When environmental laws get in the way of your phone call

New rules concerning the radiation filtering abilities of automotive glass in California (‘Cool’ car rules could affect radios, phones) are making it more difficult to use radio sources in cars. There are all sorts of weird side effects of this policy like ” “ankle bracelets for parolees,” along with cell phone calls and laptops, “may be adversely affected by the metallic reflective standard” because the signals “must be able to penetrate the glazing in vehicles.” “. In time serious cell phone users will get exterior antennae to boost their signals that wire through the car’s body, but it is easy to imagine this cutting down on cell phone use while driving. When parked having the window down to make a call is easy, but on a CA highway going 80 it is nearly impossible to make a call with the window down.

Transparency policies have costs and benefits

Against Transparency The perils of openness in government by Lawrence Lessig is an interesting position we don’t see much taken, that transparency can become a problem and should be avoided. I first learned about the radical transparency movement from David Brin’s The Transparent Society. While recognizing that transparency has costs as well as benefits, Lessig’s article doesn’t mention a single example where the costs clearly exceed the benefits. In general Brin’s lesson remains true, that choice is not between privacy and freedom, but instead whether none of us will have privacy or just the powerful. And if none of us have privacy, perhaps we will learn a bit of willful blindness, and address some of the foolish mores and laws we wouldn’t want to see thoroughly applied.

Where is the medical evidence for the the flu medicine?

Does the Vaccine Matter? is an Atlantic Monthly article by Brownlee and Lenzer that asks the question posed by the title. Surprisingly, we it appears that we don’t know how well vaccines or antivirals work against influenza because it seems that no one has done any double blind medical trials. The best evidence comes from panel data, with serious concern about selection on unobservable criteria and the misreporting of many respiratory problems as the flu. A major concern appears to be the ethics of gathering such data, as no one wants to give a placebo to folks when there is a strong consensus that they work, even if that consensus is ill founded. However, I see the situation as just the opposite. Because the vast majority of people who get the flu won’t die from it, it is more ethical to do a blind trial on flu treatments than on a medicine like a cancer treatment where placebo makes death likely.

Treating mice to make them smarter

I wonder if I was the only person to see the The Frontal Cortex blog post on genetically modifying mice to make them smarter (Smart Mice) and kept thinking about Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh. It was one of my favorite children’s stories. It was made into a cartoon movie The Secret of NIMH, but I’ve never seen it.

Given my family history, I probably have an excellent chance of dying from a degenerative brain disease unless neuroscience gets a lot better in the next 60 years. I’d glad there are people out there doing this sort of work. On the other hand, if neuroscience does get a lot better then I stand a shot are partying at the end of the universe. That would excellent.

A fascinating question

A question so good that it makes you revisit your priors:

Lindgren was on the topic because of another inflammatory film proposal—the one about the talk-show host who has affairs with female staff members (the one that the CBS producer Robert Joel Halderman allegedly left, last month, with David Letterman’s limo driver). Halderman, as everyone knows, is being prosecuted for attempted grand larceny (he has denied wrongdoing), but the act he is accused of committing is blackmail, a crime that, in philosophical and legal circles, presents a conundrum. Lindgren is the author of a paper called “Unraveling the Paradox of Blackmail,” which raises the question: why is blackmail considered a crime? The thinking goes like this: It’s perfectly legal for Halderman to write, or threaten to write, a screenplay (or an e-mail to TMZ) exposing the fact that David Letterman had flings with “Late Show” employees. It’s also legal for Halderman to ask Letterman for money as part of a business transaction. So why are the two things illegal when you put them together? In other words, Lindgren said, “Why is it illegal to threaten to do what you can do legally anyway?”

You’ve Got Mail

Now I’m not sure how I feel.

For the underlying papers:
* Unraveling the Paradox of Blackmail
The Theory, History, and Practice of the Bribery-Extortion Distinction

Others have tried to answer this question:

Estimation problems

In the NY Times article Counting Coins to Count Rome’s Population, they report on Coin hoards speak of population declines in Ancient Rome,a Cliometric effort to estimate the population of ancient Rome.

A neat effort making use of cool data, but ultimately completely inconclusive. The crux of the paper is that there were periodic Roman censuses, which show that at some time between about 100 and 40 BCE there is a huge spike in the Roman population. The question is if this reflects measurement error, a change in methodology (like a decision to count women and children in addition to men), or simply a massive spike in population.

Paper authors Turchin and Scheidel argue that a change in methodology is the best explanation. They use a population growth model where there is a natural rate of population growth and then greater levels of war and armed conflict suppresses this growth rate. To measure the level of conflict they use hoards of coins. This supposedly is a good indicator because in times of conflict people hide their valuables, but if they die, they can’t dig it up again. So they have a linear suppression of the population growth rate based on the amount of gold hoards that have been discovered.

I see a few problems with their methodology. Foremost is that there is no sense in which we can count on the hoards to be randomly sampled. If they were then the frequency at which we’d have uncovered hoards would be an unbiased sample of the true frequency. Unfortunately, which is almost certainly not the case here. When your neighbor digs up gold on his property then you are inspired to spend the next few weekends digging in your own backyard. That creates endogeneity*, where areas with more numerous deposits are found at a frequency higher than their true frequency. So even if the model is true, for a given difference of true of population between two periods, the measured difference in hoards is larger than the true difference. This biases the effect of conflict to be larger than it actually is.

Another problem is their method of calibration in the face of time varying measurement error. They take the data before 100 BCE and use it to fit the model on censuses and hoard data. They then take the resulting coefficients and fit it on the post 100 BCE data, getting much lower estimates. However, say that Turchin and Scheidel are wrong about the cause. Say instead that there was a serious methodological problem with the way the earlier censuses were conducted that was solved in the later ones. In that case where the later estimates are more accurate and the early ones are too low, their model simply tells us that, hey, if you keep doing it the wrong way then you’ll predict the population as a value consistent with the mistaken estimates. Garbage in, garbage out.

*- There is another possibility, that population influences the amount of coins and therefore the amount of coins hidden, or that coins facilitate commerce allowing a greater population as well as more hoards. The authors claim that this not a problem, and I’ll believe them, the endogeneity problem to which I refer is a different one.

Not a good analogy

“A hearing actor playing a deaf character is tantamount to putting a white actor in blackface,” said Linda Bove, a deaf actress and board member of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts, an advocacy group for minority, disabled and deaf artists.

Hearing Man in Deaf Role Stirs Protests in New York

What this misses is that being deaf is a result of something being wrong while being black is a just one of several healthy human phenotypes. In an ideal world we could cure deafness. There is nothing in the condition of blackness to cure.

This is an outright lie about the Honduran government

“Since the military deposed the president, Manuel Zelaya, in June, Mr. Micheletti and his aides have received two American Congressional delegations — all Republicans — and they are getting additional free advice from former Republican officials who are clearly nostalgic for the cold war.”
Wrong Advice

I’m honestly stunned. The supreme court of Honduras deposed Zelaya and not the military. The military may have participated by arresting and deporting him. Nevertheless, to say that they deposed him is like saying that the Blagojevich was deposed as governor of Illinois by the FBI when they arrested him on corruption charges. It is such a brazen misstatement of fact as to constitute an overt lie.

Moral Quandary

This isn’t animal experimentation, where you can imagine some proportionate good at the other end of the suffering. This is what we feel like eating. Yet taste, the crudest of our senses, has been exempted from the ethical rules that govern our other senses. Why? Why doesn’t a horny person have as strong a claim to raping an animal as a hungry one does to confining, killing and eating it? It’s easy to dismiss that question but hard to respond to it. Try to imagine any end other than taste for which it would be justifiable to do what we do to farmed animals.


I believe if we surveyed humanity on deciding between legitimizing the use of animals for sexual purposes to the point where it was legal or making meat illegal they would choose the former by an overwhelming majority. The consumption of meat is so pleasurable that we would give up many of the ethical veils of our culture to retain it