Archive for the 'Sci / Tech' Category

Media Matters

Climate change denialists lose on the internet.

Rapid post drawing attention to this article:

We discovered that the disruptive faction that bombarded climate change posts was actually substantially smaller than it had seemed. Just a small handful of people ran all of the most offensive accounts. What looked like a substantial group of objective skeptics to the outside observer was actually just a few bitter and biased posters with more opinions then evidence.

Negating the ability of this misguided group to post to the forum quickly resulted in a change in the culture within the comments. Where once there were personal insults and bitter accusations, there is now discussion of the relevant aspects of the research. Instead of (almost comically) paranoid and delusional conspiracy theories, we have knowledgeable users explaining complicated concepts to non-scientists who are simply interested in understanding the research. While we won’t claim /r/science is perfect, users seem happy with the changes made.

Like our commenters, professional climate change deniers have an outsized influence in the media and the public. And like our commenters, their rejection of climate science is not based on an accurate understanding of the science but on political preferences and personality. As moderators responsible for what millions of people see, we felt that to allow a handful of commenters to so purposefully mislead our audience was simply immoral.

So if a half-dozen volunteers can keep a page with more than 4 million users from being a microphone for the antiscientific, is it too much to ask for newspapers to police their own editorial pages as proficiently?

            — Nathan Allen

The Grist write-up is entitled, Reddit’s science forum banned climate deniers. Why don’t all newspapers do the same?. Why, indeed.

Daily Trawl

Missed my Friday Giant due to off-line commitments, but I have read a few things I found interesting over the last couple of days, so here they are.

1. Balls still rolling.

And yet civilisation has failed to grind to a halt.

Good Morning, Denver

It is hard not to notice that two issues which have been daydreams for the left for a very long time have both suddenly gained popular traction and started moving towards resolutions. I’m not the first to draw parallels between marriage equality and cannabis prohibition. One of the things that was remarked on during the process of moving marriage equality from a fringe view to a majority one was that the great post-AIDS growth in activism aimed particularly at living out of the closet had made an enormous difference. The more important people suddenly realised they had a gay relative or friend, the more people who had for years supported the idea but been prevented from speaking out by expediency kept coming out of the woodwork and writing articles.

Something very similar has happened with the growing cracks in the international consensus on cannabis prohibition, and it can be seen easily in the coverage by the FT. After the GCDP report in 2011 in which 149 major world dignitaries outed themselves as in favour of ending cannabis prohibition, the FT published a careful and guardedly positive article pointing out the economic benefits of ending the War on Drugs. There have been several more positive blog posts and op-eds since. But in the last two days they alone have published no less than three different articles [1] on the subject. The Torygraph (oddly) have generally been supportive (they were the main vehicle for Richard Branson’s press campaign in 2011 and 2012) but since ballot legalisation in Colorado took effect several of their authors have come out openly cheerleading for the project. The Independent is not immune. Add in the Nutt-Sack affair, Sanjay Gupta’s informative mea culpa, Uruguay’s current confrontation with the INCB and all the other things that have happened and you can see why this time feels a bit different than last.

Continue reading ‘Daily Trawl’

Friday Giant 3: … and Babbage.

Back in the mists of Internet pre-history, there was such a thing as a Sharp PC-500. Ever heard of bubble memory? If you’re any younger than me, you almost certainly haven’t. Be glad. That screen? 80 char x 8 ln can be a little weird to work on. A printer built into the back of a laptop? Actually, a great idea in principle but the resultant luggable was rather heavy and vulnerable to failures. But my first steps as an 8-year old proto-geek were taken using this computer, on which my father taught me how to first create a font for Tolkein’s Angerthas, and then do the necessary hackery to teach the computer how to use that font in WYSIWYG and print display. While doing so, he also told me about this Friday’s giant.

Child of one of the greatest celebrities of the day, a mathematical prodigy and a person of remarkable moral fibre and agile intellect, they have a programming language named for them, and are remembered as the genius who realised in mathematical language the potential a collaborator had recognised in Jacquard’s Loom. Their paradigm for symbolic general computing was, eventually, proved in practice to work as designed. But eventually was over a hundred and fifty years later, and the engine in question is remembered under the name of the man who thought he could build one (he couldn’t) rather than the woman who thought she could program one (who could).

Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace.

Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace.

Ada Lovelace would have been a truly extraordinary person in any era, and she happened to be born at a nexus point in European intellectual history. As Mary Wollestonecroft and George Eliot stand within the literary world, so Lovelace stands within the history of mathematics. The co-incidence of birth certainly affected her career, though. Had she not been the daughter of Lord Byron, she might have had more fun in life and would probably not have been driven by her mother into the sciences and mathematics as an armour against poetry. That accident of history led her to develop one of the most creative intellects England has ever seen.

Quoting from here:

In 1842, an Italian mathematician, Louis Menebrea, published a memoir in French on the subject of the Analytical Engine. Babbage enlisted Ada as translator for the memoir, and during a nine-month period in 1842-43, she worked feverishly on the article and a set of Notes she appended to it. These are the source of her enduring fame.

Ada called herself “an Analyst (& Metaphysician),” and the combination was put to use in the Notes. She understood the plans for the device as well as Babbage but was better at articulating its promise. She rightly saw it as what we would call a general-purpose computer. It was suited for “developping [sic] and tabulating any function whatever. . . the engine [is] the material expression of any indefinite function of any degree of generality and complexity.” Her Notes anticipate future developments, including computer-generated music.

lovelacepg5I am just a year younger than Lovelace was when she died. In her short life she ignored or overcame so many restraints and obstacles to her pursuit of beautiful logic: but she is to this day a giant of the Enlightenment who is far too often overlooked. There are a great many interesting things that are entirely true about Ada Lovelace, but I would strongly suggest that the reader discovers them via the end-notes attached to each installment of this work of historical and comedic genius. 2D Goggles: Babbage and Lovelace (Fight Crime!), created by Sydney Padua and apparently far advanced from when I last checked it, is brilliant, funny, warped, beautifully drawn, historically accurate except when it isn’t, and annotated with all sorts of wonderfully interesting things and tempestuous people from the high age of Victorian engineering. The comic features, among other attractions: The Difference Engine! Queen Victoria! Steam Trains! A runaway Economic Model! Wellington’s horse! And Isambard Kingdom Brunel with an unfeasibly large cigar! Read it. You’ll laugh, frequently. You’ll know a great deal more about the real Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace, and her pet buffoon Charles Babbage. And you’ll never again listen to any self-entitled basement bandit who tries to tell you girls don’t do math.

I have to say as a personal note that while Babbage needed a business manager more desperately than anyone else in history, and few people besides Lovelace would have had enough obsession with the Engines to see the project through the inevitable calamities, Lovelace had problems of her own which would have hampered the achievement of the steam-powered information age. To the ‘Byron Devil’ I believe we can give the name of ‘manic-depression’, and immediately after the Notes thing she turned her attention with personal urgency to the field of brain chemistry. I have to say, respect to Ada for recognizing it as a neurological problem; one, however, that she really needed to be born 150 years later to study.
                — Sydney Padua

Grease-stained girls; an obsession since long before Firefly.

Daily Trawl: money, party, pope and taboo

Yesterday was filled with many things that weren’t blogging, so a large link dump into which I’ll fold concise versions of the thinking I was doing about some items. Below the jump: macro, deficits, austerians, popes, racists, political parties and the terrible price of Anglo hypocrisy.

This shit right here? This is why I am passionate about the end of prohibition.

Daniel Hernandez Favero: innocent, beaten and left for dead by prohibition.

1. Money that matters.
David Andolfatto has a nice piece on who pays the costs to insulate Germany. VoxEU has a long and wonkish piece on global macroeconomics in an era without a hegemon. Krugman has some more austerian myths to bust, or rather the same zombie myths yet again. Ezra Klein has a good view on why deficits matter to politicians more than they actually matter. And Felix Salmon reviews Cameron vs. Wolf and concludes, along with most observers, that the UK Prime Minister is not only talking rubbish but knows it, and is scrambling for any smoke screens he can find.

2. Partisans.
Jonathan Bernstein writes about parties a good deal. This post is looking at incentives, how to measure and analyse what parties ‘want’, and the risks of doing so in an era of extremely strong informal party networks. This is more of a thing there than here, where a significant informal party actor (the Sun) has changed parties twice in the last twenty years. That’s equivalent in their system to Fox News becoming a Democrat attack-dog a few days before the inevitable Obama win.

3. The Dish of the Day.
Andrew Sullivan and his readers at the Dish have been engaged in some very interesting discussions, including one which started from TNC and Jamelle Bouie about the construction of racism among European whites. A number of good points come up, including one I referred to before: that the triangle trade was operated by Africans selling other Africans to Europeans. White people created a new scale of demand, but the enslavement of other Africans was an established institution in Africa long before we showed up. However, the interesting part is about the difference between medieval and modern racism.

Bouie is correct that medieval Europe cared a lot more about your religion than your skin colour. The infidel were inferior, regardless of which tribal fidelity you subscribed to. That is extremely important, because one can (and many did) change religion. The state of being less-than was by definition impermanent, a matter of choice, and thus not innate. There simply was no structured theory of race. Compare with contemporary theories of wealth and class (nobility). That was innate, was blood-bound, and was extremely difficult to change: it required a deliberate act by an annointed prince of God.

What changed when the vigorous doctrines of Calvin interbred with economic and military expediency in the New World to create the dogma of white supremacy is that we redefined the infidel as irredeemable. Early Modern Europe, in parallel with the Enlightenment, invented and institutionalised a theory of innate and irrevocable skin-colour hierarchy which simply didn’t exist in medieval Europe. Cui bono? The aristocrats of Tidewater and the Deep South.

And while we’re talking about medieval religions, we also have a new pope. Another very conservative one, this time with a documented personal history as a direct and active agent of fascism. That’s not an encouraging sign.

4. Liam Fox nails his trousers to the mast.
The title of Alex Massie’s Spectator column is “Liam Fox shows David Cameron how to lead the Tories to a historic defeat”. Choice quotes include:

[…] the kind of man, frankly, that helps explain why the Conservative party has not won a general election majority since 1992.

It’s not the actual toffs who are the problem; it’s the grasping and thrusting self-made Tories who sneer that the rest of the country could be just like them if only they were prepared to bloody work hard enough. This, of course, is meretricious twaddle. These are the Tories who make Mitt Romney look like a political genius.

Strivers vs shirkers? Give me a break

5. Harm reduction
And for anyone following the Prohibition story, here’s a few more people breaking the taboo. Intersectionality between the War on Drugs and the religious right’s War on Women, in the NYT. Scientific American are talking about routine screening programs, which have an alarming false positive rate for something that is now a fact of life for 45% of US workers. Josh Marshall of TPM has a very interesting look at how gay marriage, cannabis prohibition and small-c conservatism triangulated for him over the last few years. And then there’s this. If you want to understand the price paid by poor people of colour to mollify the petty prejudices and cheap moral indignation of aging Anglos, read this article and look at the pictures. Without prohibition, none of this happens.

Daily Trawl

Morning coffee reading.

1. Politics

Gallup are worried.
One for the poli-sci geeks, Mark Blumenthal has a long and technical but very interesting HuffPo article about how and why America’s best known pollster called the 2012 election badly wrong, and what they’re trying to do about it.
Ideas vs. Ideologies.
Henry Farrell is at the Monkey Cage talking about political ideas and how we can study them. A key point is that there is a difference between ideas as they are had, as they are communicated, and as they are received, and that we need a better language for examining the results of those differences.
Lifetime and expectations.
Jared Bernstein examines some recent numbers on life expectancy for the poor and the rich, and discusses the impact that should have, but doesn’t, on the austerity debate.

2. Economics

Austerians again.
On CiF, Aditya Chakrabortty has a history lesson for Cameron and Osbourne. The basic point that the struggle to retain the gold standard, resulting in what today we would call austerity, directly contributed to WWII is familiar to anyone who has read any post-Keynesian macro or, frankly, any A-level student to studied the causes of WWII or the Great Dictators. The key point here, which is referenced but not explored much, is that when austerity measures have worked, it has always been in a specific context; one country exercising austerity while their economic environment in general was booming. Ireland 87-85 is a classic exmple. Austerity becomes dangerous when you try it during a global economic downturn of any scale. Oh wait…
Owned or Rented?
Mike Bryan and Nick Parker of the Atlanta Fed are talking about owner’s equivalent rent and its impact on CPI. This post is a bit wonkish, and it covers one reason why many homeowners don’t own what they think, but it leaves out a more politically sensitive angle. Unless you own your own home outright, you are still renting it; or more accurately you continue to rent the money you used to buy it with, from a mortgage lender. The active encouragement by policy incentives of rent-seeking (as opposed to productive) economic behaviour is a significant contributor to the rise of our new Gilded Age.

3. Science is…

Awesome!
Trees! Underwater off Alabama, from 50k years ago, which are sixty feet closer to the surface than they should be. Continents are interesting.
Intriguing!
Hannah Cheng has a series on the 52Hertz Whale; what we know, what people guess, and why finding stuff out about a place as big as the Pacific is very expensive.
And sometimes rather scary.
The Boston Globe talk to Admiral Lockyear about China, North Korea and climate change. The basic scenario that is worrying the Admiral is familiar to anyone who reads speculative fiction or hangs out with hippies, but this isn’t a climate geek or a Whole Earth customer; this is a guy who commands a very large budget, four hundred thousand personnel and a whole lot of boom.


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Per Argument Ad Astra

Politics, history, economics and rampant speculation from a victim of the Great Recession, currently at large in the West Midlands.

"When the regulation, therefore, is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters."
                -- Adam Smith