Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Book has Gandhi's many faults

A WSJ review says:
Joseph Lelyveld has written a generally admiring book about Mohandas Gandhi, the man credited with leading India to independence from Britain in 1947. Yet "Great Soul" also obligingly gives readers more than enough information to discern that he was a sexual weirdo, a political incompetent and a fanatical faddist -— one who was often downright cruel to those around him. Gandhi was therefore the archetypal 20th-century progressive intellectual, professing his love for mankind as a concept while actually despising people as individuals.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Google book deal killed

The NY Times reports:
Google’s ambition to create the world’s largest digital library and bookstore has run into the reality of a 300-year-old legal concept: copyright.

The company’s plan to digitize every book ever published and make them widely available was derailed on Tuesday when a federal judge in New York rejected a sweeping $125 million legal settlement the company had worked out with groups representing authors and publishers.

Judge Denny Chin said the legal settlement with publishers and authors would have granted Google a “de facto monopoly.”
It was always clear that an opt-in settlement would be legal. The class action lawsuit against Google was based on the premise of protecting the interests of those who do not want to opt-in. The phony settlement was an opt-out deal. Such a settlement cannot possibly be in the interests of the class. The judge was right to kill this deal.

Google is right that copyright is broken in that orphan works get effectively buried for a century. But Congress needs to fix it, and not some sleazy Google deal with some crooked lawyers.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Environmentalists in nuclear panic

The Santa Cruz newspaper published this letter:
No environmentalists support nuclear power

Reading the article "U.S. rethinks nuclear energy policy in wake of disaster" was a small relief. I was at first heartened to read that with the terrible events unfolding in Japan, at least the U.S., and hopefully other nations, will see that building more nuclear power plants is a horrible plan. No power source that generates toxic waste could be a good long-term solution to our need for energy anywhere, let alone in a seismically active region like California. But I was surprised with Broder's reporting that until recently several mainstream environmental groups agreed nuclear power is a viable option for solving the climate change crisis. I couldn't believe this to be true. After trolling the web, I found, indeed, no mainstream environmental groups are condoning nuclear power as a method for combating climate change, never have, and probably never will. The real supporters of these plants are the companies who want taxpayers' money to build them.

Landa Rosebraugh, Watsonville
Let's get this in perspective. In Japan, 20,000 people are dead or missing from the earthquake. So far, the nuclear power disaster is not known to have killed anyone. The power plants were based on a 50-year-old design. If a reactor melts down and kills a dozen people, it will still be a minor footnote in this story. A new reactor can be designed to avoid this sort of problem.

If environmentalists oppose nuclear power, then they obviously are not serious about global warming. There is no other feasible alternative for large-scale power production without greenhouse gases. That is why global warming alarmists like James Hansen favor nuclear power.

Update: Here is one environmentalist view:
You will not be surprised to hear that the events in Japan have changed my view of nuclear power. You will be surprised to hear how they have changed it. As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology.

A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.
Perhaps Japan can now use Fukushima to dump their nuclear waste, since it is contaminated anyway.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Infinity is not a cheat

I was watching What Happened Before the Big Bang? on the Science Channel. There are some clips on YouTube from last year's BBC Horizon version, such as here. At about a third of the way, and at the end of the YouTube clip, it says:
Eventually that space will become infinitely small, and in mathematics, invoking infinity is the same as giving up, or cheating.
I don't know how anyone could say anything so silly. Studying infinities has been a central object of mathematics for centuries.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Brooks social animal

Thomas Nagel reviews The Social Animal, by David Brooks:
The main idea is that there are two levels of the mind, one unconscious and the other conscious, and that the first is much more important than the second in determining what we do. ... The main problem that Brooks addresses in this book is how to understand the relation between these two mental domains. His aim is to “counteract a bias in our culture. ...”

We may think that what we believe and do is largely under our conscious control, and we may believe that we should try to increase this control by the conscious exercise of reasoning and will power, but Brooks says that this is all wrong.
The book is currently no. 6 on the Amazon bestseller list. His view seems to be a mixture of Freud and the nurture side of the nature v nurture debate. In case you think that has side on his side, the Wikipedia article Sigmund Freud says:
Freud has been described by David Stafford-Clark as "a man whose name will always rank with those of Darwin, Copernicus, Newton, Marx and Einstein; someone who really made a difference to the way the rest of us can begin to think about the meaning of human life and society." In contrast, Hans Eysenck claims that Freud "set psychiatry back one hundred years". Psychology departments in American universities today are scientifically oriented, and Freudian theory has been marginalized, being regarded instead as a "desiccated and dead" historical artifact, according to a recent APA study.

Philosophers have debated the scientific status of psychoanalysis. Karl Popper, who argued that all proper scientific theories must be potentially falsifiable, claimed that Freud's psychoanalytic theories were presented in unfalsifiable form, meaning that no experiment or observation could ever prove them wrong. ...

Peter Medawar, a Nobel Prize winning immunologist, made the oft-quoted remark that psychoanalysis is the "most stupendous intellectual confidence trick of the twentieth century". Freud critic Richard Webster calls psychoanalysis "perhaps the most complex and successful" pseudoscience in history. Ethan Watters and Richard Ofshe wrote that, "Freud created one of the twentieth century's most significant myths but presented it as a scientific theory, supposedly based on rationalism and empirical observation. He claimed to be opening up the complexity of the mind to the world, but in fact he created a convoluted and speculative system of assumptions that has misled thousands upon thousands of well-intentioned therapists and vulnerable patients over the last hundred years".
That is correct. Except that the comparison to the other famous intellectuals makes me wonder what the guy thinks that they accomplished. Brooks claims to have newer research, but nearly all of it is dubious. For example, he tells the story of dentists named Dennis, but that appears to be debunked here.

Friday, March 11, 2011

What makes us human

Anthropologists are always trying to find why humans are different from animals. The usual story is big brains, upright walking, and language. The latest research is non-kin social groups and soft foreskins.

A NY Times update says that it is also the large whites of our eyes.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Psychiatrists now just do pills

NY Times reports:
Like many of the nation’s 48,000 psychiatrists, Dr. Levin, in large part because of changes in how much insurance will pay, no longer provides talk therapy, the form of psychiatry popularized by Sigmund Freud that dominated the profession for decades. Instead, he prescribes medication, usually after a brief consultation with each patient. So Dr. Levin sent the man away with a referral to a less costly therapist and a personal crisis unexplored and unresolved.

Medicine is rapidly changing in the United States from a cottage industry to one dominated by large hospital groups and corporations, but the new efficiencies can be accompanied by a telling loss of intimacy between doctors and patients. And no specialty has suffered this loss more profoundly than psychiatry. ...

Of course, there are thousands of psychiatrists who still offer talk therapy to all their patients, but they care mostly for the worried wealthy who pay in cash. In New York City, for instance, a select group of psychiatrists charge $600 or more per hour to treat investment bankers, and top child psychiatrists charge $2,000 and more for initial evaluations.
The next step is to figure out how little training is needed to hand out happy pills. Perhaps nurses should be allowed to do it, if they take a class on the subject.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Lunch-bucket workers with Ph.D.s

A WSJ article tells about companies like Intel moving jobs to Vietnam:
All is not lost, America. The techs in Intel's Saigon plant mostly have masters or vo-tech degrees. For its new factories in Oregon (wafer fabrication) and Arizona (making beyond-small 14-nanometer microchips), Intel needs loads of lunch-bucket workers with Ph.D.s -— if they can find them in the U.S.

Vietnam's millions, rolling endlessly forward on their agile motorbikes, seem to know where they want to go. Next question: Do we?
I hope so. Hiring loads of lunch-bucket workers with Ph.D.s in Vietnam is not it.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Detecting overpaid workers

Economist Steve Landsburg explains why you should ignore the complaints of those getting pay cuts:
If you cut the pay of an overpaid worker, he’ll generally scream bloody murder. After all, overpaid workers like to stay overpaid. But if you cut the pay of a non-overpaid worker, you haven’t really damaged him. He just quietly leaves and gets a job elsewhere. After all, the ability to find a comparable job elsewhere is pretty much the definition of not being overpaid.
The more they scream bloody murder, the more likely that they are grossly overpaid.

There are exceptions, of course. Sometimes people cannot easily change jobs for other reasons. Maybe Charlie Sheen really is underpaid, at $2M an episode. And maybe the Wisconsin teachers are underpaid. But it is unlikely.