Dried Roses

Wednesday garden pix

Where there was one, now there are many.


LinkMarch 1, 2006 in Garden

Sunday cat pix



LinkMarch 5, 2006 in Cats

We used to laugh when the Soviets did this

You know the old joke. A child murders Mom & Dad, and then asks for mercy from the court because it’s an orphan.
The US State Department has denied visas to two Iraqi women who wanted to visit the US as part of the International Women’s Day peace campaign. The families of the two women were killed by American soldiers.
Their visas were refused on the grounds that because they have no close family in Iraq, they “failed to overcome the presumption of intending to emigrate”.
I don’t suppose being sponsored by Code Pink and Global Exchange had anything to do with it.
Addendum 9 June 2007: A suit brought on behalf of another war widow by Americans United, an organization that defends the separation of church and state, was settled on 23 April this year. The Wiccan pentacle is now allowed on military markers.
Documents turned over by the VA to the plaintiffs show that officials were worried about offending President Bush, who is on record as opposing what he calls “witchcraft”. According to Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United, “It appears that the president’s ill-informed personal opinion of Wiccans weighed heavily when the VA made decisions on whether to approve the pentacle.”
They Hate Our Freedom Dep’t: The National Cemetery Administration of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs refuses to allow the widow of a Nevada National Guardsman, killed in Afghanistan, to include the Wiccan symbol on her husband’s memorial plaque.
Patrick Stewart was awarded, posthumously, the Air Medal, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the Nevada Distinguished Service Medal and the Combat Action Badge. His wife, Roberta, “said she will wait until her family’s religion—and its five-pointed star enclosed in a circle, with one point facing skyward—is recognized for use on memorials before Stewart’s plaque is installed” in the memorial wall of the Northern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery.
“I had no idea that they would decline our veterans this right that they go to fight for,” she said. “What religion we are doesn’t matter. It’s like denying who my husband is.”
Our ever-sensitive government officials—in this case Anissa Alford, a director of communications for the National Cemetery Association—“want people to prove that there is a viable organization. ... We're not going to willy-nilly approve emblems until there is a need”.
Sean Whaley, “Sergeant’s space left blank/Fallen Guardsman’s Wiccan faith unrecognized”, Las Vegas Review-Journal 2 Mar 2006 (via Effect Measure). The Anissa Alford quote is from M.L. Lyke, “Wiccan veterans want parity”, Seattle Post-Intelligencer 4 Oct 2005. See also various documents at the Military Pagan Network Discussion Board, including this from Scott Stearns, a Navy veteran:
Michaela M. Barry, Esq., from Great Falls, Virginia, filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the National Cemetery Administration in May of 2005. In July 2005 she received a huge FedEx box with just about everything in it. She has reviewed the over 250 pages of information provided by the National Cemetery Administration as a result of her FOIA, in documents dating back to 1996. The findings are quite disturbing. During time periods when some groups were told that regulations were being promulgated, other groups' requests for Emblems of Belief were being approved. Further, some groups were granted Emblems without having filled requirements stated as necessary to other groups.
Ms. Barry found the largest number of requests to add an Emblem of Belief, by far, is from the Wiccan/Pagan community. Over half of the paperwork provided is from or on behalf of Wiccans or Pagans, asking for the pentacle emblem. None of them have been approved, despite the oldest having been provided in 1997, and despite all required information […] having been received by the VA Cemetery Administration. More disturbing, perhaps, is that repeated requests from one group, the Pagan Headstone Campaign, for a “face to face” meeting were denied, despite letters provided to Ms. Barry that referenced meetings that have taken place between other groups and the VA Cemetery Administration.
The administration may have trouble attending to detail when it comes to hurricanes and wars, but I have the feeling that on matters political no detail is too small, no chance for gain too petty. Like Justice Roberts when he was applying for jobs in the Reagan administration, Bush’s underlings vie to prove their dedication to Our Leader. There’s a Stalinist thoroughness here that would be amusing were it not that people die because of it. (To be fair, I should note that the Wiccans have been asking for recognition since 1997.)

LinkMarch 5, 2006 in Current Affairs

Inference tickets

From a post at Cassandra (“From the Stars”, 9 Mar 2006). Her father-in-law is speaking.
“It’s all logic,” he said. “Logic and philosophy. You just start with logic and it’s amazing where it can take you.”

LinkMarch 10, 2006 in Philosophy of Philosophy

Sunday cat pix

Musa in her new custom sleeping-pit. We left a blanket on top of some books, and Musa took it from there.


LinkMarch 12, 2006 in Cats

Sunday cat & garden pix



LinkMarch 19, 2006 in Cats · Garden

Sophomore Musa

Musa is two years old on 29 March. She was far less sophisticated last year, when she was only a freshman.


LinkMarch 31, 2006 in Cats

Addicted to risk?

Becoming addicted to nicotine, opiates, and so on is risky behavior. But it may be that eliminating the propensity to addiction would also eliminate risk-taking in general.
Nicotine binds to receptors known as nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs). These receptors have five subunits, one of which is the beta2 subunit. Mice lacking this subunit exhibit “mild learning impairment”; they also do not learn to self-administer nicotine.
Nicotine receptors with the beta2 subunit are found throughout the brain. In particular they occur in the midbrain ventral tegmental area (VTA), which is “strongly implicated in the response to natural rewards, such as food or sex”. Mice with beta2 subunits will self-administer nicotine and other addictive substances directly to the VTA. A group at the laboratory of Jean-Pierre Changeux has shown that in mice lacking the beta2 subunit, introducing that subunit directly into the VTA by means of a virus encoding it resulted in the formation of nAChRs containing that subunit.
The experiments by Maskos et al. and Kauer et al. are said to
firmly connect exploratory behavior with VTA cell function, as well as providing a causal link between a specific nAChR subunit and this behavior. It remains to be determined which human behaviors are analogous to exploratory behavior in the mouse.
For pictures, see “Nicotinic Receptors” at Chemistry of drugs and the brain, Emory University, last modified 11 Apr 2000; Bryan Grieg Fry, “Neurotoxins”, Venomdoc, s. d.
Champtiaux, N. & Changeux, J. P. 2004. Progess in Brain Research 145:235–251.
Kauer, Julie A. 2005. Nature 436:31.
Maskos, U. et al. 2005. Nature. 436:103–107.
Picciotto, M. R. et al. 1995. Nature 374:65–67.

LinkMarch 31, 2006 in Psychology

How to think like the well-off

Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance picks up a question from Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution: what is the best number of tennis balls to play with? Cowen doesn’t know the answer, but he thinks that twelve is too many.
Of course for some people the solution is simple. Someone else retrieves the balls for you, and the optimal number of balls is whatever you want it to be. How often does Bill Gates or Dick Cheney have to worry about “boundary conditions”?
Cowen notes that “Many problems in life, including those of dating, the number of children you should have, and optimal inventory management, resemble the tennis ball problem”—which is to say that the mathematical formulations of those situations, considered as optimization problems, are similar. (I like the “should” in “number of children you should have”: a prudential should, I suppose.)
The tennis ball problem, as presented, is not just an exercise in optimization theory but an instance of the rhetoric of economics. “How many balls should you play with?” asks Cowen. But who is you? Not Bill Gates. He doesn’t have to retrieve any tennis balls unless he feels like it. You is someone who can afford to play tennis, has the leisure to do so, and enough cash to contemplate buying a dozen tennis balls ($15 to $20, it appears). This is the presumption in putting the problem as one in which “you” are considering how to optimize: “you” functions here as an informal quantifier over some domain, to which the reader (the “I” or “we” correlative with the “you” of the example) belongs. You can see what’s going on if you consider an example like:
How to be a DVD Player. Find out how your favorite DVDs can help you score with the ladies.
“You” is almost certainly male. There are ladies who want to score with the ladies, but I doubt that the author had them in mind. There is also the presumption that “we” (that is, the “you” being addressed) all want the same thing. We want to score with the ladies, we want to play tennis rather than chase after balls.
The content of presumptions of that sort, roughly to the effect that we are all similar in some respect, all in the same boat, is filtered out once the problem becomes mathematical. Is the cost of retrieving balls linear with respect to the number retrieved? Probably not, but once a cost function is arrived at, the rest is just mathematics; the real-world presumptions or hypotheses that went into its formulation affect the result only through that formulation.
What I’ve just said applies to mathematical modelling generally, not just to economics. But in economics, the items modelled are, in application, people or quasi-people (corporations and such), and the results of the mathematical modelling are fed back into decision-making.
Not only that, but people who study economics learn the “economic way of thinking”. I once found myself explaining the maximization of utility to a freshman. She said she’d never thought about making decisions that way. I felt as if I had, to some small degree, corrupted her; but I consoled myself with the thought that sooner or later she would encounter the notion. For me, having studied utilitarianism, it had become second nature to be able to think in terms of maximization—not actually to do so, but to be able to. The eighties were a good time for that.
The assumption that “we’re all in the same boat” is sometimes shaky. The mostly middle-class people who study and teach economics in university have, by the time they encounter the economic way of thinking, been long accustomed to thinking of themselves as having options among which to choose. You have some extra money, some extra time: how to spend it? But it is not so clear that people “shop” for health care as they may for automobiles or computers; or that the entry-level employees of McDonald’s have “bargained” with their employers concerning wages and working conditions—that they regard themselves as being in a position to bargain. Pierre Bourdieu has argued that the extent to which one imagines oneself to be in a position to choose certain things (e.g. an occupation) correlates with social position. That sounds plausible.
A little antidote to tennis-ball complacency: read Body and Soul on Roosevelt, and Kathy Kelly’s “Liberation and deliverance” at Selves and others.
Sources: Tyler Cowen, “The tennis ball problem”, 16 Feb 2006; Sean Carroll, “How to think like an economist”. The comments are worth a look too. Several of them note that using ball boys or girls is “optimal” with respect to time spent playing.

LinkMarch 31, 2006 in Society