Biography

RWP was born in Manchester, in the north of England, in the late 1950s, so he is very old. He really liked the north of England, which by 1965 was hip and had three TV channels, and where he went to a coed school. His parents, for reasons best known to themselves, then yanked him away, to Belfast and then Dublin, which had one TV channel that started up at 6 pm with the Angelus (Catholic call to prayer). He also had to go to an all boys school, where he realized he had really liked girls. This probably let him focus on schoolwork, though, and at age 19, after he had finished college, he set off for America, where he still resides. He has a bachelors degree in biochemistry and a Ph.D. from Harvard in biophysics, and has lived also in Mainz, Germany, Setauket NY, and Richland WA. He currently divides his time between Nebraska, Rosslyn VA, and Florida.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Outrage number 1: Irish Car-Bomb Stout.

So the Blue Blood Brewing Company, a usually reliable producer of drinkable beer, have decided to honor the feast day of our holy St. Patrick with a substance abhorrently named Irish Car Bomb Stout. You bastards. Do you know how many of my fellow countrymen were killed or maimed by car bombs in my lifetime? I myself was close enough to one to be knocked over -- I was a minute away from being killed -- and saw bodies lying in the street after the explosion. Why don't you, for February, concoct a Slavery Stout, or for May, a Drug-cartel Jalapeno Weizen?

Heck, if you love terrorism so much, how about a Tsarnaev Brothers' Boston Ale? I have a slogan for you. "The Dzhokhar's wild!" Hilarious, huh?

Because you wouldn't dare, that's why! But sure, let's make fun of other people's misfortune. You rotten bastards.

Announcing the 2015 St. Patrick's Day whinefest

It's just a fact of American life that every ethnic, racial and other identity group whines incessantly, even about stuff that is entirely unoffensive and well-intentioned. For example, African Americans at Wright State just got all bent out of shape by a Black History Month menu that featured fried chicken, collard greens, cornbread and mashed potatoes. Meanwhile, a black frat at UNL just put on a similar menu. The hypersensitivity is such there is no way of predicting whether any well-intentioned action will cause delight or offense.

And in this case we won't be discussing well-intentioned actions. St. Patrick's Day in the US paints the Irish as a bunch of drunken, crud-eating aggressive louts. It's an excuse for binge-drinking foul fluorescent-green-colored American faux-beer, Budweiser or worse, while singing cretinous Irish American ditties like Toora-loora-loora, consuming stinking overcooked corned beef and cabbage, assuming fake 'brogues' (the word means 'shoe', morons) and generally associating my fair native land of mists with the most brutish of behavior.

On my first St. Patrick's Day in America, I naively travelled to South Boston, the Irish area of the city, with a pal from Ireland and a Yank hanger-on, in the expectation that when they heard we hailed from the old sod (or ⅔ of us did), we wouldn't have to buy a beer for ourselves the whole night. So we all ordered pints and settled down at what looked like one of the cleaner bars. About halfway through the first round, the bartender sidled over to us and asked where we were from.

"I'm from Dublin, John's from Wicklow, and this guy's from some place called Vermont." I said beaming, expecting the next phrase would be "Drinks on the house lads!"

"Well, I hate to do this, but I think it would be better if you would leave. It's St Paddy's Day (grrrrr) and there's a bunch of local guys who'll be down here later on, and they won't want anyone who isn't Irish at the bar"

"But we are Irish. We're from Ireland"

"No, you're not Irish. You're not from South Boston."

So I was thrown out of a bar in the most Irish precinct in America, on St. Patrick's Day, for being Irish. So fuck the Yanks and drink their wives, I say.

On this blog, for the next three weeks or so, I will be collecting miscellaneous offense, grievance and obnoxiousness associated with the locals' befouling of St. Patrick's Day, which after all, is a religious holiday and holy day of obligation in Ireland. You sacriligious bastards.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Unwarranted faith in science

I'm as happy to bash antivaxers as the next guy. But we should not promote childhood vaccination by urging the public to have Faith in Science. Science screws up, often, and the public should know that. Scientists working in biomedical fields, where often they don't have a research Ph.D., and scientists working for the government, are particularly prone to screw up. The Federal Government is a cumbersome bureaucracy within which no one really excels.

Latest instance; the flu vaccine people my age are urged to get doesn't work against the major strains of influenza around this winter. I've heard numbers of 30% effectiveness in the US, though I'm not sure I believe them. In the UK, it's more like 3%. The BBC says, with classic understatement:

This is a poor result
No shit, Sherlock.

The vaccine mix used for the current season was based on a recommendation made by the World Health Organization last February, based on the breakdown of strains in the population of each country even earlier than that. It's a guess at the current flu season, in other words. The FDA appreoved the mix on February 28, 2014. Dozens of generations of flu viruses have lived, multiplied, died, and been subject to natural selection since then. Six companies make the vaccines March through August, before switching to the Southern Hemisphere.

In actual fact, it really only takes a few days to make the vaccine by the conventional route, and less using a recently approved cell-free system. The rest of the delay is regulatory; each batch has to be approved by the FDA. Shipping of some lots began in July.

It is not clear how long the FDA lot approval process takes, but it's clear the entire process is taking too long.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Conservative bashing in the London Times

The London Times, though it be a Murdoch newspaper, has given voice to succession of rabidly anti-American and specifically anti-Republican correspondents. The latest is Justin Webb, whose real job is to present the Today program on BBC Channel 4 (natch), and begins a Times editorial on the antivax movement today with...

Right-wing Americans have finally exposed the true extent of their scientifically and socially illiterate barminess.

...which is radically at odds with the fact that opposition to vaccination is heavily concentrated in liberal areas. As a CDC official said a couple of days ago, if you want to find unvaccinated children, put a pin in each Whole Foods store on a map and draw a one-mile radius around each of them. The state with the highest rate of kindergartner vaccination in the US is not California or Massachusetts but Mississippi. I can only begin to list all the Democrat politicians and liberal celebrities who are either antivax or have flirted with antivax pseudoscience, starting with Obama and Hillary Clinton, we have Bill Maher, Kristin Cavalieri, Jim Carrey, Mayim Bialik, Charlie Sheen and Robert F Kennedy Jr. (to whom John Stewart gave a sympathetic Daily Show interview in 2005).

Republicans, being these days largely of a libertarian bent, often support in principle parents' right not to vaccinate their kids, but statistics show they tend to vaccinate their own kids. A map of of non-medical vaccine exemptions, produced by the far-left Mother Jones, shows an excellent correlation with those states that vote left, particularly granola states (those inhabited by 'flakes fruits and nuts') such as Oregon and Vermont. Meanwhile, the non-blue state parts of the Midwest, and the South, vaccinate religiously, so to speak.

I may well follow my sister's advice and move my subscription to the Telegraph. My general policy is that if a news organ lies about something you know well, you shouldn't trust them on things you don't know so well.


Friday, January 16, 2015

On dieting

In response to an online argument about dieting. Like most of us, I've tried several kinds of weight-reduction diet. I also know enough about thermodynamics and intermediate metabolism to be able to think about diets intelligently. This is what my experience and education tell me.

(1) Dieting by calorie restriction alone works, but it's tough. You're hungry a lot of the time, and you need to maintain a fairly high level of exercise to keep your metabolic rate up.

(2) The Atkins diet, in practice, works better. The high levels of protein and fat keep you satiated. And, having tracked calories while on Atkins, in my experience it tends to be a calorie reduction diet as well. You just don't want to eat that much meat. It's not so hard to maintain an exercise regime, although I find retaining muscle mass isn't easy; weight training gets a lot tougher. And it's very effective. 5 - 10 pounds in the first week is typical, and it's not all water. You can get enough zero carb roughage with an intelligently constructed salad every couple of days.

I believe Atkins weight loss is due to two effects, both significant, but whose exact contributions I haven't tried to measure. One is the raw calorie reduction. The second is ketosis, which is how Atkins himself thought it worked. Basically, after a couple of days of extreme low carbohydrate intake, your body runs out of its glucose stores, and it has to make glucose by a process called gluconeogenesis. It can do that by using a small portion of a fat molecule, or from some amino acids, but both processes are inefficient, and the result is a lot of the rest of the fat gets converted to acetoacetic acid and eventually acetone, a ketone. Your body can use the 'ketone bodies' but you're producing a lot of them, so some of them get excreted, and with that you lose the calories you would have gotten from metabolizing them properly. So there's some extra weight reduction, but you don't excrete enough to account for all the weight reduction.

In practice, I find that a bit of attention to the calories, combined with Atkins, is still easy to maintain, and more effective than raw, eat-all-the-fat-and-protein-you-want Atkins.

(3) I think a low, but not zero carbohydrate diet is a good long term maintenance diet, particularly when you get older. Eating lots of carbs these days just gives me glucose swings, and my doctor assures me I'm not pre diabetic. And the carbs should come mostly in vegetables. South Beach, maybe, not Atkins.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The other medieval religion

Pope Francis, who increasingly looks like the biggest mistake the Catholic Church has made since, ooh, about 1600, yesterday said, in effect, 'you talka da trash about my mama, I breaka yo face'. The actual words were:
[I]f Dr. (Alberto) Gasbarri, a great friend, says a swear word against my mother, then he is going to get a punch
...and pooh to all the 'meek shall inherit' and 'turn the other cheek stuff'; he's a Catholic, and the Bible is merely a set of suggestions. This was all in the context of allowing that while those naughty boys in Paris shouldn't killed all those journalists, Charlie Hebdo pretty much had it coming.
The pope said freedom of expression was a “fundamental human right” like freedom of religion, but one that must be exercised “without giving offense.”
It goes without saying is a freedom to say only what doesn't offend is no freedom at all...not that the Catholic Church has ever had much time for freedom anyway. Let me don my classical liberal cap, and instruct the Holy Father. As Oliver Wendell Holmes put it:
[I]f there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate
Louis Brandeis (whom the Argentinian prelate probably would regard as one of the gang who killed Christ) put it far more eloquently:
To courageous, self-reliant men, with confidence in the power of free and fearless reasoning applied through the processes of popular government, no danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present, unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion. If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.
In other words, the solution to speech you hate is not the violence Pope Francis recommends, it's contrary speech. This is what marks us (some of us) as civilzed 21st century human beings, not medieval savages.

Fortunately, for me, Catholicism was a disability I outgrew with puberty. But if I were Catholic, I'd be feverishly scanning Canon Law for the phrase "recall election". Because every time this guy opens his mouth, it seems, something stupid pops out.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The less you know...

A recent crime gives a lovely glimpse into news suppression policies at three local media outlets. First, our beloved Lincoln Journal Star.
Two men robbed a Belmont neighborhood convenience store at gunpoint Monday morning, police said. The pair went into a Kwik Shop at 14th and Adams streets just before 3 a.m. -- one had a handgun -- took the 24-year-old clerk to the back of the store and bound his wrists, Lincoln Police Officer Katie Flood said. Then they stole cash and cigarettes before running north, Flood said.
Armed robberies, unlike burglaries or murders, usually come with a suspect description. But the Lincoln Journal Star won't publish suspect descriptions, because, I suspect, they fear if you read 5 or 10 or 20 descriptions of Lincoln area armed robbery suspects, you might draw inferences about the typical profile of an armed robber in Lincoln.

Moving on to Channel 10/11 news...

The clerk told police that just before 3 a.m., two males wearing ski masks entered the store with a gun and demanded money. The suspects stole cash and cigarettes, then ran off. One is described as around 17 years old. The second suspect is described as being in his early 30's.
Now we know their sex, and their reported ages. Evidently this is information Channel 10/11 thinks you should be permitted to have, But is that a full description? Apparently not. Here's Channel 8 news.
Police say the men are described as two black males wearing ski masks. One is described as being in his thirties, about 5'10" and 160 pounds. The other is reported to be younger, about 5'6" and 220 pounds. Officials say the suspects were last seen running northbound.
Two of our main news outlets feel you're not fit to be given a complete report of local crimes, because racism, or something. Personally, I wouldn't pay anyone to provide me only with the news they think I should be allowed to hear. Accordingly, I don't subscribe to the Journal Star, and I won't buy stuff advertized on the 10/11 news.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

In defense of experts.

Newsweek just posted a lengthy piece by Kurt Eichenwald, which is mostly a birdwatcher's guide to biblical criticism. Biblical criticism is a field that starts with the premise that the Bible is not supernatural or divinely inspired, and aims to find out what one can deduce about history, and the early development of Christianity, from the texts themsleves. And there are thousands of early manuscripts of the Bible and apocryphal works. It's truly a vast field.

First of all, I should say I’m a dilletante in the far-too-many things that interest me, and even more (less) of a dilletante in Biblical criticism, about which I’m mostly ‘meh’. Brought up a Catholic, my interest in the Bible was never going to be that great. I do like history, and so I take an interest in how the Bible relates to the history of the near east 0 - 400 CE. But 'interested layperson' about sums it up for me.

Mr Eichenwald is another kind of dilletante, a journalist. He seems to be a reasonably good one. To this interested layperson, he seems to have done a laudable job in summing up biblical scholarship. Of course, he’s made bonehead errors, that even I, less an expert than he, can see. For example, reputable Judaic scholarship does not claim that anything in the Old Testament was written around 1000 BC. As best I understand it, the earliest books (which are not the Pentateuch) were not written until after the Babylonian captivity. Still, the basic ideas are sound. Matthew Mark, Luke and John were not the apostles of the same name. The earliest existing gospel, Mark was not written anything like contemporaneously. It was probably written some time around the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Matthew and Luke probably drew on Mark and another, lost gospel (Q) as a source. And John is off in left field. Luke was probably also the author of Acts, and probably knew Paul, although his writings post-dated the Pauline epistles. And so on. There were also lots of competing gospels, many lost, and none of this got to be canon until much later. And while scholars will (as scholars do) fight to death over the details, none of the above is particularly controversial.

The problem is, contemporary Christian churches want you to think the Bible is divinely inspired, and so gloss over the small matter that decades intervened between Jesus's life (if there ever was a Jesus), and the very earliest versions of the gospels, of which the manuscripts are lost. If you're going to tell believing Christians this, it's a mistake to take shots at evangelical Christians while also writing a popularized account of Biblical criticism. It’s hard enough for Christians to get their head around the idea that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were not the apostles of the same name, without throwing in contemporary politics.

The point is, Biblical criticism is an enormous subject, encompassing the work of thousands of scholars over hundreds of years, and it’s hard for a journalist to get it even approximately right. There are thousands of manuscripts, and entire subfields devoted to textual criticism, detailed study of the Koine Greek, etc. There are actually some biblical scholars who write well, and eruditely, who would have not left mistakes out there to be picked on, and who might have forgone the temptation to take cheap shots at Rick Perry. Why didn’t Newsweek commission one of them to write this?

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A few last thoughts on the University of Virginia gang rape story

Sadness: the Washington Post today found so many and serious discrepancies in Jackie's story there is no other rational explanation than that she is a seriously mentally disturbed individual who concocted the entire episode. She's done a lot of harm, but reading the story, you have to conclude she's just sick, and has a bad choice of friends who reinforced her psychosis with the mantra 'I believe'. No, you shouldn't just believe, in this any more than in transsubstantiation.

Tragedy: downright evil reporting by a leftist activist magazine made this episode of individual psychosis into a national freak show.

Farce: The University of Virginia panicked into closing down all its fraternities and sororities and throwing itself into convulsions over a fabrication.

Crime: Cinderblocks were thrown through the windows of Psi Kappa Phi, and their premises vandalized, resulting in all the residents evacuating, all over a fantasy.

Cure: Go read the Crucible, take it to heart, and think three times before setting off on the next witch burning. And listen; being a liberal is volunteering as an extra in Groundhog Day. If you won't learn from history, you're condemned to repeat it.

I liked it better when we were a sane society, but I don't precisely remember when that was. Ask Gerald Amirault.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Nick Kristof's biased racial commentary.

Today's New York Times commentary of race relations by Nick Kristoff, When Whites Just Don’t Get It, Part 5, beautifully illustrates why Kristof cannot be regarded as a fair reporter, let alone an accurate one. He says:
Two economists, Joseph Price and Justin Wolfers, found that white N.B.A. referees disproportionally call fouls on black players, while black refs call more fouls on white players. “These biases are sufficiently large that they affect the outcome of an appreciable number of games,” Price and Wolfers wrote.
...except that's not what Price and Wolfers found. The paper is here. Look particularly at Table 3. What it shows is the racial composition of refereeing crews had almost no effect on the foul rate of black players. On the other hand, having a higher proportion of black referees tended to increase the number of fouls called on white players. White players had more fouls called on them overall.

Whether the racism was positive (white refs calling fewer fouls on white players) or negative (black refs calling more fouls on white players) is impossible to disentangle from the data, since a foul call is inevitably subjective, and it's clear white and black players tend to segregate somewhat by position and role.

But either way, the treatment of black players did not depend significantly on the race of the officiating crew. Or to quote the authors themselves:

This analysis reveals that the bias we document primarily affects white players.2 This is a departure from more standard accounts of discrimination which involve whites actively discriminating against blacks, although our setting is unusual in that black players are the majority group. In turn, this may reflect either white players being favored by white referees or disfavored by black referees, although our identification strategy (which relies on random assignment of refereeing crews) does not allow us to sort out which group of referees is responsible for this bias.
This directly contradicts Kristof.