Monday, May 31, 2004

From a profile of Laura Bush in the The New Republic:
She is someone who, one would think, would otherwise not find George W.
compelling. (Can you picture W. spending time in a library anywhere, let
alone in a country where most of the books aren't in English?) Ergo, if
Laura finds George W. fulfilling, he must have something more to offer than
the bumbling, parochial presentation we see day to day. Her years immersed
in the Western canon subtly counteract the image of her husband as shallow
and glib. As Dan Quayle showed, it is critical that a male politician
suspected of being dim-witted not have a dim-witted wife. And yet, for all
the seriousness that Laura's reading brings to her husband's persona, she
never expresses a controversial or sophisticated idea about the great books
she has thought so much about. She is a deep thinker utterly free of the
dark angst or subversive notions that might come from such contemplation.
Take her favorite moment in literature, the `Grand Inquisitor' chapter of
Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Asked about this ambiguous and
unsettling passage-in which Christ returns to earth only to be arrested as a
heretic and threatened with burning at the stake-Laura replied bafflingly,
`It's about life, and it's about death, and it's about Christ. I find it
really reassuring.'

Given that the current Republican defense of Bush on the Iraq WMD question is that he was misled by bad intelligence, I thought I would link to a series of pieces The New Republic has run in the last year documenting how the Administration put pressure on CIA analysts to produce assesements that fell in line with their policies.

The Radical, ostensibly a piece on Dick Cheney, chronicles the ways Cheney and stuff have harassed intelligence analysts in the runup to the Iraq war (and before). Spooked documents the turf battles between the administration and the CIA. The Operator is a long piece on George Tenet's acquisence in telling the Bushies what they want to hear. An excerpt:

During the summer of 2002, Democratic Florida Senator Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, asked Tenet in a private meeting to provide him with everything the CIA knew about Iraq's WMD, its ties to Al Qaeda, and the consequences of a war. Tenet had gotten along with Graham far better than he had with Shelby, and, before the end of the August recess, Tenet delivered to Graham a classified 25-page paper, with no cover or letterhead, answering Graham's questions on every item of concern. According to an official who read Tenet's classified responses, "It was a reasonable document," candid and balanced, summarizing what the CIA believed to be the threat from Iraq and the repercussions of using force to redress it. Since this report and a DIA assessment on chemical weapons that the committee received in early September 2002 were completely at variance with what Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and other administration officials were saying publicly, Graham and Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin called on Tenet to provide more information, including an NIE [National Intelligence Estimate].

But Tenet didn't deliver another balanced assessment. Instead, in mid-September 2002, he and the CIA produced a classified document described by several officials who have read it as written, one recalls, "to take the most aggressive view of all available information." According to a source who saw the document, the assessment was indeed aggressive--it highlighted "extensive Iraqi chem-bio programs and nuclear programs and links to terrorism" and detailed every known or faintly rumored contact between Saddam's regime and bin Laden. What Intelligence Committee members found particularly objectionable was the document's treatment of the link between Saddam and Al Qaeda. According to a former CIA official who read the document, "They put everything that they found for the last twelve years and put it all into one document. It was a joke. It had eight hundred disclaimers in it. It basically said nothing, [but] they put it together anyway."

Stunned by what they read, Graham, Durbin, and others on the committee intensified their demand for Tenet to produce an NIE on the Iraq threat. It was not a request that Tenet could easily fulfill. "The White House didn't want it," says a source with direct knowledge of the effort. "They wanted to draw their own analytical conclusions." Faced with escalating and conflicting demands from the Bush administration and the committee, Tenet turned to the national intelligence officer who fended off the dogs the last time: Walpole.

Walpole produced an NIE by the end of September 2002, taking less than three weeks to complete what is usually a painstaking process--less time, jokes a longtime intelligence official, than it takes to coordinate "an interagency bathroom pass." Just as he had done in 1999, Walpole constructed an artificial consensus within a community that was sharply divided over the threat from Iraq. There were dissents, but they were relegated to footnotes and appendices. On some issues, the intelligence community indeed had reached a rough consensus. Practically all analysts agreed that Saddam had produced unaccounted-for chemical and biological weapons; the disagreement was over whether the programs were ongoing and whether they had yielded recent stocks. On the question of an Iraqi nuclear weapons program, however, Walpole's NIE far outpaced what the analysts were concluding. The NIE claimed that Iraq was "reconstituting its nuclear weapons programs"--a determination that earlier CIA statements had elided and that INR, along with most DOE analysts, continued to reject. It further claimed that Iraq was trying to acquire aluminum tubes to use for enriching uranium suitable for a nuclear bomb. INR and DOE analysts, who knew the most about nuclear weapons production, adamantly rejected the charge. And the classified version of the NIE reported that Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Niger and other African countries--a contention that CIA and INR analysts alike had found laughable and that would later generate so much controversy. On the basis of these highly unreliable claims, the NIE concluded, "Iraq could make a nuclear weapon in months to a year once it acquires sufficient weapons-grade fissile material."

Notwithstanding these distortions, the Walpole paper was still less overheated than administration rhetoric...

Finally, The Selling of the Iraq War documents how administration officials used talking points to sell the war which were expressly noted by the CIA to be false.

Sixtus Oeschle, manager of corporate advertising for Shell Oil, was at his wits' end. For months, he and his team of researchers had pumped the consumer psyche, desperate to uncover the real reason behind a decade-long sales slump at the $26 billion conglomerate. For months, they'd come up empty. "We tried psychographic memory triggers," Oeschle recalls. "We tried dream therapy. We tried what I'll call tangible manifestation exercises." All to no avail. "We weren't generating anything that was breakthrough," he says. "It was all kind of the same sort of stuff." At one point, respondents were given mounds of wet clay and urged to mold figures that expressed their inner feelings about Shell. When that, too, proved a dud, Oeschle passed out sketchbooks and Crayolas. "We said, 'Draw what Shell is to you,'" Oeschle recalls. "Then we said, 'Draw what you would like Shell to be to you.'" The results, while eye-opening, were not particularly useful from a marketing standpoint...

From The Return of the Hidden Persuaders, an article about about modern marketing techniques in Slate.

Saturday, May 29, 2004

I've been reading the memoirs of Albert Speer, Hitler's personal architect, and later, the Minister of War Production in the Nazi government. The disturbing part of the book, for me, is the extent to which I can relate to Speer.

The memoirs obsessively deal with architecture. History passes, but Speer is only thinking about the buildings he is commissioned to design; he rambles for pages and pages on end about the various architectural styles, the influence of his teachers, his emotional struggles as he progressively moved away from the architectural philosophies of his past.

In fact, architecture dominates the book so much that once I began skimming the parts about architecture I found that I could get through most of the book in just under a couple of hours.

This single minded obsession with his work -- a devotion to the craft and a willful ignorance of basic moral questions -- is something that describes myself and many of the science students I know.

Some interesting excerpts:

1. Hess came to table about once every two weeks; he would be followed by his adjutant in a rather weird getup, carrying a tin vessel containing a specially prepared meal which was to be rewarmed in the kitchen. For a long time it was hidden from Hitler that Hess had his own special vegetarian meal served to himself. When someone finally gave the secret away, Hitler turned irritably to Hess in the presence of the assembled company and blustered: "I have a first class diet cook here. If your doctor has prescribed something special for you, she will be glad to prepare it. But you cannot bring your food with you." Hess, even then inclining to obstinate contrariness, began explaining that the components of his meals had to be of special biodynamic origin. Whereupon Hitler bluntly informed him that in that case he should take his meals at home. Thereafter Hess scarcely ever came to the dinners.

When ... word was sent out that all households in Germany should eat a one-dish meal on Sundays, thereby promoting guns instead of butter, only a tureen of soup was served at Hitler's table too. The number of Sunday guests thereafter shrank to two or three...

2. Walther Funk, who was both Minister of Economics and president of the Reichsbank, told stories about the outlandish pranks that his vice president, Brinkman, had gone on performing for months, until it was finally realized that he was mentally ill. In telling such stories, Funk not only wanted to amuse Hitler but to inform him in this casual way of events which would sooner of later reach his ears. Brinkmann, it seemed, had invited the cleaning women and messenger boys of the Reichsbank to a grand dinner in the ballroom of the Hotel Bristol, one of the best hotels in Berlin, where he played the violin for them. This sort of thing rather fitted with the regime's propaganda of all Germans forming one "folk community." But as everyone at table laughed, Funk continued: "Recently, he stood in front of the Ministry of Economics...took a large package of newly printed banknotes from his briefcase -- as you know, the notes bear my signature -- and gave them out to passers-by, saying: 'Who wants some of the new Funks?'...

Hitler's eyes filled with tears are laughter. When he had recovered, he launched into a monologue on how hard sometimes is to recognize a madman.

3. One day we[Speer and a museum director] were sitting with Goering in a room whose walls were done in the Wilhelmine neorococo style, adorned from top to bottom with roses in bas-relief -- quintessential atrociousness. Even Goering knew that when he asked: "How do you like this decoration Herr Direktor? Not bad is it?" Instead of saying "Its ghastly," the old gentleman became unsure of himself. He did not want to disagree with his prominent employer and customer and answered evasively. Goering immediately scented an opportunity for a joke and winked at me: "But, Herr Direktor, don't you think its beautiful? I mean to have you decorate all my rooms this way. We were talking about just that, weren't we, Herr Speer?"...The director writhed; his artistic conscience brought beads of sweat to his forehead and his goatee quivered with distress. Goering had taken it into his head to make the old man forswear himself. "Now look at this wall carefully. See how wonderfully those roses twine their way up. Like being in a rose arbor in the open. And you mean to say you can't feel enthusiastic about this sort of thing?"...The game went on for a long time until the director gave in and voiced the praise Goering demanded.

"They're all like that!" Goering afterward said contemptuously. And it was true enough: They were all like that, Goering included. For at meals he now never tired of telling Hitler how bright and expansive his home was now, "just like yours my Fuehrer."

4. When I returned to Hitler, he flew into a rage. He again ordered that the building be immediately evacuated and told me to begin on my [architectural renovation] project without consideration for the presence of officials.

[Hitler's coalition partner Vice Chancellor] Papen [whose offices were in the building] remained invisible. His officials wavered but promised to arrange their files and transfer them to a provisional home in a week or two. I thereupon ordered the workmen to move into the building without further ado and encouraged them to knock the heavy plaster decorations from the walls...creating maximum noise and dust. The dust wafted through the cracks of the doors into the offices, and the racket made all work impossible. Hitler was delighted. Along with his expressions of approval he made jokes about the "dusty bureaucrats."

Twenty-four hours later they moved out. In one of the rooms I saw a large pool of dried blood on the floor. There...Herbert von Bose, one of Papen's assistants, had been shot. I looked away and from then on avoided the room. But the incident did not affect me any more deeply than that.

Movie villains seems to like the dark. Their lairs, where they conceive of plans for world domination, tend to be very poorly illuminated.

I recently saw The Sum of All Fears, a movie that depicts the explosion of an atomic bomb by terrorists in Baltimore progressively escalating into full nuclear conflict beween the US and Russia. One thing that struck is the difference between the well-lighted Air Force One,

where the American president did his thinking, and the dark messy hive in Moscow

where the Russian president made his decisions.

Strange delight: I feel a curious sense of satisfaction about an ebay sale I just made. I sold an invitation to join Google's gmail service for $70. It seems interesting that someone is willing to pay money for something that, if you think about it, does not exist: an invitation.

The sales of Gmail invitations on ebay look like a bubble to me: people willing to pay outrageous prices for blatantly overpriced goods. Is 1 Gb of storage really worth $70?

Thursday, May 27, 2004

From The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap by Stephanie Coontz:

Like most visions of a "golden age," the "traditional family" my students describe evaporates on closer examination. It is an ahistorical amalgam of structures, values, and behaviors that never co-existed in the same time and place. The notion that traditional families fostered intense intimacy between husbands and wives while creating mothers who were totally available to their children, for example, is an idea that combines some characteristics of the white, middle-class family in the mid-nineteenth century and some of a rival family ideal first articulated in the 1920s. The first family revolved emotionally around the mother-child axis, leaving the husband-wife relationship stilted and formal. The second focused on an eroticized couple relationship, demanding that mothers curb emotional "overinvestment" in their children. The hybrid idea that a woman can be fully absorbed with her youngsters while simultaneously maintaining passionate sexual excitement with her husband was a 1950s invention...

Hitler's dictatorship differed in one fundamental point from all its predecessors in history. His was the first dictatorship in the present period of modern technical development, a dictatorship which made complete use of all technical means for the domination of its own country.

Through technical devices like the radio and the loud-speaker, eighty million people were deprived of independent thought. It was thereby possible to subject them to the will of one man...

Earlier dictators needed highly qualified assistants, even at the lowest level, men who could think and act independently. The totalitarian system in the period of modern technical development can dispense with them; the means of communication alone make it possible to mechanize the lower leadership. As a result of this there arises the new type of the uncritical recipient of orders...

-- from the testimony before the Nuremberg tribunal of Albert Speer, Hitler's Minister of Armaments, quoted in Discovering the Western Past, by Wiesner, Ruff, Wheeler

Monday, May 24, 2004

Via the consumer debt blog Maxed Out Generation, I came upon an interesting article in the Village Voice entitled "The Ambition Tax: Why America's young are being crushed by debt—and why no one seems to care." The article describes with horror the large debt loads many of today's college graduates take on (average debt upon college graduation is about $20,000). The user replies tell more horror stories of debt-ridden college graduates unable to pay back their loans.

Frankly, I think the root of the problem is the willingness of people to pay large amounts of money for degrees with little earning power.

That $20,000 debt incurred upon graduation -- not so difficult to pay off if your degree is in engineering, computer science, statistics, or management...

Rather than try to blame the system, the people saddled with college debt should blame themselves for ignoring their financial prospects when they made the decision to go to college in the first place.

The Village Voice article also faults Kerry and Bush for not proposing any measures to lessen this debt load. Why must the government always be the white knight rushing to the rescue?

These people are adults. They made a choice to pay exorbitant amounts of money for a worthless product; nobody deceived them about either the worth of their product or the money they must pay.

Caveat emptor.

Addendum: See also Alex Tabarrok's advice to a liberal arts major.

Saturday, May 22, 2004

From a New York Times article on the President's closed door pep talk to Congressional Republicans:

After the session, Republicans generally praised Mr. Bush for making the effort to come to Capitol Hill, and for paying attention to them. 'I thought he really looked good this morning,' said Senator Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi...

Lott later added,

...when you see him in situations like this, you feel it, it pulls us together and he gets us fired up.

Fired up? Take it easy, Trent, or you might make Dick jealous.

I've never understood the appeal of MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role playing games). Hundreds of thousands of people get together and reliably medieval or Star Wars characters, all to achieve greater status within the game, to no end. One of my college roommates was obsessed with EverQuest -- spending most of his waking time walking around swamps and killing monsters -- despite the failing grades he received in his real-world classes.

A Wired article describes the achievements of one player:

To reach [grandmaster] level, Stolle spent six months doing nothing but smithing: He clicked on hillsides to mine ore, headed to a forge to click the ore into ingots, clicked again to turn the ingots into weapons and armor, and then headed back to the hills to start all over again, each time raising [his character's] skill level some tiny fraction of a percentage point, inching him closer to the distant goal of 100 points and the illustrious title of Grandmaster Blacksmith.

Take a moment now to pause, step back, and consider just what was going on here: Every day, month after month, a man was coming home from a full day of bone-jarringly repetitive work with hammer and nails to put in a full night of finger-numbingly repetitive work with "hammer" and "anvil" - and paying $9.95 per month for the privilege. Ask Stolle to make sense of this, and he has a ready answer: "Well, it's not work if you enjoy it." Which, of course, begs the question: Why would anyone enjoy it?

But people do...

People do -- these games have millions of subscribers which have started sprawling ebay markets; people are willing to spend hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of dollars to buy virtual in-game goods. These products do not exist in the real word; they are play-money that can be used in the game, and yet they have tangible monetary value (for a hilarious dialogue between a purveyor of intangible goods and a customer service representative, see here)

Interestingly, the virtual economies of these gameworlds provide some interesting insights on the real world. A Walrus Magazine article on the MMORPG phenomenon describes some interesting phenomena:

Within months of Ultima Online's launch, in 1997, the game spiraled into a currency crisis. The developers woke up one morning to discover that the value of their gold currency was plummeting. Why? A handful of sneaky players had discovered a bug in the code that allowed them to artificially duplicate gold pieces (called "duping"). The economy had been hit by a counterfeiting ring. Inflation soared, and for weeks, players would log in each day to find their assets worth less and less.

Ultima programmers soon fixed the bug. But then they had a new problem: How do you drain all the excess gold out of the economy and bring prices back to normal? They hit upon the idea of creating a rare type of red hair dye and offering it for sale in small quantities. It had no real use, but, because it was rare, it became instantly popular and commanded an enormous price — which leached so much gold out of the system that inflation subsided. But the programmers had to meditate for hours on what possible side effects their "fix" might have.

Game designers are, in a sense, the government of their worlds, continually tweaking the system to try and keep it from ruining the lives of their "citizens." In essence, they face the political question that bedevils real-life politicians everywhere: How much should a government meddle in the marketplace?

In Ultima Online, players pick jobs and produce goods: blacksmiths make iron tools; tailors make shirts. In the early days, the players were forced to find other players to buy the stuff. They had to act like entrepreneurs and, as it turned out, few people really wanted to do that; they just wanted to do their jobs and get paid. So the game designers created "shopkeepers," robot characters that would automatically buy whatever goods the players made. This forced the designers to behave like Soviet central planners, micromanaging every aspect of the marketplace with arcane algorithms of supply and demand. How much would a chair be worth, compared to a rabbit skin? If horseshoes were suddenly in low supply, how would that affect the price of magical healing potions? How much inflation is too little, or too much?

Citizens, too, began to complain that the economic system was bafflingly arbitrary. One irate player pointed out that a spool of thread could be bought for two gold pieces, then instantly transformed by a tailor into a shirt worth twenty gold pieces — a profit margin that massively overshot any other activity, for no apparent reason. Eventually the game designers mostly gave up, and built a system in which players could trade more easily among themselves.The Berlin Wall fell, and capitalism rushed in.

The free market made things more fluid, but also more unfair. Soon, rich players drove the price of basic goods so high that poor players became much poorer. Once again, the designers had to step in. They would "drop" objects in places where new players could easily scavenge them, giving them a chance to amass a bit of wealth. The designers also set up programs to buy the otherwise useless items generated by poor players (such as animal skins) to give them a chance to make money. In essence, they created handouts for the disadvantaged. Ultima Online had morphed into a modern welfare state, where a free market coexists uneasily with an activist government. "As a developer, I would love to leave it all as a free market," says Anthony Castoro, one of Ultima Online's first designers. "But people who are new to the game would have nothing, and the big players would have everything."

Friday, May 21, 2004

Which languages convey the most information? Computing the entropy (i.e. information content) of english has been a classic task of information theory since Shannon's famous 1951 paper. A simple google search reveals lots of hits estimating the information content of english text. But what about the entropy of french or german? Similar google searches reveal no hits.

One way to estimate which language contains the most information is to use winzip, which uses the Lempel-Ziv algorithm which is guaranteed to converge to entropy. Simply see which language compresses better and conclude that the most incompressible one has the most information content per symbol (the less information content per symbol a language has, the more redundant it is, the better it compresses). The results will not be accurate because winzip has a finite dictionary size. But its a way to get a quick and dirty estimate.

I used five french books and five english books, all from the 19th century.


Le Tour du Monde en 80 Jours, by Jules Verne
Germinal, by Emile Zola
Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo
Eugenie Grandet, by Honore de Balzac
Cyrano de Bergerac, by Edmund Rostand


Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
Bleak House, by Charles Dickens
Middlemarch, by George Eliot
Huckleberry Finn , by Mark Twain
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte

The results? English books compress by 61.0% while french books compress by 61.6% (which means they are statistically indistinguishable given the small sample size).

Makes sense given how much the two languages have in common.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

A mathematical interlude: an arithmetic progression is a sequence of numbers such that the differences between successive terms are constant. For example, 15, 25, 35, 45 is an arithmetic progression of length four where the difference between successive terms is 10.

A new result says that the sequence of prime numbers contains arbitrarily long arithmetic progressions.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

A interesting note from today's chatterbox column in Slate:

Gasoline is now selling at more than $2 a gallon, which, after inflation, is higher than it's been since 1981. But that's not the amazing part...

Amazing Part ... is that this is happening during the first time in history when the United States belongs to the international cartel that controls gas prices. A rarely discussed benefit of invading Iraq was that, since Iraq is a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the United States, which controls Iraq, became a de facto member of OPEC. So, until June 30, the date when we turn Iraq over to some sort of sovereign government, we get to belong to OPEC. Why aren't we mau-mauing from within to boost production or, better yet, to dismantle the cartel altogether? Well, there's the fact that President Bush, who is from Texas and formerly worked in the oil bidness, is a bit of an OPEC-o-phile ... Another complication is that our interests diverge from those of the future sovereign state of Iraq when it comes to the price of oil; Iraq wants it high, while we want it low. Apparently the interests of the future sovereign state of Iraq won out. Clearly, this empire business isn't what it's cracked up to be.

Today's New York Times carries an article entitled Indiana Essays Being Graded by Computers on a state-wide aptitude test that employs automatic grading:

...student essays were simultaneously graded by a computer and trained readers during a two-year pilot program. Using artificial intelligence to mimic the grading process of human readers, the computer's automated scoring engine, known as e-rater, generated grades on a six-point scale that were virtually identical to those of the readers.

The article then goes on to cite doubt about the idea from various students and teachers:

Kathryn L. Allison, the English department chairwoman at North Central High School nearby, doubts that the computer can accurately assess the quality of grammatically correct and well-structured student essays that lack substance or are wrong on the facts. "Are kids going to be rewarded for having pedestrian-type answers?" she asked.

So the automated grading system, which has no way of evaluating the substance and quality of answers, produces grades that are virtually identical to the grades of human teachers.

Welcome to high school.

Monday, May 17, 2004

David Frum writes on the subject of Sweden:

And so today as in 1800, a grand aristocracy of career politicians, civil servants, and favored businesses benefit from the system: the prime minister lives in an 18th century palace compared to which 10 Downing Street looks like a cramped little rowhouse. The middle class has grown much larger, but no more independent than it was 150 years ago: They pay two-thirds or more of their incomes in taxes and so are placed in a position of almost absolute dependency on the state in their old age...

One would think from the description that old people in Sweden end up providing slave labor to the state. But no; Frum is of course referring to Sweden's generous pension system. Think of the language: old people are not "provided for," they are "placed in a position of almost absolute dependency."

I don't know about you, but when I think of old people, I think of healthy, robust individuals who need to get out there and get jobs. This "pension" and "Social Security" stuff is bullshit. Away with you, geezer welfare queens!

More on doctors: my previous entry got me thinking about something I read years ago in a college english class, a story entitled The Use of Force by William Carlos Williams.

Williams was a doctor in the first part of the twentieth century who wrote semi-autobiographical stories about medecine. The Use of Force tells the story, in first person, of a doctor who is called to check whether a girl has diptheria, only to find upon his arrival that the girl refuses to open her mouth and let him look at her tonsils. The parents scream at her, throw tantrums, all to no avail. Eventually, after he has had enough, the father of the girl decides to forcefully pry her mouth open, and sets to the task together with the doctor. Diptheria, after all, is lethal and they must find out immediately whether she has it or not. The story, which switches back and forth between the narrative and the doctor's thoughts, provides some disturbing and graphic imagery (the emphasis is mine):

If you don't do what the doctor says you'll have to go to the hospital, the mother admonished her severly.

Oh yeah? I had to smile to myself. After all, I had already fallen in love with the savage brat, the parents were contemptible to me. In the ensuing struggle, they grew more and more abject, crushed, exhausted while she surely rose to magnificent heights of insane fury of effort bred of her terror of me.

The father tried his best, and he was a big man but the fact that she was his daughter, his shame at her behavior and his dread of hurting her made him release her just at the critical moment several times when I had almost achieved success, till I wanted to kill him. But his dread also that she might have diptheria made him tell me to go on, go on though he himself was almost fainting, while the mother moved back and forth behind us raising and lowering her hands in an agony of apprehension.

Put her in front of you on your lap, I ordered, and hold both her wrists. But as soon as he did the child let out a scream. Don't, you're hurting me. Let go of my hands. Let them go I tell you. Then she shrieked terrifyings, hysterically. Stop it! Stop it! You're killing me!

Do you think she can stand it, doctor! said the mother.
You get out, said the husband to his wife. Do you want her to die of diptheria?
Come on now, hold her, I said...

Aren't you ashamed, the mother yelled at her. Aren't you ashamed to act like that in front of the doctor?
Get me a smooth-handled spoon of some sort, I told the mother. We're going to go through with this. The child's mouth was already bleeding. Her tongue was cut and she was screaming in wild hysterical shrieks. Perhaps I should have desisted and come back in an hour or more. No doubt it would have been better. But I have seen at least two children lying dead of neglect in such cases, and feeling that I must get a diagnosis now or never I went at it again. But the worst of it was that I too had got beyond reason. I could have torn the child apart in my own fury and enjoyed it. It was a pleasure to attack her. My face was burning with it.

Eventually the doctor succeeds, with the help of the father, in prying her mouth open only to see a sore throat -- no diptheria.

In class discussion, the most common response is usually to defend the doctor. After all, he did nothing wrong; he had to know whether the girl had diptheria; he had to forcefully open her mouth, for her own good. Not only that, but all his actions were done with the permission, and assistance, of the parents.

And yet consider the rhetoric I put in boldface in the excerpt above. Would you entrust your daughter to a doctor that thought these things? Even if you could not detect these thoughts affecting his actions?

Williams' stories are interesting because they explore the eerie surrender of privacy and the blind trust that characterize doctor-patient relations. The Use of Force is part of Williams' The Doctor Stories, available on amazon.

Trust us, we're doctors: most people think of doctors as objective, rational, and kind people whose utmost concern is to help you get well.

They're wrong.

I am not saying that doctors are evil and malicious. I am saying that doctors have interests which are quite often divergent from the interests of their patients and that it is foolish for people to be unaware of this.

In the US, for example, it is in the interest of doctors to prescribe drugs. Pharmaceutical companies give all kinds of kickbacks to doctors that frequently prescribe their medications. These most often include lavish gifts and free vacations:

Disgusted by how the free gifts and trips add to the high price of medicine, and moved by the plight of patients forced to skip needed medication, Mueller agreed to provide Primetime with a rare glimpse of the astounding number of drug company freebies he was offered by various drug companies in a four-month period.

He was presented with an estimated $10,000 worth, including an all-expenses-paid trip to a resort in Florida, dinner cruises, hockey game tickets, a ski trip for the family, Omaha steaks, a day at a spa and free computer equipment.

"It changes your prescribing behavior. You just sort of get caught up in it," said Mueller, who said he was offered a cash payment of $2,000 for putting four patients on the latest drug for high cholesterol. The company called this a clinical study; Mueller called it a bounty...

Though Mueller normally declines the offers, he agreed to attend a dinner, which Primetime secretly taped. Not only were the doctors wined and dined, but each was also offered a payment of $150 for just showing up to listen to a pitch for a new asthma treatment for children.

The company called it "an honorarium," but Mueller saw it differently. "Again, it's bribery," he said. "This is very effective marketing."

From experience, I can testify that it is not difficult at all to get medication prescribed for you. At one point during my undergraduate career, a physician enthusiastically prescribed Adderall to me after I complained of not being able to pay attention; the whole session sounded suspiciously like a sales pitch for the drug. Did I know that adderall is also going to help me lose weight? Did I know that it would help me stay up all night before exams? Adderall, by the way, is the leading treatment of ADD and is actually just speed in small doses; it happens to be the most abused drugs in the US.

Is this really the way to do medecine?

Update: An article in the Chicago Tribune on the gift culture in medecine describes a case that actually went to trial:

In the trial of 11 current or former sales staffers of TAP Pharmaceutical Products Inc., prosecutors and witnesses have said that physicians extracted gifts by threatening to switch patients from TAP's Lupron--a prostate cancer drug that costs more than $400 a dose--to a rival drug, Zoladex, that was $100 a dose cheaper and just as effective.

At least one doctor, according to testimony, wrote out a list of what he wanted.

Cleveland urologist Dr. Kalish Kedia allegedly provided TAP's sales staff with a list of perks he wanted during the mid to late 1990s. Prosecutors said Kedia, who prosecutors claim purchased nearly $1 million of Lupron annually, demanded company-paid airline tickets and trips to resorts.

He also charged more than $7,000 to the credit card of a TAP sales representative for dinners for himself and his physician friends, prosecutors said.

"He was a doctor who always had his hand out," said Susan Winkler, an assistant U.S. attorney in Boston. "He kept threatening to switch to Zoladex. He always wanted something."

Saturday, May 15, 2004

From Oscar Wilde's The Soul of Man Under Socialism,

The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody. In fact, scarcely any one at all escapes.

Now and then, in the course of the century, a great man of science, like Darwin; a great poet, like Keats; a fine critical spirit, like M. Renan; a supreme artist, like Flaubert, has been able to isolate himself, to keep himself out of reach of the clamorous claims of others, to stand "under the shelter of the wall," as Plato puts it, and so to realise the perfection of what was in him, to his own incomparable gain, and to the incomparable and lasting gain of the whole world. These, however, are exceptions. The majority of people spoil their lives by an unhealthy and exaggerated altruism - are forced, indeed, so to spoil them. They find themselves surrounded by hideous poverty, by hideous ugliness, by hideous starvation. It is inevitable that they should be strongly moved by all this. The emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man's intelligence; and, as I pointed out some time ago in an article on the function of criticism, it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought. Accordingly, with admirable though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease... The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.

Friday, May 14, 2004

Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Reynolds think the media is out of touch with the American people. They claim that the American people are far more interested in the Neck Berg affair than in the Abu Ghraib scandal, and while the papers are full of Iraqi-abuse related stories, the Berg decapitation is no longer front page material.

To support this, they cite the top 10 internet searches:

nick berg video
nick berg
berg beheading
beheading video
nick berg beheading video
nick berg beheading
berg video
berg beheading video
"nick berg"
video nick berg

Uhh, here's the thing guys. Look at the search queries. The people who are making the above searches are not interested in information about the Berg affair. They are not, much as you'd like to believe, outraged Americans who are interested in Instapundit commentary. Whats a word that appears in nearly all of the above searches? "video." They want to watch the snuff film. They're interested in seeing the grotesque decapitation on tape.

Hardly a sign that the media is out of touch with the people.

From an article entitled 'Fictitious' author publishes the first book without verbs in the Telegraph,

The author, a doctor of literature who admits that "Thaler" is a pseudonym, and who has not previously written books under the name, said it was liberating to write without verbs, which he describes as "invaders, dictators, and usurpers of our literature".

(link via

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

During Rumsfeld's testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Joe Lieberman said the following:

Mr. Secretary, the behavior by Americans at the prison in Iraq is, as we all acknowledge, immoral, intolerable and un-American...

I cannot help but say, however, that those who were responsible for killing 3,000 Americans on September 11th, 2001, never apologized. Those who have killed hundreds of Americans in uniform in Iraq working to liberate Iraq and protect our security have never apologized.

And those who murdered and burned and humiliated four Americans in Fallujah a while ago never received an apology from anybody...

But Americans are different. That's why we're outraged by this.

It proved to be too much for blogger Joshua Marshall and Penn-state prof. Michael Berube. Apparently, Lieberman's statement was indefensible.

Berube, for example, writes,

Now, I won't dwell on the utter fatuousness of this justification for the rape, torture, and murder of random Iraqis-- every other sane person already has...

Slow down there. When exactly did Lieberman try to "justify" rape, torture, and murder of random Iraqis? Lieberman merely pointed out that we are different from the people we fight; that while we are outraged by mistreatment of civilians, our enemies relish it.

There's nothing fatuous about that.

Given the scandal over treatement of Iraqi prisoners in U.S. jails, this may be good time to give another look to the old Rumsfeld memo leaked in October. It created a minor political firestorm back then due to its departure from the positive outlook on Iraq and the war on terror spun by the goverment officials. I, for one, was encouraged at the time by its candor and self-critical outlook; it reassured me that the top brass at the pentagon was in touch with the problems they were likely to face in the 21st century.

The emphasis is mine.

TO: Gen. Dick Myers
Paul Wolfowitz
Gen. Pete Pace
Doug Feith

FROM: Donald Rumsfeld

SUBJECT: Global War on Terrorism

The questions I posed to combatant commanders this week were: Are we winning or losing the Global War on Terror? Is DoD changing fast enough to deal with the new 21st century security environment? Can a big institution change fast enough? Is the USG changing fast enough?

DoD has been organized, trained and equipped to fight big armies, navies and air forces. It is not possible to change DoD fast enough to successfully fight the global war on terror; an alternative might be to try to fashion a new institution, either within DoD or elsewhere — one that seamlessly focuses the capabilities of several departments and agencies on this key problem.

With respect to global terrorism, the record since Septermber 11th seems to be:

We are having mixed results with Al Qaida, although we have put considerable pressure on them — nonetheless, a great many remain at large.

USG has made reasonable progress in capturing or killing the top 55 Iraqis.

USG has made somewhat slower progress tracking down the Taliban — Omar, Hekmatyar, etc.

With respect to the Ansar Al-Islam, we are just getting started.

Have we fashioned the right mix of rewards, amnesty, protection and confidence in the US?

Does DoD need to think through new ways to organize, train, equip and focus to deal with the global war on terror?

Are the changes we have and are making too modest and incremental? My impression is that we have not yet made truly bold moves, although we have have made many sensible, logical moves in the right direction, but are they enough?

Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror. Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?

Does the US need to fashion a broad, integrated plan to stop the next generation of terrorists? The US is putting relatively little effort into a long-range plan, but we are putting a great deal of effort into trying to stop terrorists. The cost-benefit ratio is against us! Our cost is billions against the terrorists' costs of millions.

Do we need a new organization?

How do we stop those who are financing the radical madrassa schools?

Is our current situation such that "the harder we work, the behinder we get"?

It is pretty clear that the coalition can win in Afghanistan and Iraq in one way or another, but it will be a long, hard slog.

Does CIA need a new finding?

Should we create a private foundation to entice radical madradssas to a more moderate course?

What else should we be considering?

Please be prepared to discuss this at our meeting on Saturday or Monday.


Interesting tidbit: Google news finds, at the time of writing, 1018 articles
on the Philadelphia-Tamba Bay Stanley cup semifinals, 931 articles
on the Spurs-Lakers series, 576 articles on the US offensive against Al-Sadr,
and 170 articles on the start of US-North Korea talks on WMDs.

A peculiar feature of American politics is the propensity of seemingly rational and intelligent people to believe "it's gotta get worse before it gets better, so lets make it worse" arguments.

Exhibit one: small-goverment conservatives who want to starve the goverment of revenue. Paul Krugman assembles a couple of quotations in his NY Times article on the topic:

[They] actually welcomes the revenue losses from tax cuts. [The] most visible spokesman today is Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, who once told National Public Radio: ''I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.'' And the way to get it down to that size is to starve it of revenue. ''The goal is reducing the size and scope of government by draining its lifeblood,'' Norquist told U.S. News & World Report...

The starve-the-beast doctrine is now firmly within the conservative mainstream. George W. Bush himself seemed to endorse the doctrine as the budget surplus evaporated: in August 2001 he called the disappearing surplus ''incredibly positive news'' because it would put Congress in a ''fiscal straitjacket.''

I cite this passage only to note that creating a fiscal crisis is a mainstream conservative position, endorsed by the President himself. Moreover, adherents of this idea are not limited to radicals in the conservative camp; the other day I saw a thoughtful Robert Barro argue on PBS that budget deficits are good because they will eventually force the goverment to cut back on social services.

Yet pause and think for a second: these people want to drive the US into bankrupcy. They want to saddle it with a debt it cannot repay. And they do not advocate honesty in driving the US to financial ruin; no, they counsel irresponsible tax cuts justified with populist "its your money" slogans with the ultimate goal of leaving the goverment on the brink of insolvency. Its downright treasonous.

Exhibit two: Ralph Nader. From the June 2000 issue of Outside magazine,

If California tips Green enough, Bush could win the state and the whole damn election. Which, Nader confided to Outside in June, wouldn't be so bad. When asked if someone put a gun to his head and told him to vote for either Gore or Bush, which he would choose, Nader answered without hesitation: 'Bush.'"

Later Nader says,

"If you want the parties to diverge from one another, have Bush win."

It is unquestionable that had Nader not run in 2000, Al Gore would have been inaugurated president. Nader was quite successful in his apparent goal of tipping the election to Bush. And now he seeks to do it again in '04; every single poll I have seen puts Kerry worse off relative to Bush with Nader in the race.

Once again: how can seemingly thoughtful and rational people embrace this ridiculous "let's make things worse" argument?

Monday, May 10, 2004

This is why I am a Democrat: in a blatantly partisan decision, Bush's head of the Food and Drug Administration has rejected the recommendation of FDA's scientists to make the morning-after pill available over the counter. The decision has been justly criticized in the mainstream press; its unprecedented for a political appointee at the top of the FDA to go against the recommendation of the agency's scientists, who found that the morning-after pill is safe and does not increase unprotected sex among teenagers.

The justification provided: women cannot have access to this method of birth control because teenage girls might not be able to figure out how to use it. Ummm, yeah. The instructions for the morning-after pill say to take it with water within 72 hours of sex. Exactly which part of this is so terribly difficult to understand?

From today's NY Times (link):

Jayson Littman is not especially lonely, or religious, or in need of cash - things that strangers might assume upon meeting him.

He is a financial analyst who happens to think that New Yorkers could use a hug. So it was, a month ago, that Mr. Littman began distributing hugs - free - from 1 to 4 p.m. on Sundays in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.

"At first I thought no one would respond," said Mr. Littman, 26, who lives in Manhattan. But on his first Sunday, standing before a giant hand-lettered sign that reads "Free Hugs," Mr. Littman and a friend embraced 200 people in two and a half hours.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

A Canadian organization is urging people to boycott their census questionnaire because Lockheed-Martin, an American company that manufactures, among other things, weapons systems, is handling part of the outsourcing work on the census. According to the group's website, their efforts may have succeeded and Lockheed-Martin may not be doing the 2006 census.

A bit ironic, no? Anyone remember the big scandal over the Iraqi reconstruction contracts? The U.S. limited bidding on Iraqi reconstruction contracts to nations that contributed to the effort in Iraq and everyone was quite angry, especially Canadians. "Shocking," said Canadian Deputy Prime Minister John Manley. "Very difficult to fathom," said PM Paul Martin. Bush eventually relented and let Canadian companies (but not French or German ones) bid for those contracts. It seems that financial dealings with the American military-industrial complex are not so bad as long as its a Canadian company that gets the deal.

Q: The good news: I met someone I really like at a gay Seder. The bad news: he's geographically undesirable. I just don't do Brooklyn. Should I tear up his number now?

--from Q&A: The Help Desk section in New York Magazine.

Saturday, May 08, 2004

Fact: 3-5% of teachers in the Chicago public schools cheat to boost the performance of their classrooms on standarized tests (reported in this paper).

This is hardly surprising for anyone who passed through the American public school system. I recall how, in sixth grade, the day before we had to take some important state-wide test, my teacher took a copy of the exam -- which of course had arrived in the school a few days before the actual exam date - and went through it with us question by question. She did not reveal the questions themselves or answers; but for each question on the test, she wrote a similar question on the board, perhaps with different numbers if it was a math question, or with a different sentence if it was a verbal one, and showed us how to solve it.

I wonder whether the rate of student cheating in the Chicago public schools is higher than 5%.

The Japanese have a reputation for subtelty, politeness, and indirectness in speech. Online, however, it seems they behave quite differently:

In a society in which subtlety is prized above all, face-to-face confrontation is avoided, insults can be leveled with verbal nuances and hidden meanings are found everywhere, there is one place where the Japanese go to bare their souls and engage in verbal combat: Channel 2.

It is Japan's largest Internet bulletin board- the place where disgruntled employees leak information about their companies, journalists include tidbits they cannot get into the mainstream news media and the average salaryman attacks with ferocity and language unacceptable in daily life. It is also the place where gays come out in a society in which they mostly remain in the closet, where users freely broach taboo subjects

...Unlike the real Japanese world, where language is calibrated according to one's social position, the wording on Channel 2 is often stripped of social indicators or purposefully manipulated to confuse readers. Language is also raw. "Die!" is a favorite insult - and the comments are blunt, often cruel and hurled with studied cynicism.

But Channel 2 is also a window into Japan's ugly side. Many of the contents tend to be nationalistic and xenophobic, especially toward Koreans. When Sony and Samsung recently announced a joint project, users attacked Sony for cooperating with the South Korean company. "Die, Sony!" read several comments. "Die, Koreans!" Many wrote that they hated Koreans, using a derogatory term to describe them.

"They seem to dare to say things that they cannot utter in the real world..." said Kaoru Endo, a sociology professor at Gakushuin University, referring to users of the Web site. "They want to say antagonistic things against Koreans exactly because there is a prohibition against saying such things in Japanese society."

Negotiations of a marriage: from William Congreve's The Way of the World,

MIRABELL. Have you any more conditions to offer? Hitherto your demands
are pretty reasonable.

MILLAMANT. ...liberty to pay and receive visits to and from
whom I please; to write and receive letters, without interrogatories
or wry faces on your part; to wear what I please, and choose
conversation with regard only to my own taste; to have no obligation
upon me to converse with wits that I don't like, because they are
your acquaintance, or to be intimate with fools, because they may be
your relations. Come to dinner when I please, dine in my dressing-
room when I'm out of humour, without giving a reason. To have my
closet inviolate; to be sole empress of my tea-table, which you must
never presume to approach without first asking leave. And lastly,
wherever I am, you shall always knock at the door before you come
in. These articles subscribed, if I continue to endure you a little
longer, I may by degrees dwindle into a wife.

Thursday, May 06, 2004

Bush has a new plan to aid Castro's opponents in Cuba: military aircraft are to broadcast American programming inside the country and more aid to the Cuban opposition and dissidents, to the tune of $36 million a year.

In a White House ceremony... Mr. Bush said his actions would help hasten an end to the Castro government, which has held power for 45 years.

Frankly, it sounds like election year posturing to me. As the administration very well knows, $36 million is a small amount of money unlikely to make much of a difference. Given that the bay of pigs did not provoke an expected anti-Castro uprising, what are the chances that beaming American programming into Cuba will?

I'm going to make this weblog slightly more personal.

Before the past few entries, I've written primarily about politics and literature (but mostly politics). My reasons were that, roughly, almost every single personal weblog I had encountered was mind-numblingly boring. Unless I knew the person in "real" life, I felt no reason to be interested in the myriad of personal details such blogs inevitably contain.

After some reflection, though, I realized I need to have some sort of personal record. I can't quite articulate why; but it seems I have some urge within me to set things down on paper. I think I can do this without falling into the pitfall of making this a diary; and, anyway, the idea of making it comprehensive is unfeasible because some people I know in real life read this and I can't write honestly about them.

So, in that spirit, a scene from last night. I am helping my father do some text processing; he has five binary matrices he needs to enter into the computer and his scanner is not working. He wants me to read the matrices out loud to him. Initially I refuse, but, in the end, I yield.

After we are done, he says, with a satisfied look, "You know, it was not bad after all that you were created." "Yes," I reply, "and moreover, the time it took you to quote-unquote create me is probably less than the time you saved just now by having me read you the data." He casts me a curious glance and says "Your opinion of me is too low."

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Perhaps its just me, but I find it extraordinarily annoying when liberals spurned by major broadcasting companies complain that free speech in America is under siege. Case in point: the recent snub of Michael Moore by Disney.

Moore has produced a movie entitled "Fahrenheit 911" which, among other things, makes much of the connection between the Bush family and Saudi oil interests, including the Bin Laden family. The film was produced by Miramax, which is owned by Disney through an agreement which allows Disney to block the distribution of certain films; soon after "Fahrenheit 911" was made, Disney exercised this option and blocked its distribution.

From the NYT article linked to above:

Mr. Moore, who will present the film at the Cannes film festival this month, criticized Disney's decision in an interview on Tuesday, saying, "At some point the question has to be asked, `Should this be happening in a free and open society where the monied interests essentially call the shots regarding the information that the public is allowed to see?' "

Yes, this should be happenning.

The goverment did not censor Moore's speech. Nobody has forbidden him to make his movie. All that has happenned is that the Disney corporation, which paid for the movie, has decided to prevent its release. There is no law that says that Disney has to sponsor Moore's movies or that it has to distribute them once they are produced.

This is vaguely reminiscent of Bill Maher, who cried foul after ABC pulled the plug on his show following his statement that American pilots, rather than the terrorists, are the real cowards. The point is that ABC is a private company that has no obligation to Bill Maher. If ABC or Disney choose to disassociate from certian political views, its their right to do so.

As for whether these things should be happenning: I personally happen to think that almost everything Moore says is nonsense and if Disney sponsored his movie I just might decide to boycott Disney products in protest. I'm just like that. Disney is operating in a marketplace full of consumers like me and it better be careful because we are a fickle bunch who like boycotts.

In a free society, one in which I and other consumers are allowed to form our own views, declare them, and act on them in any way we see fit, it should be expected that these sorts of things should happen.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

The other day, I was meandering online when I noticed that my first ex signed on, for the first time in years. I im'ed her.

Frankly, I'd like to keep in touch. Not that I have any desire to get back together with her -- but she was a central part of my life for about 2-3 years and I'm curious. I want to know how things have worked out for her. Has she found the right guy? Has she married? What does she think about politics? She would probably begin railing about the evil Democrats and I'd smile and think she hasn't changed one bit.

She didn't respond. I thought perhaps she didn't get my message? Instant messenger plays tricks sometimes. But no, she got it allright -- the next time she signed online, I was on two screen-names simulatenously -- one she knew about and one she didn't -- and there it was -- she blocked me.

This is the first post in a while -- I had to take a break from blogging in the last week. First, finals, then a three-day road trip from the south to the northeast.

Is it just me or do people in the south drive a lot faster than in the northeast? My car is an ageing '96 camry that begins to wiggle uncomfortably when the speed approaches 80 mph; I go 75 most days. Cars kept passing me at an uncomfortable rate in the south but in the northeast I fit in just fine.

I've graduated! B.S. Mathematics, B.S. Electrical Engineering. I feel fairly comfortable as a mathematician. In electrical engineering...well...despite a B.S. from one of the top engineering schools in the US, I feel pretty uncomfortable in the topic. Like a fish out of water. It scares me to think that companies would hire me to build actual working devices based on my education.

Next: graduate school. In electrical engineering. At least its not work in the industry, which scares me. The work I will be doing will be really, really theoretical, which makes me feel comfortable. It could easily pass for math as far as most mathematicians are concerned. On the other hand, its in an area I do not have much experience with and I'll have to do a lot of learning. What if I don't have the talent for this stuff? Scary thought.