Sunday, January 31, 2010

Objective Reality Rules on cell-phones and H1N1!

Last October 31st I wrote a blog titled Arbitrariness, confusion, fear and panic about Ontario's new hand-held cell-phone ban and the H1N1 scare; and since both have been in the news lately I'd like to revisit them.

The cell-phone ban has been in effect for about three months, but police have been issuing warnings until now. Starting tomorrow (Feb.1, 2010) the grace period is over and each offence will cost $125 to anyone caught using a handheld cell-phone or texting in Ontario. My own very unscientific observation has been that people are still using these devices while driving but are being very discrete about it; which may be aggravating the problem. Of course the ban was put in place because our political leaders want to protect us, and based on “scientific data” that shows distractions like cell-phones impair driving ability, and banning them was politically opportune. Do the outcomes support this action?

A report last week from the American Insurance Institute for Highway Safety suggests that such laws are ineffective. The report titled: Laws banning cell-phone use while driving fail to reduce crashes, new insurance data indicate compares insurance claims in four US states before and after a cell-phone ban and compares these states to nearby jurisdictions where there is no ban. One would expect more insurance claims prior to a ban than after, that did not happen. One would expect more insurance claims where there are no bans compared to where the bans are enforced, that did not happen. All of this data was analyzed and controlled for a multitude of variables that insurance company bean-counters are famous for. The up-shot is that such bans have little or no effect in making driving safer. So will the laws be repealed? Democracy mob-rule dictates no.

As for H1N1, talk about a tempest in a teapot, even I was caught up in the hype about this thing. The last time Swine Flu caused such a caused such angst was 1976 and it looks like we were fooled again. Someday these recurrent “cry wolf” refrains will come back and bite us in the ass.

Last time virtually the entire Swine Flu kerfuffle took place in the US after a young soldier at Fort Dix New Jersey died and four of his comrades were hospitalized of what was reported as an H1N1 strain similar to the one that caused the 1918 Flu Pandemic. The resulting mass-vaccination program caused a paralyzing neuromuscular syndrome in at least 500 individuals with possibly 25 fatalities.

This time the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a Pandemic Alert and predicted 2 billion cases of H1N1 and hundreds of thousands of deaths. So far around 15 000 have died world wide, far less than any normal flu season.

The Council of Europe is investigating whether WHO officials faked the pandemic to boost drug revenues for CSL Limited, GlaxoSmithKline, and Roche. Conspiracy anyone?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Power of the Sun

The picture left represents inertial confinement fusion which uses 192 laser beams focused through holes in a target container called a hohlraum. Inside the hohlraum is a tiny pellet containing an extremely cold, solid mixture of hydrogen isotopes. When lasers strike the hohlraum's walls X-rays are produced that strip material from the outer shell of the isotope fuel pellet, heating it up to millions of degrees. If the compression of the fuel pellet is high enough and uniform enough, nuclear fusion can result. That moment is called "ignition" - effectively a carefully controlled thermonuclear explosion - the energy produced in stars like our Sun. If this were to happen and the energy produced was greater than the energy put in, that would be a momentous event in human history, controlled nuclear fusion.
That's the goal at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory National Ignition Facility (Nif) in California and the most recent test results look promising. Scientists at the Nif think that ignition "might" just happen this year and that would make the over 50 year search for fusion power within reach. That would change everything!

Friday, January 22, 2010

An antipoverty campaign that actually worked

Libertarians are often criticized for being callous (not true) about marginalized individuals – poor people. The criticisms generally stem from the fact that a libertarian view is that governments need not create anti-poverty programs to help these people (which never work anyway); they can be helped by privately funded charities. In fact a libertarian view may point to how a statist government actually aggravates poverty with wrong headed policies like minimum wage, licensing etc. which can create an underclass of dependent individuals. A libertarian might suggest that less government interference and a freer trade environment would reduce poverty and dependence.

This week in the Globe’s Report on Business, Neil Reynolds describes how Chile joined the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), the club of 30 developed nations effectively shedding its undeveloped status. This happened as a result of policies put in place over the last 20 years by “the Chicago boys”, 25 Chilean economists who studied under Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s then introduced free market reforms in the place of Chile’s statist economy. As a result Chile becomes the first country in South America to join the OECD and has seen the number of Chileans living below the poverty line decline from 46% 25 years ago to the current 14%. Chile continues to grow its wealth and stands as an example to how an effective anti-poverty program can work.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Broken Transit

Have you ever had one of those “ah ha” moments? You’ve just figured it out, now it’s just a matter of attacking the problem with your newly conceived solution.

That is what must have been going through the mind of the young chairman who runs the TTC (the People’s Transit System) in Toronto. The young chairman has been racking his brains trying to figure out why complaints against the TTC have spiked in recent months after a fare hike with no improvement in service. Apparently the people using the TTC were expecting better service for more money (not unreasonable), and not what they have been getting. Service has worsened over the years, long waits, crowded vehicles, delays and more delays and then a fare hike and a year later another fare hike and so on. It’s no wonder there are complaints.

So what was our chairman’s “ah ha” moment, simple, lets ask the “private sector” how we can improve service, and reduce complaints. Brilliant; I call that irony. Here we have a monopoly run by government that colludes with unions to set wages and fees based on the needs of the government and the union members with very little regard given to the customers – the transit riders.

In this mornings newspaper the TTC announced that it will establish a blue-ribbon panel (unpaid), led by a consultant (paid) to teach the TTC how to better serve its customers. Imagine how long such a poor business would exist if it were in the private sector, if it had to compete with another transit system. I know that is a heretical concept, but strangely private sector businesses will not hire governments to teach them how to treat customers, its not going to happen.
There is an obvious solution; it’s not going to be easy, it’s not going to be popular, and it’s not going to be pretty, but eventually the customer will be better served and the city will have fewer problems. Toronto should divest itself of the TTC (and other cities should do likewise of their transit systems), and ultimately allow competition. I know that’s not going to happen, not yet at least but a sort of competitive system already exists – taxis. Oh wait a minute; they are more expensive for the riders. Why? Because government regulates this particular private sector business by charging outrageous licensing fees to the cabbies. Catch 22, government has got you coming and going…..literally.

There is a simple principle that should be reexamined here. “Our freedom of choice in a competitive society rests on the fact that, if one person refuses to satisfy our wishes, we can turn to another;” so said Nobel economic laureate F. A. Hayek. Good advice we need more choice.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

AVATAR - An Eco Epic

So we saw the movie Avatar. Spectacular, wow, how did they do that? etc. etc. etc. It really was!

Then I’m thinking to myself, “I’ve seen this movie before…the plot anyway”.

Avatar could be one of Aesop’s Fables and the movie Outlander, Star Wars and Independence Day, Dances with Wolves and the Wizard of Oz. It’s all of those movies and less and is ultimately disappointing.

My wife asks me what the point was. Actually there were three points:

1. To make money (nothing wrong with that – very admirable indeed).

2. To make a shit-load of money – ditto.

3. To make everyone feel a little guilty in the midst of escapism.

It certainly succeeds (and will succeed) at the first two, and given the current eco-mania, many will walk away from this movie thinking that it confirms that humans are blight on Earth as much as the humans are threatening Pandora and its inhabitants in search or unobtanium.

You have to hand it to James Cameron (writer and director) this is the perfect escape movie for the Great Recession, combining the new secular religion of environmentalism and a 3D romp on Pandora to escape your money woes.

The giant blue indigenous people of Pandora are the Na’vi, primitive, noble, and so linked into the ecology of Pandora that it would make Gaia blush. All of the visuals, the flora, the fauna, and the geography are spectacular. The dialogue, plot, characters and everything else is mundane. But it’s still worth seeing especially if you like Sci-Fi action movies.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Can scientists be AGW Skeptics?

In the real world of science not the bullshit world that has been manufactured by the Church of Global Warming, scientists reserve the right to be tentative about any assertion. In fact tentativeness is next to objectivity as one of the two most important scientific principles that any good scientist must covet. So if one disregards all the hype about AGW including the Copenhagen shenanigans and the political blowhards (mostly European but lets throw in Al Gore) and look objectively at the weather in Europe “its bloody cold” as the Brits would say. The satellite picture shows Great Britain covered in a frosty coat, the result of the “Arctic Oscillation”. This is reminiscent of the River Thames frost fairs of yore. Apparently there are other reasons for cooling and warming that the IPCC (UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) hasn’t fully accounted for in its rush to blame human produced CO2. There are these things called oceanic cycles that switch between “warm” (were in) and “cold” (are now in) modes. Professor Mojib Latif, a leading member of the IPCC has suggested that a large part (up to 50%) of the so-called global warming that the IPCC has noted is due to these oceanic cycles that he says could last 20 to 30 years. Prof. Latif and his colleague, heretics of the AGW Church, don’t believe in the computer models:
“I do not believe in catastrophe theories. Man-made warming is balanced by the natural cycles, and I do not trust the computer models which state that if CO2 reaches a particular level then temperatures and sea levels will rise by a given amount. These models cannot be trusted to predict the weather for a week, yet they are running them to give readings for 100 years.”

Its too bad really, I was ready to throw in the towel and join the Church of Global Warming. Oh well just when I thought the science was settled maybe it's time to be "tentative".

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Mystical/Religious Belief on the rise!

Last month a new poll was published by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life. In their "about" this research goup claims "to promote a deeper understanding of issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs. It studies public opinion, demographics and other important aspects of religion and public life in the U.S. and around the world." The graph on the left was a product of this poll and it shows that the number of Americans (polled) that have had a "religious or mystical experience" now exceeds those that have not. Many people (including myself) will find this troubling. Here we are in the 21st Century, our lives here in North America completely shaped by advances in science and technology especially in the urban environment, yet irrational thinking seems to be on the rise. What's going on? Clearly there is a disconnect between scientific thinking and a significant portion of the population.
Of course at the same time there has been a rise in atheist groups like cfi or the Brights and many authors of late have extolled the virtues of atheism. So why are the atheists losing the fight? First let me say that there are atheists who still have mystical beliefs, they just have no religious affiliation and do not believe in a diety but they may believe in vampires, werewolves, horoscopes etc..
Years ago when I was teaching, I introduced some of my classes to an article written by a York University professor James Alcock. Professor Alcock wrote The Belief Engine, which tries to explain the roots of human mysticism. In it Alcock explains that we are hardwired to have “Magical thinking” as children and its not until we start to think critically that we can suppress our tendency to magical thinking and function in the real world. Even as adults we all succumb to magical thinking each time we enter a theater or go to a movie and suspend our disbelief for two hours. The simple truth is that people can have the most irrational belief system imaginable yet still be successful business people, doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers etc... Look around you, it’s a fact, some of the smartest and most successful people are deeply religious or have strong mystical beliefs.
Alcock's Belief Engine explains how this irrational magical thinking may be an advantage in certain situations and that its origin in humans is genetic not just from our immediate ancestors but further down the evolutionary tree and it has conferred on these creatures a survival advantage. I tend to agree that religious belief and irrational thinking confer on humanity a survival advantage. Otherwise why does this "belief engine" in our brain still persist? There are many who will support that idea. This brings me to the point, if the Pew Research can be believed than the arguments, the anti-God campaigns all of it may just be a waste of time.

I've often told my students that science is counterintuitive; the way you think something works may be the opposite of the truth. Maybe that’s what’s happening here; the anti-God/anti-mysticism groups are asking the wrong questions. Don’t get me wrong, those questions need to be asked but the Pew research shows that mystical thinking is on the rise; maybe because it fulfils another deeper function that is so ingrained in human nature that it is pointless to fight it. I’ve known for a long time that it is pointless to argue with anyone that has strong religious beliefs. But religion doesn’t just confer irrational beliefs; it bonds the believers by providing an instant community of like-minded individuals, and sets goals for their actions. Bringing together a group of independently thinking atheists toward a common goal is a bit like herding cats.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The cold snap here and in Europe doesn't disprove AGW

Yup, that's what the experts say. I knew it would have nothing to do with weather because climate isn't weather, weather changes....err.....climate doesn't? Hmmmm....I suppose climate changes too, but I'm not an expert.
Of course whenever there is a spell of unusually mild weather, as was the case this past November we hear differently.
Just prior to the Copenhagen Conference that slime ball Al Gore, was on Letterman's Late Show peddling his new book. Do you think Gore didn't mention the unusually mild New York weather in November, implying an AGW cause? Of course he did, he's an expert right?

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year, lets get to work.

More fuel to add to the AGW discussion. Read this: German Physicists Trash Global Warming “Theory”. Science is a process, and the science on anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is not entirely convincing in the light of that paper.