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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, April 24, 2004

A Moment of Silence, Please

A story this morning that won't get anything like the proper reaction it deserves: Pat Tillman was killed in combat in Afghanistan. This is noteworthy not because of how he died, or where (though it's a good reminder of where the actual "War On Terror" is), but because of how he got there:

Tillman stunned his family, coaches and teammates in 2002 when he walked away from a three-year contract worth $3.6 million. At the time, the move was viewed as a strong example of post-9/11 patriotism. After four seasons with the Cardinals, the aggressive safety -- whose 224 tackles in a single season was a team record -- simply told the organization that he was joining the Army with his brother, Kevin, a former minor league prospect in the Cleveland Indians system. By May 2002, they had both enlisted.

This is a man who felt strongly enough about the events of September 11 that he walked away from a great deal of money and a comfortable life to join the military. He put himself at great personal risk, which ultimately cost him his life.

Tillman's life and death ought to serve as a sobering example for Glenn Reynolds, Andrew Sullivan, James Lileks, Charles Johnson and his little green fatwah, and all the other doughty warriors of the keyboard who have spent the last few years denigrating the patriotism of anyone whose blood lust fell short of their expectations, from comfortable chairs in comfortable houses in comfortable suburbs in the US. This was a man who had a good life, and quietly sacrificed it to go off to the war.

Tillman and his brother refused publicity after making the decision to enlist. They felt it would detract from the families and stories of other soldiers serving overseas, and were so adamant that they admonished immediate family members not to speak with the media. His brother, Spc. Kevin Tillman, joined the same Rangers battalion as Pat. The Tillman brothers deployed several times with the batallion and took part in combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Among other awards, Pat Tillman earned the Purple Heart, according to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command.

Meanwhile the warbloggers screamed and howled and beat their chests as they made the ultimate sacrifice of staying up extra late to write one more blog post explaining how anyone to the left of Limbaugh is a traitor and a poltroon.

The tree-lined street in San Jose, where Tillman grew up, was lined with American flags yesterday. An officer from the Santa Clara County's sheriff's department parked in the driveway of the Tillman family home and politely turned away reporters while friends stopped by to deliver flowers and offer condolences.

"The family believes that everyone who has given their lives in the war deserves equal recognition for their sacrifice," Robert Setterlund, the assistant principal at San Jose's Leland High School said. "They don't want one person singled out."

I know next to nothing about Pat Tillman as a person. Everything I've read makes him sound like a good guy, but for all I know, he was mean to small children, or smoked dope, or kicked puppies. But when things were bad, he put his life on the line, without making a big show of things, or demanding special treatment. Meanwhile, the hawkish commentariat screamed and yelled and danced around demanding that other people go out and put their lives on the line, while they nobly defended the country by tapping away at their keyboards. In the end, he (and hundreds of others like him, with less money) lost his life in their war, while they've lost nothing more than sleep. Really, what more do you need to know?

Posted at 1:46 PM | link | follow-ups | 7 comments

Friday, April 23, 2004

The Evolutionary Psychology Diet

As I mentioned last week, I was invited to dinner with Dr. Arthur Agatston, author of The South Beach Diet, who gave a talk on campus Wednesday night (it turns out his son is a student here). It turned out to be a frustrating talk in many ways, not least because he rambled on at great length-- I would've expected a more polished presentation from someone who wrote a best-selling diet book that was released a year ago. The main issue, though, was the way he presented and justified his diet.

It's not that I think he's a quack, or anything. He seemed very sincere in what he was saying, and his general comments were pretty sensible. I just think he badly over-sold some aspects of the diet, in a way that seemed almost designed to push my buttons. Combine that with the nature of the audience, and it was an irksome experience all around.

He opened with a textbook example of a deceptive graphic, a map that showed the percentage of "obesity" in the populations of various states. States with obesity rates below 10% were shown in yellow, states between 10-15% were in blue, and states over 15% were in red. He showed one map for each year between 1985 and 1999, and the crowd gasped in shock and admiration as the colors changed until the all-red final map.

Of course, there are a number of things wrong with this. For one, the narrow middle range between two larger ranges is a classic example of a deceptive false color scheme. If you're going to use a 10% lower band, the next band up should also be 10%, but then the color change wouldn't be as striking.

Another annoying feature is that the initial map was almost entirely white, a color which did not appear in the legend, but which I suspect means "No Data Available." A large part of the psychological effect of the map series ended up being largely due to the filling in of color where no information had been present-- for all we know, the population of Minnesota was always 10% overweight, but they never got around to making the measurement until 1992.

The third thing that bugged me was that the definition of "obesity" wasn't specified until the last slide, and it's not clear to me that the same definition was used in each slide. When he finally got around to defining it, it was in reference to "ideal weight," which is a figure that I recall being re-defined a couple of times in my lifetime. Shifting the "ideal weight" down by a few pounds in the middle of the series could easily cause a big jump in the percentages.

I don't doubt his basic point-- there's no shortage of documentation regarding the increasing girth of Americans-- but the way the data were presented annoyed me. It was very effective visually, but it was needlessly propagandistic.

Later in the talk, he went on to justify the South beach Diet as being "what we were meant to eat," with "meant" being used in the evolutionary psychology sense. That is, he argued that the diet he was putting forth was basically a return to the sort of thing proto-humans ate on the savannahs of Africa a million years ago, complete with lovingly detailed descriptions of the nutritionally idyllic life of a hunter-gatherer.

the problem is, I don't believe he knows anything about how hunter-gatherers lived a million years ago. What little information we have about that stage of society is little more than educated guesswork, based on bits of bone and other relics, and some analogies to primitive tribes in remote areas of New Guinea and elsewhere. The data just aren't there to support the kind of detail he went into about how they lived and what they ate.

And he just wouldn't shut up about the hunters and the gatherers. He went on and on, and every new statement made me less confident in his knowledge. For example, there was the assertion that there was relatively little interpersonal conflict, because everybody in a band would be closely related (clearly, he's not from a large family). Or the statement that birth rates were low among hunter-gatherers because they moved frequently, and needed to carry the babies from one site to another. I don't know anything about birth rates in prehistoric societies, but that explanation sounds to me like we've entered the land of Just Making Stuff Up.

Again, I think he's probably got a case for a lot of his main points. There's a lot of work out there showing that the foods we eat today are dramatically different in nutritional content than what we ate even fifty years ago, and that by itself would be plenty of evidence to support what he actually went on to say. Just so stories about hunter-gatherer tribes really don't add anything to the case.

The worst part of the whole thing was the question period. He answered something like eight questions, with some of the answers turning into ten-minute mini-lectures in their own right, and all but two of the questions were from middle-aged women holding copies of one of his books. These included such gems as "I love your diet, but the first two weeks are really rough. What advice can you give to help people get through it?" and "I love your diet, but I'm really tired of eating eggs. What would you recommend as a substitute?" and "I love your cookbook, but how much attention should I be paying to the portion sizes?"

I eventually got sick of the book-signing questions, and thought he should have to answer at least one slightly adversarial question, so I asked one myself ("You've explained the success of low-carb diets in terms of biochemistry, but another explanation would be that they just make it less irritating to be on a diet, and by making more attractive foods available, make it easier to eat fewer calories than you burn-- what you might call the 'Conservation of Energy Diet.' How would you respond to that?"). I got a short, semi-relevant answer, and then it was back to the book tour.

A large part of my dissatisfaction with the talk stems from the fact that I'm a scientist and an academic, and I come into any talk with certain expectations: first, that the speaker will attempt to make a case to convince me of the truth of what he's saying; second, that he will go about that mission in as intellectual honest a manner as possible; and third, that the audience will approach the talk with an appropriate level of skepticism. I wouldn't expect these to hold for a political rally, or a bookstore appearance, but for a talk given on a college campus, I don't think those are unreasonable expectations to have.

What I got from this talk was a lot of the first, a bit of the second, and essentially none of the third. And that left a bad taste in my mouth that had nothing to do with the nutritional content of dinner.

Posted at 3:33 PM | link | follow-ups | 2 comments

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

What's in a Number?

In a move that's part research project, part performance art installation, William Tozier is auctioning an Erdos number. He's got a few posts tracking the progress and discussing the whole idea of the sale on his blog (one, two, three), with more undoubtedly to follow.

This is a neat idea, in an exceptionally geeky sort of way. There are also interesting resonanes with the discussion of the academic value of blogging that crop up from time to time (at Crooked Timber, naturally, and with a science spin at Pharyngula).

There really isn't a physics equivalent for the Erdos number idea, though many physicists probably have finite Erdos numbers already (I don't know mine). You could probably play the same game with the Nobel laureate of your choice, but it wouldn't be as clever. In a similar vein, the APS did a thing a few years back involving counting the number of Nobel laureates in your professional "family tree" (that is, tracing back through your academic and professional advisors: I can claim three in the first two "generations", for example, as my PhD advisor won the Nobel in 1997, my undergraduate advisor did his PhD with the late Art Schawlow (Nobel 1981), and my post-doc advisor was a student of Steve Chu (Nobel 1997). There may be more, but I'm not sure if there's an official connection between Bill Phillips and Norman Ramsey.).

If I had any good idea for a project that Tozier's research area would help with, I'd throw in a bid. Lacking such an idea, though, it's not worth $41 to me (the current bid at the time of this writing). It's certainly a cute idea, though-- way better than selling your soul on EBay.

Posted at 8:49 AM | link | follow-ups | 14 comments


A couple of silly legal-themed notes from today's paper. First from a story about corruption in the Pentagon ("I am shocked-- shocked!"):

Her voice breaking, she stood before U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III and said she "would like to apologize for my actions, apologize to my family and to my nation."

The judge, still bitter over the rejection of his epic poem "The Love Song of J. Albert Prefrog," refused to comment.

The second item, from a story about yesterday's Supreme Court case deserves a special Award of Merit for Journalistic Understatement:

For most of the rest of the hearing, the court seemed divided along its usual left-right lines. The four more liberal justices -- Breyer, Stevens, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- asked questions that suggested strong doubts about the Bush administration's claims, and two of the most conservative justices, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia, seemed more supportive. Justice Clarence Thomas, as is his custom, remained silent.

Further Supreme Court information, as always, is available from the indespensible Dahlia Lithwick.

Posted at 8:38 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Karma... Dogma... Get It?

Brad DeLong has posted a tale of woe about his experiences with a Ford Taurus station wagon that he bought in 1996. Predictably enough, the post and its comments have spun into a wholesale denunciation of the Ford Motor Company.

As with computers, though, I think this is more a matter of karma than anything else. I'm on my third Ford, and while there have been negative moments over the years, it's been a positive relationship overall.

The first car I owned was a 1989 Ford Tempo, which was spiritual kin to Newton Pulsifer's car in Good Omens: sort of a transitional model between the Fords that really sucked in the 80's and the pretty good Fords of later years. I paid cash for it in 1993 from a used car dealer in Scenic Whitney Point because I was headed off to grad school in the DC area, and needed a car. I put close to 100,000 miles on that car in four years, and while it was basically falling apart by the time I got rid of it, it served me well. There were a couple of spectacular failures, but they made for entertaining stories, and I bear the car no ill will.

By 1997, it had gotten to the point where regular maintenance to keep the Tempo of Doom running was costing my parents almost as much as buying a new car would, so I started looking around for a new vehicle. Being a Person of Size, I have a few constraints on my car purchases that others may not labor under. Honda, Toyota, and Saturn had nothing in my price range (under $20K) that I could even think of driving long distances (as with Kate's cute little Prius, I could drive some of them in a pinch, but only by contorting myself into an uncomfortable position). The Chevy dealer was completely unhelpful (he thought they might make a car that I could drive, but they didn't have any on the lot), and Pontiac had a couple of possibilities that were just a little outside what I wanted to pay. The Ford people were very good to me, and the '97 Taurus turned out to be a very comfortable car, so I ended up leasing one. At the end of the lease period, I turned the car in, and bought a new '99 Taurus, which I'm still driving (we finished paying it off last year, prior to buying Kate's car).

I've been very happy with the Tauri. I put something like 30,000 miles on the '97, and the '99 is over 70,000, and I've had no major problems with the cars themselves (there've been a few things that needed to be repaired because of stuff I did to the car, and a couple of minor defects). Certainly nothing like Brad's horror show.

But then, my family has had good luck with Ford over the years. My mother bought an Escort in 1986 that my sister and I beat the hell out of in high school, and to the best of our knowledge, it was still running three or four years ago (long since sold to somebody else). She's followed that with an Escort wagon and a couple of Tauri (one sedan, one wagon), which have also been very good cars. We had a couple of Ford minivans in the 90's, one of which was used to move me from Williamstown back to Whitney Point and from DC to New Haven, and also as a hauling vehicle for a bunch of stuff in the Capital Region. It appeared to be on its last legs when we had it, but my father gave it to the local used car guys, and one of the mechanics is putting it back on the road.

With other kinds of cars, though... Well, we had a Chevy Impala wagon in the 80's that was an absolute piece of crap-- the same sort of transmission issues that Brad talks about, along with a bunch of other stuff. My parents got jerked around endlessly by Chevy dealers trying to get it fixed, and it pretty much put us off the whole brand. There was a lousy Plymouth before that, in the dim recesses of my memory.

I think it's just a matter of personal karma. Some makes of car will work well for some people, while other people will have one bad experience after another with the same types of cars. Brad's obviously just not a Ford person, in the same way that I'm just not a Windows person. And there's nothing wrong with that-- just don't blame it on Ford.

Posted at 10:28 AM | link | follow-ups | 8 comments

Sunday, April 18, 2004


It looks like this is going to be a lousy week for blogging. I've got evening committments for every day but Monday (a reception thing at a frat house Tuesday, dinner with a diet guru Wednesday, we're giving an exam on Thursday, and Friday happy hour), and tomorrow will get off to an early start, as it's an Accepted Students Open House day, and all parking on campus will be full by 9:30. On the bright side, though, I get a free lunch out of the deal...

Anyway, before I enter this long week, and get all punchy, and post utter nonsense here, I wanted to highlight a few items from the more thoughtful corners of the blogging realm.

Starting on the silly end of things, PZ Myers has found a creationist who puts half the blame on Einstein for everything from abortion to shooting sprees. I knew that sooner or later, something would come up to make me regret my joking comments about being jealous of biologists...

On the political side, Matthew Yglesias has a confessional post regretting his one-time support of the late unpleasantness in Iraq. This will undoubtedly be seen as a sign of weakness by the little green fruitbats currently infesting his comments, which is a shame, as Matt's post probably required more character than you could round up in the whole Domain That Shall Not Be Linked. If you'd like to see thoughtful comments on the matter, there are plenty at Electrolite, and TrackBack can probably find you more.

Finally, I've spent the last week or so trying to think of something sensible to say about William Tozier's very nice posts on information overload and collective memory loss, but I haven't been able to come up with anything. So I'm just linking to them. I found both pieces fascinating; somebody smarter than I am will have to come up with something to say.

Posted at 8:28 PM | link | follow-ups | 3 comments

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