the leaves and the grass, the blue of the sky were vivid, intense, like walking in a dream. And the dream lasted the rest of the day.

"There is a circuit in your brain for that," remarked my wife, who is studying psychology. "Essentially it is activated when you expect to experience a reward - something that you will enjoy. It makes you feel simultaneously alert, confident and happy, which in turn enables you to engage in the kind of exploratory, seeking behavior that is needed to get that reward. It's the same circuit that is hihacked by heroin and other addictions."

Yes, indeed. I was anticipating a whole summer. And then a darker thought intruded.

"It's probably also the same circuit that triggers when a suicide bomber is about to blow himself up. He expects Heaven," I said. "It explains why they often smile when they do it. Or so various jihadi websites claim."

Well, that was a downer. We changed the subject to something more fitting to the occasion.

Happy Valentine's Day.

12 February 2006

Not So Intelligent Design

"Why do the heathen rage so furiously together, and why do the people imagine a vain thing?" Rather than read that line in context in the Bible, try listening to Handel's version of it in his oratorio, The Messiah." Now we are ready to talk about the controversy over Intelligent Design (ID) as an alternate theory to Evolution.

My grad school buddy Adrian Melott once wrote, Intelligent Design is Creationism in a Cheap Tuxedo, which I fear is true of most of its advocates. Now, don't get me wrong. I would love to see a real theory of Intelligent Design - a mathematical/logical framework that would enable me to methodically estimate the probability that a given object is natural or artificial, that is made by artifice, according to some design. A way to tell whether a stone is just a stone, or the earliest handmade tool. Today we use various arguments to convince ourselves one way or the other, but we have no formal theory.

One of ID's brightest advocates, William Dembski, seems to start toward such a theory, in his online article, Intelligent Design as a Theory of Information. In it, he sketches the concept of Complex Specified Information (CSI) - which involves Actualization, Exclusion, and Specification. Actualization means that a possibility has been realized. Exclusion means that possibility excludes many other possibilities. Specification means that the possibility matches a pattern that is given independently of and prior to the possibility itself.

Since exclusion is measured in terms of probability, i.e., the likelihood that the possibility could have occurred by chance, Dembski adopts the standard convention in information theory that the amount of information in an event is proportional to the negative of the logarithm (to the base 2) of the probability of the event's happening by chance. The base 2 is a nod to the idea that information can be reckoned in terms of binary digits or bits. But the log has significance in physics that Dembski ignores in his short article - the formula relating information in a system to the probability of the system being in the configuration in which it is found is related (by a sign change) to the Entropy of the system. More about this in a moment.

Dembski goes on to say:
Natural causes are therefore incapable of generating CSI. This broad conclusion I call the Law of Conservation of Information, or LCI for short. LCI has profound implications for science. Among its corollaries are the following: (1) The CSI in a closed system of natural causes remains constant or decreases. (2) CSI cannot be generated spontaneously, originate endogenously, or organize itself (as these terms are used in origins-of-life research). (3) The CSI in a closed system of natural causes either has been in the system eternally or was at some point added exogenously (implying that the system though now closed was not always closed). (4) In particular, any closed system of natural causes that is also of finite duration received whatever CSI it contains before it became a closed system.

Not so fast, Dr. Dembski. There is a related law in physics, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says that Entropy must always increase, which it seems to do in the Universe as a whole. But there are localized regions in the Universe in which Entropy can decrease for a time due to a large input of Energy. One of these is the surface of the earth, on which the biosphere decreases its Entropy by means of the input of a huge amount of sunlight. Now the Entropy of a system is just an expression of the disorder in the system, which is the probability that the system would be in some actualized state by chance. In other words, Entropy is the negative of Information. And, since Entropy is physical, so is Information, and any theory of information must be constrained by what we already know about physics. (Actually, it goes much deeper than this: the scientifically inclined who have Adobe Reader can read Quantum Information is Physical by Di Vincenzo, et al.)

Since we know that Entropy can decrease locally for a time, we know that Information can increase locally for a time. That is to say, there is nothing in the article cited above that necessitates a Designer for CSI to originate and grow on earth, at least for a while, say as long as the sun keeps shining, and the globe remains habitable. To put it simplistically, if the earth is getting more intelligent, it is because the sun is getting dumber.

In fact, this may be true of the entire Universe, which seems to have begun in an extremely low-Entropy, high-symmetry (high Information) state. The generation of what appears to us to be CSI in the Universe is merely the creation of temporary, relatively low-entropy regions of the Universe, such as earth's biosphere, such as ourselves. Or more accurately, what appears to be Complex Specified Information in our DNA is actually not specified, at least not in advance by a Designer.

To see this, consider that once you have a self-replicating molecule (DNA, RNA, or some prior molecule or molecules), you have a computer. By replicating or failing to replicate under different circumstances, it processes information about what allows it to replicate and what doesn't. If variations can occur in the molecule, it can essentially learn to replicate better in its environment, and it can learn to adapt to changes in its environment. Since learning involves structural change in the molecule, it keeps a kind or record of its past configurations. Now, sometimes parts of the record might get lost, and extraneous stuff might get in, but generally speaking the molecule (or more precisely, the current generation of the molecule) constitutes a record of its path of changes through time.

Because the molecule is subject to the laws of physics, its stereochemistry (its 3D structure and how it interacts with other molecules because of its 3D structure and their 3D structures) is constrained. That is to say, not all variations are possible, and in particular, once it has gone down one path of changes, many other paths become less accessible, because its structure now no longer permits those variations.

The forgoing two paragraphs imply that this process of changes cannot be strictly random, because the laws of physics and chemistry make it impossible for the variations in the molecule's structure to be completely random. Moreover, because the past changes in structure limit the possible (and the likely) future variations in the molecule's structure, the temporal process of successive variations is not even Markov. (In a Markov process, the current state of a system embodies all the information about a system - the future of the system is independent of its state at any other time in the past.)

Now this sequence of variations of molecular structure is the evolution of the molecule, which if the molecule is DNA, means that the evolution (variation of form through time) of life is neither random nor Markov. In other words, strict Darwinism is false - but what did you expect? Darwin knew nothing of DNA. On the other hand evolution is not a theory but a process which has been observed under controlled conditions, such as dog-breeding. What is theoretical about it is the details of how it happens.

So far, we see that Evolution is not equivalent to Darwin's idea of natural selection of the fittest random variations of living forms. Rather it is eqivalent to natural and/or artificial (in the case of breeding) selection of non-random and non-Markovian variations of living forms (and the biomolecular computers which generate and encode them). Essentially the biomolecular computers are mechanisms for turning inputs of energy into temporary and local decreases of entropy (increases of information). In other words, it is not necessarily the case that the information in our human DNA is specified by a Designer. Physics and chemistry may have brought about the first very simple biomolecular computers with some low but not infinitesimal probability, and then the biomolecular computers and their environment did the rest. There may be no CSI in humans as biological entities. It would not be the first time that humanity has had to dethrone itself.

But what about that low-entropy, high-information, priveleged state in which the Universe appears to have begun. Who specified that? Well, the state was a quantum vacuum state. Such states are characterized by so-called vacuum oscillations, in which virtual particle-antiparticle pairs spontaneously pop out of the vacuum and recombine to their original nothingness before the Time-Energy Uncertainty Principle is violated. In layman's terms this means that the original quantum vacuum state contained the virtual possibility of everything and its opposite. What changed this state was the spontaneous breaking of certain symmetries as the Universe expanded and cooled. The broken symmetries guaranteed that not all of the opposites would arise to cancel out all of everything. The universe began to differentiate into what we see today.

This rather dramatic over-simplification of current cosmological theory is I hope still reasonably faithful to the original. If so, it tends to support the Hindu/Buddhist idea of the "Ten Thousand Things" falling out of the original perfect unity of All in All. On the other hand, the emergence of the Universe itself, and the cosmic radiation from the Big Bang tends to add support to the Judeo-Christian, "Let there be Light." Or maybe not. The point is that I still see no logical/physical necessity for an Intelligent Designer. As a Christian, I happen to believe there is One, and that I experience His Presence, but here I stand to say that so far, I don't think Dembski has proved His/Her/Its existence.

Of course, the concept of Complex Specified Information is not all there is to Intelligent Design theory. But then, I'm not done with ID yet. It's just that this article is long enough for tonight.

06 February 2006

Cartoon Jihad

You may have noticed that there is a Cartoon Jihad taking place in Europe over some cartoons published in Denmark that insulted the global Jihaddicts (aka the Bastard Jihad, because their violent jihad is illegitimate, even under Islamic Law).

This is more than a series of violent protests calling for the blood of Westerners. This is war against one of the core values of the West: the right to engage in political expression. You see, the cartoons were meant not to insult God or the Prophet, but to insult the Jihaddicts themselves. In response, the Jihaddicts commit idolatry by failing to distinguish between what insults them and what insults the object of their devotion. Perhaps this is because they do not actually worship God, but rather they worship their own desires and rages, from which they produce an idol of their imaginations.

The cartoon insult was a political expression. And even if it were also a religious expression, one other thing can be said about it. Freedom of expression, including religious expression, and especially political expression, is a core value of Western Liberal Democracy. And this is not the first time it has been attacked.

The first time (in this wave) was when the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa calling for the murder of Salman Rushdie, who had written The Satanic Verses, a novel which does tweak some cultural sensitivities of Muslims, but mostly which insults Khomeini. Now the attempt by a head of one state to have a law-abiding citizen of another state murdered, is an act of war. Fundamentally, it was an act of war against the West itself. That was the moment when Britain, Europe, the United States, and even Latin America should have banded together, invaded Iran, and deposed the regime. (Ah, but the moment has passed. War is no longer an advisable way to deal with Iran, mostly because peaceful paths have become available with the current generation of Iranian people, and they deserve exploration.)

Another core value, not just of Western Liberal Democracy, but of humanity in general, is fairness - a sense of balance. Why is it that these Jihaddicts can become so enraged when anyone engages in political speech against them, while at the same time, the Jihaddicts utter all sorts of calumny against Jews, Christians, Israel, America, Britain, Europe, and the West in general? They are also at war with simple fairness, because they want the world to work their way.

Well, besides core values, Western Civilization has a derived value: You do not have the right never to be offended. Because if you have that right, nobody else has any rights. In the functioning part of the world, you have the right to give offense, and sometimes the duty to receive it.

We in the West (Muslims included) must stand up for our rights. To fail to do this would be to accept dhimmitude (second-class status, powerlessness) in the emerging global society. It would also sell out Islam, an otherwise noble religion, to its extremists.

03 February 2006

So how would you do it?

On January 19, 2006, Usama Bin Laden released another audiotape warning that he had authorized another attack on the United States. He did the required bit of offering his enemy a "truce," i.e., terms on which his enemy could get him to call off the attack. This is required by Muslim martial tradition. What is not required is that the terms be realistic, and these were not. In other words, a new attack is coming.

What can we say about it, given the message in his text, and his past history? Well, he operates fairly long term. That would mean that the attack leaders have presented their plans to Usama, and he has sanctioned them. He has probably given them financing. In other words, they are on their way.

Now, if the next attack on the US is to be like the last one (9/1/2001), but bigger and more spectacular, the following things can reasonably be said:

(1) The operatives (attack leaders) will not bring weapons or material or any other observables into the country. They didn't the last time. They used big bombs, and huge delivery systems, which would have given them away if they had brought their own. Instead, they used what we ourselves supplied: lots of jet fuel transported by big airplanes. All they had to do was hijack a few planes with improvised hand-weapons. They'll do something different this time, but the principle stands: travel light - turn the enemy's own resources against him.

(2) The operatives will not necessarily fit seamlessly into our society. They will require social cover, and they will require "handlers," pre-emplaced sympathizers who will provide them with the necessities of life, shelter, and whatever items they will require for their attack.

So, how do we deal with them? Why don't we make sure that President Bush can't use the NSA to intercept conversations between the handlers in the US and the operatives abroad as they arrange their travel? Let's refuse to streamline the FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court procedures for approving and keeping secret such intercepts. Let's spend all our energy trying to impeach Bush for not following those procedures. Let's hail those who leaked the information about the intercepts as heroes rather than try them for treason in time of war. (It was so much more appropriate to take the matter to the New York Times rather than to security-cleared Democrat members of the House and Senate Select Committees on Intelligence!)

There. Don't you feel safer already?

Seriously, though, there is an irreconciable tension between democracy and the secrecy needed to defend it. Eternal vigilance is indeed the price of freedom - vigilance of ourselves and our enemies. And still seriously, the danger to Liberal Democracy (in particular its concepts of privacy and freedom of expression) is al-Qaeda and its style of Islamic Fundamentalism, not President Bush. He is merely dangerous to a certain liberal (small "l") worldview. Because if he is right, then they are wrong, and if they are wrong, they lose their reason to be.