General Archive

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Economy & Expertise

Wall StreetThe whole issue with the economy and the "Wall Street Bailout" has got me to thinking. First, let me share a related personal account.

I'm an engineer. But, the company I work for is small, so we all wear several hats. One of mine is being the webmaster. That means that my e-mail address is the one used for feedback from our website. I get lots and lots of suggestions from people about how to improve our aircraft - stopping the rotor, using two co-axial rotors, folding the rotor to stow it in flight, I've even gotten a few e-mails proposing perpetual motion machines. Most of these suggestions aren't stupid, just uninformed*. I didn't spend 5 years at the University of Maryland just to learn how to play beer pong and do keg stands. The professors actually taught me the specialized information I'd need to understand aerospace engineering. And the years I've spent on the job have taught me even more. 'Expertise' isn't any empty word, it means something.

So, how does this relate back to the economy? Well, those same people who think they know enough about aeronautics to know better than trained aerospace engineers are the same people who are now making a lot of noise about the economy, thinking they know more than trained economists. When I hear about polls and surveys that try to gauge the public's support for the bailout plan, my fist thought is to wonder how qualified most people are to have a valid opinion on the matter at all.

Personally, I can see the argument from both sides. I don't like bailing out the people that screwed us in the first place, but if the long term effect of not helping them is that I lose my retirement, well, to use a cliché, I don't want to cut off my nose to spite my face. Is the long term effect going to be that bad? I don't know. I know how to design planes, not run an economy. And if the problem's as urgent as some people are saying, I don't have the time to learn enough before a decision has to be made. That's why we're a republic and not a democracy - we do rely on our elected officials to know more about running a country than we do ourselves. So for this case, I'm just going to have to trust the experts, and hope they make the right decision.

Added 2008-10-03 I thought of one more thing to add, and it's important enough to add it here in the main entry so it doesn't get ignored in the comments. One other worry I have with Congress passing this bailout is that they're doing it merely to show that they're doing something, and not necessarily because they understand the bill enough to think that it will work. It's the same theme I've harped on about the TSA and security after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Just because politicians are making a show of taking action doesn't necessarily mean that it's going to be effective.

*There are some good suggestions, too, and I don't mind explaining things for the uninformed suggestions, so please, nobody take this as a reason to not e-mail the company. It should also be noted that many people do recognize that they're not experts, and the suggestions are offered humbly. But, there are still quite a few arrogant ignorant people.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Troubling News

A very good friend had a stroke earlier this week. The doctors brought him out of the induced coma this morning, and so far everything's looking hopeful, but it's still so early that it's impossible to tell exactly what the outcome's going to be. So, don't expect any new blog entries for a while.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Political Litmus Test

Litmus PaperI try not to vote for candidates based on single issues. I realize that most of the problems we face are complex, and can be viewed many different ways. I understand that smart people can look at the same problems as me, and come up with different solutions. So, just because I may disagree with a particular candidate on any one particular issue, it's not usually enough to make me automatically against them.

However, there are two issues that I use as a kind of litmus test. I won't necessarily support a candidate just because I agree with them on these issues, but it would be very, very hard for me to support a candidate with whom I disagreed - their opponent would have to be pretty darn bad. Those two issues are teaching evolution in school, and accepting that global warming is anthropogenic.

Why those two issues? Well, they're both well supported by evidence, and overwhelmingly supported by experts in the respective fields, so neither one should be controversial. However, they are controversial, which means that practically everybody has been exposed to them. Nobody can say they don't know anything about them because they've never heard of them before.

Let's look at evolution. First of all, evolution is something that everybody should learn about in high school biology. I mean, we're not talking about a cutting edge theory, here - Darwin and Wallace first proposed natural selection to the world almost 150 years ago, and the modern evolutionary synthesis occured over 50 years ago. Second, as I've discussed on this blog before, the evidence for evolution is overwhelming. Seriously. I'm as certain that a chimp, a blue whale, a carrot, and I all evolved from the same eukaryotic ancestor as I am that the Earth's a big hunk of rock in orbit around the Sun. But more important than me being that sure, is that the vast majority of biologists who actually study it are quite sure. So, to doubt evolution requires that someone isn't educated enough, is willing to ignore the consensus of experts, and is willing to ignore evidence in favor of their ideology. All three of those things are very bad for an elected official. Given the overwhelming evidence for evolution, if a candidate accepts it, but still promotes teaching "alternative theories" in science classes, then they're simply pandering. They're trading their principals for votes, when they should be ensuring a sound education for our country's youth.

Global warming may not have as long of a history as evolutionary study, nor the huge, overwhelming evidence to support it, but it still has enough that we can be quite certain that it's real, and that human activity is causing it. (I've written about this before, too.) Well, the actual fact of global warming does have huge, overwhelming evidence to support it. It's only whether or not it's anthropogenic where the evidence is just huge, but maybe not quite overwhelming. Still, when there's as much certainty about something with as big of a potential impact as there is for global warming, policy makers shouldn't be quibbling over minutiae. How to deal with climate change, is something different, since there are so many possible avenues. But to reject anthropogenic global climate change altogether requires, as with evolution, that someone lacks knowledge of the issue, is willing to ignore the consensus of experts, and is willing to ignore evidence in favor of their ideology.

I realize that candidates that don't accept reality on these two subjects tend to be right wing. But left wing politicians need to be careful, too, as it seems that some on the left have a tendency to support alternative medicine, or buy into myths like vaccines causing autism. I don't think those make for quite as strong of a litmus test, since they're not issues that people have heard as much about, so people can have an excuse for being ignorant about them. But still, policy makers should be making informed decisions. So, while supporting alternative medicines might not turn me off from supporting a candidate quite as fast as the two issues above, they better hope that their opponent is worse, because I'm sure not going to be excited about voting for them.

I guess what it comes down to is that I want the politicians representing me to be well educated, informed about current issues, to be able to think rationally about issues, and not ignore evidence because it contradicts their ideology. Is that too much to ask?


Update 2015-01-09
It's been a few years since I've written this, and the two litmus tests I discussed still hold for the same reasons. However, I now feel like there are two additional tests to add, one of which I actually discussed in this entry originally. Those two new tests are marriage equality, and support for evidence based medicine, particularly vaccinations.

Marriage equality is just a basic human right, that finally even has majority support in this country. Only a bigot would be opposed to marriage equality.

Evidence based medicine is so important because of the dire consequences of alternative medicine in certain circumstances. The case I discussed in a recent entry, Tragic Death of a Girl due to Alternative Medicine & Religious Beliefs, drives home just how dangerous alternative medicine can be. A little girl had about a 75% chance of beating a form of leukemia if she'd stuck to chemotherapy, but her parents pulled her out to take her to a quack in Florida who used alternative medicine, and she died as a result. The anti-vax movement is also very dangerous. The plethora of measles outbreaks in recent years, including the Disneyland case that's made recent headlines, shows that these anti-vaxers really are endangering their children and others. For a sobering look at the number of illnesses and deaths due to the anti-vax movement, go visit Anti-Vaccine Body Count.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Stop Using Stupid Words

Well, I was pretty busy this week, so I didn't have time to write a real entry. I did want to point out something, though. Browsing around some other blogs reading about Obama and McCain and their vice presidential candidate choices, I noticed something that really irritates me. If you're one of those people who likes to use words like Rethuglicans, Republicons, Dimmycrat, Dumbocrat, John McSame, Barack Osama bin Laden, or any of those other plays on words, STOP IT! It's not funny. It makes you sound stupid.

As I had to get across to my daughter when she was even younger than she is now, a joke's only funny once. Repeating a joke ad nauseum just makes it look like you're unoriginal.

Please, just use the real terms for these things. Politics is bad enough as it is without resorting to childish name calling.

Friday, July 25, 2008

I Hate the TSA

TSAWell, to start easing back into blogging after my vacation, I'll start off with a short little rant, that actually is relevant to trip I just took. In short, I really, really dislike the TSA. (I know the title of this post says that I hate the TSA, but that's a little stronger feeling that I actually have. However, "I Really, Really Dislike the TSA" just doesn't have the same ring to it as a headline.) I have written a bit about this before, but that article was more about the restrictions on general aviation.

It's not that the TSA did anything uniquely annoying during this trip. It's just that every time I have to go through the security checkpoints and jump through hoops that do practically nothing to actually increase security, I get just a little more pissed off. This trip, I was so busy unpacking the laptop, loading up all our bags onto the belt (we had more carry-ons this time now that the airlines are charging for checked luggage), and taking off my shoes, that I forget to empty out my pockets and take off my belt. That's probably enough metal that it would have set off the metal detector even back in the good old days, but when you're already irritated with an organization, it makes you that much more irritated. Plus, thanks to actually doing good on my diet the past few weeks, taking off my belt meant holding my pants up the whole time. I started grumbling once I got through the checkpoint and was getting dressed again, when my wife told me to just be quiet so that we could enjoy our vacation.

I recall hearing a joke one time, and I can't remember where I first heard it now, but this blog has a similar joke in the comments.

First the terrorsits tried to sneak bomb onto a plane using their shoes, so they made us take off our shoes.

Then the terrorists tried to use liquid explosives, so they made us give up our drinks and toothpaste.

The day they realize that a terrorist could try to smuggle a bomb up his ass is the day I quit flying.

But when you stop to think, how much indignity are we willing to take in the name of safety (assuming, of course, that the TSA is increasing safety, which I'll get to in a minute)? We already have to go barefoot through the metal detectors, and take off our belts and hold up our pants. If you take a carry on, you see the inspectors rifling through all your personal belongings. A few years ago when my wife, my daughter and I flew up north to visit the rest of my family for Christmas, presents already wrapped, the TSA didn't just take them out of the wrapping paper - they unpacked everything completely, down to removing the toys from the plastic and twist ties that held them in place (I guess I could be thanking them, since everyone knows what a pain it can be to get toys out of their packaging sometimes).

To point out just one more pet peeve - why can't people that aren't flying wait with you at the gate anymore, or come meet you at the gate when you arrive? I know the current policy does nothing to keep out anybody determined enough to sneak in. The fact that all it takes is a computer printout of your itinerary or tickets to get it, means that anybody with a computer and any type of ingenuity can print out counterfeit tickets or itineraries. They probably wouldn't work to get them on the plane, but they'd certainly get the people into the gate area. Perhaps the point is to reduce the number of people in the gate area, to make observation and surveillance easier. I still don't like it.

Okay, you get it - I think the TSA's annoying. But have they actually done anything to increase security? In anticipation of anybody that's going to say that we haven't had a terrorist attack since 9/11, therefore the TSA must be working, I have a tiger repelling rock I'd like to sell you. I've had this rock for years, and haven't seen a tiger the entire time, so it must work, right?. (Realizing that Simpsons episode was from way back in 1996, it's eerie how well it predicted the country's reaction to 9/11 - do anything, even if there's no evidence it works, just so it seems like we're doing something.)

I've got a little experience "smuggling" things past the TSA myself. As I mentioned in the essay I linked to up top, I've forgotten about one of my pocket knives a few times. It's a small little knife that looks like a key, and goes on my key ring. The blade's only about 2", but that's exactly the type of thing the TSA was supposed to be keeping off planes. And I managed to get by security with it once during the highest threat level. (The knife actually has some sentimental value to me, so I've since taken it off my key ring, just to make sure I don't ever forget about it when flying and find that one TSA agent who notices it.)

What about more serious threats, besides pocket knives that probably aren't going to be worth much of anything, anymore? Well, there's this case where, "Investigators with bomb-making components in their luggage and on their person were able to pass through security checkpoints at 19 U.S. airports without detection." And what about the student who smuggled bleach, matches, box cutters, and clay that resembled plasic explosives, onto multiple airplanes, told the TSA about it, and some of the items still weren't found for over a month.

Or, just read these articles, from the column, Ask the Pilot on It's written by an airline pilot, Patrick Smith, who doesn't like the TSA all that much, either. He describes all types of silly regulations the TSA follows, including not letting him get through security because he was carrying the exact same knife that the airline gives out to passengers aboard the plane, not to mention that most airport personnel who aren't seen by passengers have very lax security regulations. He also has a good article on the N.Y. Times site.

I understand that we probably do need security. I just don't like seeing an organization that does very little good. At best, it's a minor convenience. At worst, it's a false sense of security, and a waste of resources that could be better applied elsewhere.


Selling Out