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Archive for September, 2008

Bear CSI

During the first presidential debate, John McCain once again made reference to the Northern Divide Grizzly Bear Project, a five-year study to which USGS has allocated $3 million to “study the DNA of bears.”

The Scientific American article linked above compares that $3 million, and its relative merits, to the $233 million “Bridge to Nowhere.”  I like to compare it to the tax dollars we are spending in Iraq.  At $7 billion per month, we spend $3 million ever EIGHTEEN MINUTES.

Read that again.  Fix it in your mind.  Now tell me where the outrage should lie.

Sure, “freedom and democracy” in Iraq are more important than the North American grizzly population, but normalized for cost, I would say that the Iraq War campaign — which originally was not about “freedom and democracy,” but rather WMDs; how quickly we forget and reset the bar — is a  monumentally greater waste of taxpayer dollars.  We’ve spent $600 billion chasing a dragon that was never there, and continuously re-rationalizing our reasons for doing it.  If you have any intellectual honesty at all, you should be outraged about that.

The bear DNA reference so often quoted by McCain is just another distraction that he’s so good at inventing.  Again, fake outrage, misplaced priorities.  Part and parcel of modern politicking.

At the end of the day, the grizzly bear project still costs $3 million over five years, and it will tell us something important about the distribution of and conservation status of the greatest (remaining) land mammal in North America.  Also over five years, the Iraq war has cost some $600 billion — for the sake of comparison, that is two hundred thousand times as expensive as the grizzly bear project over the same time period — and we never accomplished our originally stated goal of ferreting out WMDs, and even Plan B, “freedom and democracy”, has been outrageously mismanaged, and may only now be seeing any fruits.  Given that four of those five years were wasted on the Bush-Rumsfeld plan (which made the project five times as expensive as it could have been), you know where your outrage should lie.

BTW, did you know that the Gravina Island Bridge (the so-called Bridge to Nowhere), was a two-part project, one involving the bridge, and the other involving an access road that linked the bridge to a small airport?  The bridge project got nixed, but a contract for the access road had already been signed, so it got built.  Yes, it got built, and it goes nowhere.  It dead-ends at the island coast where the bridge should connect to it.  And it cost…wait for it, wait for it…$3 million per mile!  At eight miles long, that project is eight times as expensive as the whole grizzly bear project.  And, yes, it is indeed a road to nowhere.

Your tax dollars at work, folks.  And guess who was governor and who could have nixed the contract on the access road and prevented that absurd waste of federal tax dollars?  You guessed right.  Our girl, Sarah Palin.

So tell me again, where should your outrage lie?

A propos: my friend Sakshi points out on her blog that McCain voted for funding the grizzly bear project!

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As of 7:10 pm EDT on Friday night (the time of this writing), it is apparent that John McCain has won the debate.  See the back story.

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Paul Krugman…

“You’ve heard there are no atheists in foxholes.  There are no libertarians in financial crises, either.”

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Three have died already.  This is yet another failure of unregulated markets.  Considering all the tainted pet food and lead-filled toys that caused a scare last year, maybe the Chinese are finally going to realize that they’ll have to regulate their products better.  You can’t just let the private sector “police itself.”

And the Dow has dropped another 250 points as of this writing.  The federal government has agreed to loan AIG $85 billion.  If AIG can’t recover and pay that back (plus interest), the fed gets 80% of the company.

When will the idealogues learn?  We’ve seen this before, in 1928 and 1987.  Those who won’t learn from history are destined to repeat it.

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“What we’ve seen the last few days is nothing less than the final verdict on an economic philosophy that has completely failed. And I am running for president of the United States because the dreams of the American people must not be endangered any more.

“It’s time for a government that is fighting for you — not ignoring you, or fighting against you.

“If you want to understand the difference between how Senator McCain and I would govern as president, you can start by taking a look at how we’ve responded to this crisis. Because Senator McCain’s approach was the same as the Bush Administration’s: support ideological policies that made the crisis more likely; do nothing as the crisis hits; and then scramble as the whole thing unravels. Now, my approach has been to try to prevent this turmoil from occurring in the first place.

“In February of 2006, I introduced legislation to stop mortgage transactions that promoted fraud, risk or abuse. A year later, before the crisis hit, I warned Secretary Paulson at the Treasury and Chairman Bernanke at the Fed about the risks of mounting foreclosures and urged them to bring together all the stakeholders to find solutions to the subprime mortgage meltdown. Senator McCain did nothing.

“This March, in the wake of the Bear Stearns bailout, I called for a new, 21st-century regulatory framework to restore accountability, transparency, and trust in our financial markets. Just a few weeks earlier, Senator McCain made it clear where he stands, [saying] ‘I’m always for less regulation,’ and referred to himself as ‘fundamentally a deregulator.’

“Now this is what happens when you confuse the free market with a free license to let special interests take whatever they can get, however they can get it.”

Actually, there is no confusion.  Any “free” market is a license for special interests and power brokers to take whatever they can get.  Freedom from regulation always makes that possible.

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Future technological advances may allow us to instantiate high-resolution models of our mindbrains on machine substrate, or even create de novo persons.  Critics point out, quite rightly, that machines are digital while mindbrains are analog.  From this insight, they conclude that machines won’t be able to recreate the detailed processing of neural wetware.

However, the critics miss the fundamental fact that we can approximate analog processing with high resolution digital processing.  Nature already does it.

Genes are discrete (digital) while phenotypes are continuous (analog).  Continuous traits can be approximated with a large number of genes that each contribute a small amount to the outcome, or by one gene with a large number of alleles that each tweak the outcome by a small amount.  A continuous phenotype, such as the spectrum of adult human heights, is determined by a set of discrete genes.  Even if we controlled for all other influences on human height and looked at a single hypothetical gene that controls growth hormone output, we can see that, by implementing a large number of alleles, each one resulting in slightly more or less growth hormone output, a continuous spectrum can be approximated.   If adult human height ranges over, say, one meter, and our gene has 1000 alleles, than we can specify height with millimeter precision.  If our gene has a million alleles, than we can specify height with micrometer precision, and so on.  (Of course, in reality, genes merely produce organisms whose traits are differentially influenced by environment, and environmental influence is analog.)

The brain is actually analog and digital.  Synaptic firing is digital, and synaptic organization allows for signal processing through logical operations much the same way that transistors do.  But the events that aggregate to induce synapse firing are continuously additive or subtractive.  They are analog.  This is what the critics are talking about.

If approximating analog events is possible with digital events, then we only need to achieve a sufficently high resolution digital model of pre-synaptic events to produce accurate models of neural processing at any arbitrary level of organization.  Nothing makes this physically impossible.  It’s all a matter of having the technology and money to do it.

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“If climate change is a hoax, it’s the greatest hoax ever perpetrated, because everything we do to respond will make us more efficient, more productive, more entrepreneurial, more competitive, [and] more respected [in the world].”

— David Friedman, author of The World is Flat, and Hot, Flat and Crowded.

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