Monday, July 24, 2006

Kings for a Day

I haven't written about baseball for a while, so I guess I'm due. For one thing, I wasn't going to a lot of games for a while there; too many other things going on. But last week afforded an opportunity to catch several in a row, so I jumped at the chance.

It helps that we've been having fabulous weather. Got a bit too hot for my taste over the weekend, but we coped. So heading to the ballpark Wednesday afternoon, Thursday evening, and again Friday evening was great. Shorts, t-shirt, sunglasses. Don't even think about a jacket. Don't need one. Beautiful.

Oh, and for a change, the Giants are winning. Wednesday, an exciting come-from-behind in the bottom of the ninth inning. Thursday and Friday, lopsided wins against the first-place Padres. The team suddenly has its longest winning streak of the season (a modest five games), and for less than 24 hours they even skootched into first place before dropping back again on Sunday.

Amazing how the attitudes around me were changing. Where things had been awfully gloomy, suddenly people were excited. It's always more fun to go to the park when the home team is playing well, because the people are more fun to be around.

Feel-good story of the week (if not longer) came when a journeyman minor-league first baseman named Chad Santos was called up to play a few games with the big club. A bunch of his family showed up to cheer for him (the friends-and-family section is right next to where I sit, which is always fun), and Chad responded with several big hits, including a home run. Sadly, he was sent back down to Fresno (adding insult to injury: Fresno) over the weekend because the Giants acquired a new first baseman in a trade. But even if that was the totality of Chad's major-league career, he has some great memories.

Summer. Baseball. Good stuff.

Rant

My five-year-old daughter, tonight, at the end of a long rant:
"Dad, you're just not providing me with the pleasant life I want."
Oh.

Don't know what I can add to that. It is, after all, my role in life to make her miserable. Or so she tells me.

Good job, Dad!

Friday, July 21, 2006

If You're Going to be Wrong...

...you might as well be really wrong, I suppose.

At least, that would seem to be the approach of Senator James Inhofe (R-OK). I'll ignore for a moment his comment that Al Gore is "full of crap" about global warming. Comments like that might be appropriate in a feedlot in Oklahoma, but they don't belong in a national policy debate.

But as a U.S. Senator, let alone the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, Inhofe has a responsibility to get the facts right. Heck, if you watch the video link above from CNN, he says just that: when he became committee chair 3.5 years ago, he believed in global warming (I'm dubious about that, but I'll take him at his word.), but wanted to justify the cost of implementing the Kyoto accords. Great. So he checked into the science.

Then he cites the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which he says "used one scientist," who he then goes on to disagree with. Oh, my. Where to start with this?

As one might suppose just from its name, the Intergovernmental Panel, set up up the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is not one guy. It is, in fact, thousands of scientists, representing scores of countries, and includes scientists who are skeptical about climate change, or at least about the human influence on climate change. Here is part of the IPCC's description of how they prepare their reports (PDF):
IPCC reports are written by teams of authors, which are nominated by governments and international organizations and selected for a specific task according to their expertise. They come from universities, research centers, business and environmental associations and other organizations from more than 100 countries. Several hundred experts from all over the world are normally involved in drafting IPCC reports. In addition, several hundred experts participate in the review process.
So I have no clue how Sen. Inhofe gets that this report is the work of "one scientist." But let's be generous for a moment and assume that when he says "they used one scientist" he wasn't suggesting that the whole report was the result of one person's work, but rather objects to the inclusion of that one.

How influential was that one piece of work? The work in question is that of a Professor Michael Mann, and it's shorthand description is the temperature "hockey stick," suggested by a graph of global temperature that is fairly flat, followed by a rather sharp upturn. Inhofe suggests that this is invalid, because it ignores some warming in the middle ages. Two things here:
  1. Although Mann is cited often in the IPCC 2001 report, it is never the only study cited for any given conclusion. It is part of the data included in the analysis.
  2. A recent analysis (PDF) by the National Academy of Sciences has concluded that Mann's work is, in fact, accurate.
The NAS said, among other things, that
[Mann's] conclusion has subsequently been supported by an array of evidence that includes both additional large-scale surface temperature reconstructions and pronounced changes in a variety of local proxy indicators, such as melting on icecaps and the retreat of glaciers around the world, which in many cases appear to be unprecedented during at least the last 2,000 years.
This NAS analysis, made at the request of the U.S. House of Representatives, came out over a month ago. Yet Senator Inhofe is still trying to discredit the "one scientist" he disagrees with. Furthermore, he's not taking issue with all of Mann's conclusions, just one statement which is not particularly critical to the conclusion that human activity is contributing to global warming.

Oh, and did I mention the IPCC also has a review process (same PDF)?
To ensure that they are credible, transparent and objective, the IPCC reports must pass through a rigorous two-stage scientific and technical review process. For the first review, the drafts are circulated to specialists with significant expertise and publications in the field. Revised drafts are distributed for the second review to governments and to all authors and expert reviewers. After taking into account the expert and government comments, the final drafts are presented to plenary for acceptance of their content.
It's been kind of fun today to put on my environmental science hat. I don't get to do that very often. But I do have a degree in environmental science with an emphasis on public policy, so I feel reasonably qualified to discuss Senator Inhofe's statements.

I'll leave off with a comment on his last words:
So in all of the recent science, as I've mentioned on your radio show, it confirms that I was right on this thing. This thing is a hoax.
Inhofe has used the "hoax" line many times before. He famously called global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people" in a speech to the Senate in 2003. This is curious on a couple of levels:
  1. He claimed just moments before that he came into this believing that global warming was a human-caused problem. So how does discrediting one of the inputs to a huge scientific analysis that agrees with his stated earlier position confirm that he was right?
  2. "Hoax" is a very strong word, especially when we're talking about science. It's one thing to disagree with someone's conclusions, but to call something a hoax suggests that someone has, with intention, either falsified or misrepresented evidence.
Making a statement like that is highly irresponsible and malicious, particularly when the overwhelming judgment of scientists around the world confirms Mann's conclusions.

I'll conclude with a link to a site run by climate scientists, including Michael Mann. They have lots of things to say about Senator Inhofe. It is hard to conclude that Inhofe is doing anything besides representing the energy interests. Or perhaps he has invested in some future oceanfront property in his home state of Oklahoma. One can only wonder.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

WWHKD?

I've been tied up with family matters this week, so I haven't been paying as much attention to the world as I would like, but this stands out to me: The Middle East is descending into widespread war, and the U.S. Secretary of State spends her time today, what? Shuttle diplomacy through the region, trying to work out a settlement? Nope. Bringing together leaders from interested countries to work out some kind of coalition strategy? Nope. Making the rounds of the Sunday pundit shows to spin some kind of excuse for the situation? Bingo!

I'm no foreign-policy expert. But it's pretty clear to me that the U.S. has to be concerned about the developments in the region, has to know that its interests are in no way advanced by ongoing and enlarging conflict in the region, and has to work to try and resolve the issues. For better or worse, the U.S. is tied deeply into the region.

But it appears we have no plan. Nothing. So send the "top diplomat" out to sell the P.R. story.

Oh, wait, we had a plan: getting rid of Saddam Hussein in Iraq was going to stabilize the region and make sure this kind of thing didn't happen. And to my surprise, someone (George Stephanopoulos) actually asked Secretary Rice about that. Her response: it's "grotesque" to suggest we had any role in making things worse. Thanks for stepping up and taking responsibility for your policies. (Oh, and she managed to link 9/11 to this...Surprise!)

Almost makes one long for the days of Henry Kissinger or James Baker. Kissinger might have been an evil genius, but at least he had plans and acted on them, with at least plausible arguments that he was advancing the interests of the U.S. He spent a fair amount of time on TV, advocating his positions, too. But at least he had something to defend. Ms. Rice has nothing.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Worth Reading for a Chuckle

Think Progress lists the four most overpaid White House staffers.

Frankly, anyone who can list his title as "Director of Lessons Learned" with a straight face is probably deserving of all that salary.

Not.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Voting and Technology

More news on the electronic voting front, and it's not good. Link through, and you find some really disturbing stuff:
Ballot programming errors are a new threat at every new election, and it is time election officials realized it. Problems are cropping up all over the country, and there is no indication that they will abate.
I'm in the software business, and I know that any software system with more than trivial complexity is prone to errors, and that those errors can be difficult to detect. So there are systems put in place to detect and/or prevent such problems from going into production.

One maxim is that the person who writes the code isn't the one who tests it. Sort of like having an editor go over the text you write (wouldn't that be a nice luxury in the blogosphere?). The notion is that a different pair of eyes can see things the writer can't or won't. There are times when this is impractical, and there are ways to get around some of the problems, like writing the tests first, rather than after writing the program, or having two people working on the program at the same time, catching typographical and logic errors as they go in.

But it appears that a lot of the jurisdictions dealing with newfangled voting technology aren't approaching the matter that way, often allowing the vendors of their electronic voting equipment to program and test the systems (again from VoteTrustUSA):
Either the vendor does the programming, or the county does it. The vendors want to do that work because they make a lot of money for the service. ES&S requires that they do the programming for the AutoMark machines in many of their contracts. Counties could do the work themselves but the cost of the programming software is so expensive that it is hard for some counties to justify the expense.
I'll say it again. In a democracy, nothing is more important than counting the votes honestly and correctly. The voters have to have trust, and not blindly trust, that those who run their elections do so capably and accurately, with their only goal being correctness.

Doing this on the cheap, or doing so without understanding the complexity, such that one cannot judge the accuracy of the results, is an invitation for abuse. And history has shown that people will try to exploit election systems. At least election officials demonstrated that they understood the concepts of stuffing physical ballot boxes. It is not clear that they have the same level of understanding of the current wave of voting technology.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Chick Lit???

Hmmm. I have to admit, I had never even heard of the niche market that is known as "chick lit" until I read a book called Speak Now penned by a friend of mine, Margaret Dumas, a couple of years ago. This comes up now because I just finished reading the sequel, How to Succeed in Murder.

I like both books. To be honest, I probably would have read both just because I'm the sort of guy who reads books that his friends write. On the other hand, I think it's fair to say that these two are the only "chick lit" books I've ever read. Or for that matter, the only "cozy" novels I've read.

Now, I know the book market is highly segmented. They probably have categories that I fit into, too, and I shudder to think what the nickname is for books aimed at middle-aged computer geeks with children who like sports and science and such. But I digress.

I gather "cozy" novels are mysteries with some light humor, and "chick lit" (am I the only one who keeps flashing on Chiclets here? I can't find a link to the brand, but you have to go look at the animation on the home page of their parent conglomerate.) is books written by women and marketed to young women. I do like some mysteries (I cut my teeth on Agatha Christie, and still enjoy the rather warped works of Carl Hiaasen), and I certainly like humor, but I just don't see myself settling into the cozy chick-lit niche.

On the other hand, it's fun to read Margaret's novels for a number of reasons:
  1. She writes about the kind of people I know. From the opening scene of the first novel where a newlywed couple pulls into the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco (where my wife and I had our wedding reception) to various visits to some of my favorite restaurants and haunts to scenes in high-tech startup companies South of Market, these are stories set in my neighborhood, populated by my peers, or at least friends of my peers.
  2. The writing's very clever. Yes, I know, it's supposed to be "cozy," but the books have a definite wit and charm, and likeable characters.
  3. I get some of the inside jokes. Now and then, when I'm paying attention, I see a reference to people we used to work with and such. It's fun.
And perhaps most of all, I enjoy the fact that years ago, when we were both working as technical writers, Margaret told me that she planned to make her fortune by writing trashy romance novels (I'm not sure that's the official name used by publishers for that category, but you know what I mean). She figured that with a graduate degree in English Literature, she could certainly write something better than what was selling out there. And I believe she has succeeded quite nicely there, except for the trashy romance part.

So even if you're not a chick-lit type or a fan of cozy, humorous mysteries, I can recommend these books. If for no other reason than that you should support my friends. Buy lots of them and give them as gifts.

And by the way, I'm not kidding about buying and reading books written by my friends. For example, I went to high school with a fellow named Ken Alder, who wrote a novel about a kid attending a high school much like ours called The White Bus. Many years later, in his role as a professor of the History of Science, he wrote a terrific books called The Measure of All Things, which describes the fascinating expedition to survey the world in order to define the meter. (I suppose that falls more neatly into my middle-aged nerd category.)

Anyway, ignore the categories. Just because the publisher doesn't think you're the sort of person who might want to read a particular book doesn't mean you have to go along with it. I get book recommendations from some of the oddest people and places, and often I find that I love those books.

Go forth and read!

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Self-Evident Truth

I like Independence Day (or the 4th of July, as we are wont to call it). And not just because it's a public holiday and an excuse to picnic and/or barbecue and watch fireworks, although I like all those things well enough.

Mostly I like Independence Day because I love the Declaration of Independence. As both a piece of intellectual history and a piece of writing, the declaration stands out. I remember discovering this document when I was fairly young. My parents had ordered copies of some important historical documents (Declaration of Independence, Constitution, etc.) from someplace, and I was completely smitten with them. I loved the handwriting and the language, though both were very hard to decipher. I memorized a big chunk of the start of the declaration, even though I didn't really understand what it all meant.

Over the years, I learned much more about the document itself, it's place in history, and the principle author, Thomas Jefferson. The declaration says a lot about Jefferson and his ideas and attitudes.

And perhaps no set of words in any document has been so affecting to me as these:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
I was pondering those words last night as I was trying to sleep. In part, I was thinking in the context of the recent Supreme Court decision in the case of Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. I've heard and read a lot of discussion from people saying we shouldn't grant the rights of due process and such to "enemy combatants" and whatnot, and particularly that we should not extend the protections of the Geneva Convention to accused terrorists.

I could not disagree more. I'm no lawyer, of course, but some things are quite clear to me. One of those things is those word cited above, "...that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights...". We don't get to choose who is deserving of good treatment: it is everyone's right. And our supreme law, the Constitution, defines that for us: the 14th amendment clearly states that
...nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
It's really quite unambiguous. It doesn't matter who you are, or what crimes someone thinks you might have committed. You have the right to due process and equal protection. We can't just lock people up without telling them why, giving them representation, and allowing them to present evidence on their own behalf. That is not our way. Or at least, not legally.

So, anyway, read the Declaration and rejoice in it. The language soars in its idealism, in the principles it espouses. Take heart that we live in a country founded on such principles, and maintain hope that we can live up to them.

It's striking the way the document ends, with a pledge by the signers to one another:
...we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.
One can hardly imagine the political "leaders" of today making such a declaration. Indeed, it's hard to imagine any of them even understanding such a pledge. May we educate them and make them worth of the trust placed in them--and us--by the founders.