30 October, 2006

Request permission to pick nits, sir.

They say that wars are how Americans learn geography. But how are we supposed to learn ggeography when our own army gives us maps like this. Click and ye shall see -- a map part way down the page showing the Iraq war, Operation Iraqi Liberation (Libation? Lieberman Nation?), taking place half in Iraq and half in Iran. More strangely, it shows a huge imaginary body of water, depicted in white and considerably bigger than the Caspian Sea, to the east of the Caspian, roughly on the ancient lakebed of the Aral Sea (PDF). It immerses the embarassment known as Uzbekistan. Talk about a whitewash.

To the southwest of this imaginary lake, apparently on the real-world border of Iran and Turkmenistan, we are told U.S. forces are hard at work on something called Operation Enduring Freedom, which at last report was still focused on Afghanistan.

I wonder if this website used a Pentagon base map. Because if so, that might explain some of the tactical difficulties currently facing our armed forces.

Update 2 p.m.: Mr. Schwarz makes a similar point.

The War on Halloween

Every Christmas, hotheaded demagogues of the American right wing howl their outrage over a purported War on Christmas. Try as we might, those of us in the reality-based community haven't yet managed to laugh them off the public stage.

Meanwhile, many of these same theocrats have declared war on one of the two truly American holidays. While they still tolerate Thanksgiving (perhaps because they think they can turn it into a Christian allegory, Landover Baptist notwithstanding), they have lost their patience for Halloween. At the school where my partner works, teachers sent home permission slips to find out whether parents would let their students take part in Halloween activities, including demon-worshipping activities such as costume-making. Many of the parents refused to give permission. Another associate of mine plays music at a farm where kids go to pick pumpkins and take hayrides. One school that sent a group in the past week instructed him not to play any Halloween music.

Of course it's not just the hard right that has decided that Halloween has gone too far. The city of San Francisco just posted this gloomy buzzkill of a website to discourage revelers from ravaging the charming Castro neighborhood. Or, for that matter, from coming and having a jolly good time. Ostensibly, we can expect that on Tuesday night, the only people who will show up in the Castro will be those prone to disobeying instructions or without Internet access -- just the demographic they were looking for, I'm sure.

What all of this ignores is that Halloween is the closest we have in the U.S. to a glimpse of our collective repressions, our collective id. It is arguable the most important holiday of the year, up there with Thanksgiving as a secular celebration and more important than Thanksgiving in that it provides an annual outlet for whatever urges have built up and gone unexpressed. It is a leading indicator of the culture.

For years, gay and transgender culture was most visible on Halloween. Today, with homosexuality barely raising eyebrows and trans-men and trans-women showing up in broader and broader parts of the culture, we see Halloween becoming a celebration of hypersexualization, especially of women and girls but also of men and boys. I would be interested to hear from others what you think this reveals -- I think it might relate to the ever-widening reach of pornography clashing with our continually prudish sexual norms.

It is also one of the few times people feel comfortable showing how they really feel about, their political leaders -- there are plenty of bloody George Bushes to go around this year, and former New York City mayor Ed Koch used to march in his city's Halloween parade asking attendees his signature line, "How am I doin?" But he was concealed in a costume that allowed people to say what they really felt. The costume: An Ed Koch mask.
This sort of periodic airing of the id goes back to Hawthorne, who traced it back to Puritan times.

The War on Halloween, of course, like the War on Christmas, is mostly in the heads of those of us worrywarts who wish our favorite holiday could pass unmolested, which might in turn imply that the holiday had lost its power -- Christmas had become secularized, losing its power as a religious ceremony, or Halloween had lost its power to shock.

And like the War on Christmas, every word written complaining of the War on Halloween is a more valuable word left unwritten to express dismay at much less figurative, more awful wars over which I might have more control. (Gee, a military assault on a 5-month insurrection in a city that is as close to me as Columbus, Ohio, an assault justified by the death of an Indymedia documentarian of all people. Please tell me why this isn't foremost in my mind. Please tell me why I care about Halloween more than about a hot war close to home, fought with weapons that I paid for with my taxes. Perhaps I am idiot.

26 October, 2006

Pot pourri

This is a typical conversation in my kitchen:

I'm currently watching the first season of Battlestar Galactica, usually while cooking dinner. The premise of the show is that an evil race of robots destroys almost the entire human race, leaving only a small population of 50,000 individuals alive.

This immediately prompted us to pause the movie and launch into a discussion of the population genetics implications of such a crash.

Now, contrary to conventional wisdom, there is a huge difference between the actual and apparent genetic size of a population. That is, even though there are 6 billion people on this planet, human beings are remarkably genetically uniform; in fact, they show the amount of variation one would expect from a much smaller ideal population. This discrepancy leads population geneticists to speak of a quantity called effective population size - in the case of humans, about 10,000 individuals. This is such a small number because, first, there is population structure that prevents truly random mating between all individuals in the population, and, second, the human population has undergone at least a few "bottlenecks" - instances of dramatic population collapses - and the ancestral population was probably considerably smaller than the modern population. Thus, the amount of actual variation in our population is low.

A bit of Googling around led us to a paper by Masatoshi Nei, wherein he describes simulations of population crashes and subsequent rapid expansion. The upshot is: even absurdly unrealistic population crashes (down to N=2 individuals) do not eliminate most of the variation. I think in that extreme instance, the reduction was only from 15% down to 8% - so long as your 2 individuals are randomly selected, of course. This is pretty remarkable, and it suggests that the immediate problem will not be fitness loss from low genetic variation - you'll lose most rare, private variations (variation that only exists in you & your immediate relatives, e.g.), but most of this stuff is unimportant or even harmful. What WILL be retained is the bulk of frequent variation - stuff that is either beneficial or neutral, and so has not been eliminated by purifying selection. Of course, it takes on the order of 1/(mutation rate) generations (108) to recover your initial level of variation, but never mind that. We're merely concerned with survival, here.

The second problem is inbreeding depression. This is exactly what it sounds like: when you have babies with your parent or sibling, you're much more likely to encounter severe recessive phenotypes that drastically reduce fitness. Note that this is a DIFFERENT problem from low genetic variation - I am genetically not all too distant from anyone on earth, but inbreeding depression results mostly from the expression of rare, private variation that no one else has - except my relatives.

So, after a bottleneck, inbreeding depression will surely be a problem. This possibly results in 'purging', that is, the speedy elimination of deleterious variation via selection in a highly homozygous/inbred population. This puts pressure on the population - inbreeding load - fewer individuals are surviving and the general fitness of the population is lower. Populations may founder at this stage, although purging is believed to result in a rapid recovery of fitness.

At any rate, 50,000 individuals is, in genetic terms, a great many, and I'm pretty certain that inbreeding depression would not be a severe problem in such a population (especially if they're all free to mingle as the Galactica population would be).

Last night's conversation included: group selection in chickens and its eugenics implications, a recitation of some Hindu mythology (mostly the Avatars of Vishnu), some tales of the Buddha and other Zen masters, the story of Kalidas, a discussion of the Inquisition as viewed by the book Demon Lovers, and Hitler's vegetarianism. The evening culminated with us watching Triumph des Willens.*

* Which prompted the observation on my part, "Americans will never be able to take the German language seriously."

16 October, 2006

Designed by a fourth-grader?

Continuing our series, "Creatures that exist on this planet that you* never even fucking HEARD of", I present the babirusa, the pig-deer of Indonesia. Check out this tusk arrangement! Spectacular. Those secondary tusks are actually their upper canines, which curve back and grow through their skulls. Ow! Impacted.

* Where by "you" I mean "me".

15 October, 2006


Our colleagues in the on-line world have done a good job of defending last week's study that tried to show the true extent of the violence in Iraq. I think the best defense was here*and here.

The funny thing that comes through as right-wingers, war supporters and other innumerates try to debunk the study is that people appear to believe words before they believe numbers. They have more faith in the blandishments of their political leaders than they do in empirical, statistically verified evidence. This reminds me of Saheli's post almost a year ago about the need for more people to learn quantitative methods.

*Maybe I'm just pointing you this way because Majikthise, the author, has taken as her name that of the head of the philosophers' union in the Hitchhikers Guide series, which gives her big nerd cred.

Why, just tonight she mentioned that she had heard a lecture and afterward regretted not asking for "the graph of the derivative" of global temperature over time. I realized that even though I'm pretty numerate, calculus is still enough of a foreign language to me that I wouldn't have thought to ask this perfectly reasonable question in such an elegant way.

12 October, 2006

Kinky elections

I'm coming back from my 2-year hiatus! Why? It's election method time!

2006 is an election year for Texas governor. Rick Perry (the one with the hair) is the incumbent, polling 34%. There are three other major candidates on the ballot: Chris Bell (D), Carol Keeton Strayhorn (ex-Republican, decided to take her chances in the general rather than the primary), and Kinky Friedman (comedian). All 3 are polling about 20%.

It's quite possible that none of the other 3 could beat Perry in a one-on-one race. If this is the case, then our current system comes to the same result as virtually any other decent method. On the other hand, it's quite possible that any of the other 3 candidates would beat Perry in a one-on-one election. That means Perry could be elected despite 2/3 of the voters preferring anybody else to him.

In that circumstance, IRV would offer an improvement: Perry would not be elected. However, it wouldn't be perfect: it's still possible that the vast majority of the electorate would prefer one of the losing candidates to the one that won. For example, Strayhorn might end up with less first-place votes than Bell or Friedman because most Republicans vote for Perry, but be much preferred to either because most who voted for Perry prefer her to Bell or Friedman.

A far worse case for IRV, though, is if only one or two of the candidates can beat Perry. If Strayhorn got fewer first-place votes than Bell or Friedman, she'll be knocked out immediately. But it might well be that she's the only candidate among the 3 who can beat Perry head-to-head.

While this might seem like a strange what-if brought on by the special circumstances of a 4-way election, circumstances like these are latent in virtually every election we hold. After all, if John McCain had been running head-to-head against George Bush in the general election in 2000, he would have won a landslide. Under a sane voting system, he wouldn't have been forced out of the race because a majority of a minority preferred another candidate.

hibiscus has a bleg

Regular commentor Hibiscus recently started a bloogh of her/his own, and it is impressive.

More foreign usurpation of American jobs

It appears that Saddam Hussein's attempt to steal the jobs of hard-working Americans went further than burying people alive.
"The Iraqi forces pounded our village in April 1987, forcing us to hide in nearby mountains which were later surrounded by the Iraqi army," said the woman, the 14th complainer in the Anfal case.
"In the detention camp of Debis in Kirkuk, several masked soldiers sprayed us with unknown substance, which caused spreading diseases like whooping cough among children, and many of them died of the diseases later," she said.
"Six months later we were released by the Iraqi army, only to find all family members disappeared for good," she added.
A second witness who spoke anonymously told the court that rape was frequent in detention camps and many detainees died during their captivity, their bodies were eaten by dogs.
The guy was a trooper among despots, but he really shouldn't have tried to challenge the masters.

Indiscriminate aerial bombardment
Chemical warfare
Routine rape in prison
Improper disposal of remains

Now I know this is a bit sophistic -- you could go back into the history of any country and find a lot of horror, and I'm not sure that Teddy Roosevelt or George W. Bush are really worse than Saddam Hussein. What I'm trying to show is that the Iraqi leader's problem may have been a failure to think as big as the Americans.

This is true even when it comes to deaths. In 22 years running Iraq, the most exaggerated estimate of the murders he oversaw is 1 million. By all accounts I've seen, private-sector murders were pretty much nonexistent during that period. In the three and a half years that the U.S. has nominally run the joint, we're up to between 300,000 and 900,000!

Which just goes to show: If you want quality, you should stick to the brand you can trust.

10 October, 2006


I like this map. By my count, there are 5 different satellite images stitched together in this remote mountainous area.

09 October, 2006

Burying people alive? That's our job!

A witness in the trial of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has said her family was "buried alive" by government forces who attacked her village.

She gave evidence as the trial for alleged war crimes and genocide resumed in Baghdad after a two-week break.

Thousands of Iraqi soldiers, some of them alive and firing their weapons from World War I-style trenches, were buried by plows mounted on Abrams battle tanks. The Abrams flanked the trench lines so that tons of sand from the plows funneled into the trenches. Just behind the tanks, actually straddling the trench line, came Bradleys pumping 7.62mm machine gun bullets into the Iraqi troops.

"I came through right after the lead company," said Army Col. Anthony Moreno, who commanded the lead brigade during the 1st Mech's assault. "What you saw was a bunch of buried trenches with people's arms and land things sticking out of them. For all I know, we could have killed thousands."

A thinner line of trenches on Moreno's left flank was attacked by the 1st Brigade commanded by Col. Lon Maggart. He estimated his troops buried about 650 Iraqi soldiers. Darkness halted the attack on the Iraqi trench line. By the next day, the 3rd Brigade joined in the grisly innovation. "A lot of people were killed," said Col. Davhttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gifid Weisman, the unit commander.

One reason there was no trace of what happened in the Neutral Zone on those two days was that Armored Combat Earth Movers came behind the armored burial brigade, leveling the ground and smoothing away projecting Iraqi arms, legs and equipment.
Fortunately for Messrs. Powell and Schwartzkopf, memory was banned in the Patriot Act. Or was it the 1996 Counterterrorism Bill. Or maybe the Constitution. I don't remember.

Update: I forgot to mention that my bothering to compose this post is largely the result of my ongoing amusement with Mr. Schwarz's liveblogging of the memory hole. He was still gracious enough to give us some hot link action. Hi TinyRevolutionaries!

Song of experience


Late update: N. Korea appears to have flunked its test. Maybe less Song of Experience, more the last lines of The Hollow Men. Or, as the news networks delighted in reminding us today, like this.

*I remember when George Bush was elected and I thought, `well, if we can just drift through the next four years without any major crises, how much harm can he do?'

07 October, 2006

We are all Lost.

I was torrenting the season premiere of Lost*. My torrent client, KTorrent, is incredibly snazzy and has a nice info-widget where it shows all the peers you're connected to, as well as (uselessly) where they are located. Check out this international festival:
Argentina 1
Australia 2
Austria 1
Belgium 3
Brazil 7
Canada 8
Colombia 1
Cyprus 1
Czech Republic 2
Finland 4
France 4
Germany 2
Greece 1
Hungary 1
Ireland 1
Israel 1
Italy 1
Kuwait 1
Malaysia 2
Malta 2
Netherlands 1
Norway 1
Poland 8
Romania 1
Saudi Arabia 1
Slovenia 1
Spain 2
Sweden 1
Switzerland 1
Thailand 1
Turkey 1
United Arab Emirates 2
United Kingdom 29
United States 17
Unknown 7

The Internet is definitely cool.

* I know... the depth of my shame is great. I am hanging my head even now.

Only for KDE, chumps!

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