Modern magicians

I was listening to the audio book version of Surely Your Joking, Mr. Feynman! the other day and Feynman told of trying to teach his artist friend about science in return for the artist to teach him about art. It turned out that Feynman was a much better artist than the artist was a scientist. In fact the artist couldn’t get anywhere with science. And Feynman observed that it wasn’t just artists. It was pervasive in our society and perhaps in the human species. I’ve run into it myself some even with people that appear at first glance to be above average in intelligence. The concept that Feynman expressed was that people think engineers and scientists can do anything. You just have to tell them what you want and they could build it if they wanted to. People think of us as magicians.

One of the examples Feynman mentioned was that he was asked to be an adviser to the military and after some reluctance agreed to attend a meeting or two to see if he could contribute. One of the problems the military wanted help solving was the refueling of tanks. As they advanced on the battlefield they would run out of fuel and needed to be refueled. Why didn’t the scientists just create an engine that used sand for fuel? Then the tank could just have a little scoop on the bottom and refuel itself as it moved along.

We are not magicians. There are physical laws that we not only don’t know how to break but can’t be broken. We may find a loophole someday but that is a very risky bet. Politicians make laws that everyone knows how to break but I’m not sure people in general understand the difference.

To make things worse our politicians write laws as if we actually are magicians. The universal biometric identification card, fingerprints, airplane security searches, and “ballistic fingerprints” are just a few of the examples that are applicable to my domain of blogging. And what happens when science doesn’t come through like the advocates want us to? They bury their head in the sand and insist it’s working even when it’s not and cannot possibly work. People will want to believe something so bad that they will believe it despite evidence to the contrary.

In the cases above there is a fundamental problem that many people don’t realize exists. It’s a MUCH different problem that many other hard problems scientists and engineers have been able to solve. You used to hear things like, “If we can put a man on the moon why can’t we [fill in the blank]?” At one level I understand the feeling. Putting a man on the moon is so outside of our everyday experience that it would seem to be impossible. So why not solve something that would seem to be simple like identifying people? The fundamental difference is in one case you are “fighting” a nearly static “enemy”, “Mother Nature”, and in the other cases you are “fighting” an active thinking opponent.

I’m reminded of a quote that relates to this topic:

Campaigns to bearproof all garbage containers in wild areas have been difficult because, as one biologist put it, “There is a considerable overlap between the intelligence levels of the smartest bears and the dumbest tourists.”

Richard Wabrek

The opponent you are defending against in the case of the identification, airplane security and garbage container problems is constantly getting smarter. The earth, it’s atmosphere, the moon, gravity, and the dumbest tourists are not getting smarter.

Because of this fundamental difference in the nature of the problems any solution you find against an active opponent is likely to be short lived. In the case of a bear or a virus it may be possible to find a permanent solution. In the case of human opponents I think that in all cases it will be an unwinnable arms race. Solutions will come and with time and some smarts the opponents will defeat them with perhaps as little as one billionth as much money and effort as the solution builders put into it. The only question will be is, “Did we spend our money wisely on that solution?” Did we buy enough time before the solution was defeated to make the expenditure worthwhile? Or could we have spent that money on something else that would have been a better return on the dollar?

This concept can be extended even further. Think of the war on certain drugs and firearm bans. There is an active human opponent the solution provider is fighting. Those are battles that cannot be won.

I expect there will be more fingerprint issues

The lawyer in Oregon that was arrested by the FBI because they “identified” his fingerprints on materials related to the bombing of the train station in Spain is going to be getting $2M from the U.S. taxpayers:

Two years ago the FBI branded Oregon attorney Brandon Mayfield a terror suspect, secretly searched his house and eavesdropped on his conversations with his family and co-workers.

On Wednesday, Justice Department officials agreed to pay Mayfield $2 million to settle one part of his lawsuit for his wrongful arrest in connection with the 2004 Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people.

Mayfield, a former Army officer, also got a formal apology. And the settlement allows him to continue his legal challenge to the USA Patriot Act, which Mayfield charges violates the Fourth Amendment by permitting government searches without demonstrating probable cause that a crime has been committed.

“The United States acknowledges that the investigation and arrest were deeply upsetting to Mr. Mayfield, to Mrs. Mayfield and to their three young children,” said Tasia Scolinos, a Justice Department spokeswoman, in a prepared statement. “And the United States regrets that it mistakenly linked Mr. Mayfield to this terrorist attack.”

Mayfield believed he was singled out because of his Muslim faith. FBI agents, however, insisted that his arrest was based on a faulty fingerprint identification that linked him to the attack.

Either way, Mayfield’s arrest is one of the FBI’s most embarrassing episodes in its five-year campaign to detect terrorist cells inside the United States.

The case also cast doubt on the accuracy of the FBI’s troubled fingerprint-identification program and raised questions about sweeping anti-terror measures passed by Congress in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Mayfield, 40, was detained for two weeks after agents matched the print of his left index finger with one found on a bag of detonators connected to the Madrid attack.

What most people don’t know is that fingerprint identification is often as much an art as a science. Sure if you have excellent quality prints from the nice man carefully rolling your inked finger back and forth on the fingerprint card even a computer can match that to another fingerprint card carefully made some other time. But if they have a smeared fingerprint left from you gripping a textured hand railing, or just the tips of your fingers from typing on the keyboard, or if you soaked your fingers in bleach the night before it’s not clear whether you can get a match at all. And if you are elderly and do a lot of hand labor then the nice man may not even have usable fingerprints from your carefully inked and rolled fingers on the card.

But the U.S. legal system has a tremendous amount of case law built up that says a fingerprint match is positive identification. The problem is there aren’t good standards for what constitutes a “match”. How many little arches and swirls much be in agreement before it’s considered good enough that no one else could have left those fingerprints at the crime scene? Or how may discrepancies can exist before the defense can argue that it definitely wasn’t the suspect that left them? The courts have left it up to “experts” to decide. And the experts don’t agree. The “science” of fingerprints isn’t science. You can get two “experts” to look at identical data and reach opposite conclusions. And what of the ability to spoof fingerprints? It’s not that difficult. And you leave some pretty high quality fingerprints on those soda cans you recycle, the water glass at the restaurant, and restroom door at work.

Until the case above the FBI experts had a much lower threshold for an “identical match” than did the forensic experts in other countries. And I don’t think this issue has been settled yet. I expect there will be other cases where the “experts” want to “help” or have pressure put on them to claim matches when there shouldn’t be. Innocent people will be arrested, imprisoned, and perhaps sometimes even executed because of shaky fingerprint evidence.

A good part of the problem is that many people think of science as some sort of magic that can give black and white solutions to almost anything. In some cases it can but in others it’s simply not possible. But that’s beyond the scope of this post. So I’ll save that for later.

Don’t drop your guard

Paul Helmke is President of the Brady Campaign/Center to Prevent Gun Violence (better known in civil rights circles as “The Brady Bunch”). Here are some things to watch out for–straight from the horse’s ass mouth:

The new Congress could send the public a positive message of its concern for safer communities by taking common sense steps like eliminating current restrictions on publicizing data about the source of guns used in crimes, strengthening the enforcement powers of law enforcement agencies including the ATF, making it harder for criminals and terrorists to buy guns by requiring background checks for all gun sales, and restricting sales of military style weapons and the ammunition that’s used in those weapons. Steps like this help make us safer and will score political points for those who support them.

Emphasis is mine. Even casual users of guns should go immediately on alert about the ammunition even if they don’t about the “military style weapons”. The most popular American guns use ammunition that was first used by the military. .45 ACP, 30.06, .308, .223, 9mm, 12 gauge shotgun. That doesn’t even include the less popular but still “interesting” calibers like .50 BMG.

And of course this point ignores all the other great points that could be made about their anti-freedom wish list. Examples include:

  • All semi-automatic firearms are “military style”.
  • All bolt action rifles are “military style”.
  • All revolvers are “military style”.
  • All muzzle loader firearms are “military style”.
  • The “requiring of background checks for all gun sales” is a back-door gun registration scheme.
  • Publicizing ATF gun trace data endangers criminal investigations.
  • “Common sense” is the code phrase they use for things they don’t want you to think about. Also known as “dangerous Utopian ideas”.
  • The ATF has no constitutional authorization to even exist let alone enforce illegal laws (what part of “…shall not be infringed” don’t you understand?).
  • Scoring points with anti civil rights advocates is politically hazardous.
    • The civil rights organizations in support of gun owners is over four million strong.
    • The anti-rights organizations like the Brady Bunch aren’t even 1/10 that size.
    • Pissing off ten people for every one you make happy is not politically smart.

Via Arms and the Law.


I wouldn’t normally mention this sort of thing on my blog. I’m not into bathroom humor, like some people I know. And this video is nearly ten minutes long which is way too long for most blog readers. But the police marksman and the total breakdown of civil society make it good enough to warrant my mention. Via Samantha.

Lowering the standards

Phil points out that about half of last year’s 10th graders in Washington State failed the math test they are currently required to pass in order to graduate. (Barely) Governor Gregiore wants to fix that–by lowering the standard.

This reminds me of a quote from a Heinlein book:

Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human.  At best he is a tolerable subhuman who has learned to wear shoes, bathe, and not make messes in the house.

The character Lazarus Long in the Robert Heinlein book Time Enough for Love

I’m with Heinlein on this.

Of course I’m going to get the evil stare of death from Xenia the next time I see her. She uses this cartoon as wallpaper on her computer:

Xenia’s mother and I, her father, met each other in algebra class and both frequently got perfect scores on the tests. We took four year of math in high school and both did very well. How can she claim to our child and not like math? [heavy sigh]

Building more civil societies

Howard nails Rebecca Peters:

Ms. Peters’ career in gun control got its start in Australia, where she was an important contributor to that country’s current gun ban. By 2005, the rate of sexual assault in Australia increased 36% from its pre-ban 1995 rate, while the U.S. rate decreased 14.6%. Women are now raped over three times as often in Australia as they are in the United States.

The rate of sexual crimes against women in the UK increased 63.0% since pre-ban 1995. Women are raped and sexually assaulted nearly twice as often in the UK as the U.S. Meanwhile, British police ignore Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “civil,” as in: “orderly; well-governed.” The detection rate for sexual offenses dropped from 39% in 2003-2004 to 34% in 2004-2005, indicating poor governance: a 13% lower efficiency by police in bringing perpetrators to justice. Yet according to Peters’ interpretation, Australia and Britain promote women’s rights better than the U.S.

Is a society that accepts a drastic increase in the violent victimization of females more civil, or less?

This is a relevant question, because it appears that Peters believes such societies are more civil, as her IANSA is a major player in the U.N. effort to ban civilian firearms.

That’s just a sample.

Peters is a very big player in the international anti-civil rights movement. Pointing out the terrible consequences of her successes should be high on the list of civil rights activists. To get more familar with Ms. Peters you might also want to get a DVD of her October 2004 debate with Wayne LaPierre (hint to people wishing to buy me a Christmas gift–it’s only $5.95).

Currency of Hatred

One of our employees found this gem a few years ago at the local food co-op– a place where they charge high prices for food that’s “non-corporate” and where they promote anti-capitalist politics and ideals.

It reveals much of the driving force behind the institution of Socialism– pure, unadulterated, white-hot hatred for Mankind, marketed to us as “compassion”.  This rare glimpse into the mind of a Leftist is what I call the “Hate Dollar”.

I believe I can speak with some authority in this area, having been one of “them” myself, growing up as I did among people of similar attitudes and beliefs.  Let me know if you want any part of this work explained:

Check out the high resolution version and you’ll see the exquisite detail and the care with which the artist spills out hatred for America, for Liberty, and for most anything that smacks of human achievement and advancement.  Note also that President Clinton was far too Right Wing for them, having been something of an open-trade president.

Incidentally, I can find nothing in the hate dollar that would be at odds with what the current crop of jihadis has been saying– The overlap of the two ideologies is worthy of note.

Bomb building help request from New Zealand Girls High School

I got mixed up searching for the proper email address (the domain names differed by only one letter) and first sent emails to the Boys High School school. But eventually I got it straighted out sent an email to the address I found here. I sent a correction email to the police department as well. Here is what I sent the student:

From: Joe Huffman
Sent: Wednesday, November 29, 2006 8:59 AM
To: Bonnie
Subject: RE: site….
I haven’t personally built either of those types of devices so I really can’t help with what you want to do.
I’m sure you will be able to get the help you need soon.
Good luck!

From: Bonnie
Sent: Sunday, November 26, 2006 4:08 PM
Subject: site….
Hey I need help. I want to build a bomb out of simple ingredients. I need the recipe. a timer, maybe a detonater. I was thinking along the lines of a pipe or fire bomb? can you help?

Update: I received a reply from the school:

From: Melissa
Sent: Wednesday, November 29, 2006 12:09 PM
To: Joe Huffman
Subject: RE: Student wants help building a bomb.

Thank you for forwarding this email and we will ensure that this is followed up.

Kind regards.

Principal’s PA

Update II: On December 4, 2006 4:45 PM I received an email from “NZ Police Web Site : Central” saying, “thanks I will forward it to the Intel office in New Pplymouth (sic)”.

People that hate mankind

Why am I not surprised? I’m betting these are people that want us to return to our “natural state”–to be “one with nature”. If they really succeeded, if they actually achieved what they are pushing for billions of people would die. We would return to the technology, and probably the sociology, of the dark ages:

Fringe environmental campaigners have contributed to the metal market boom by hindering and delaying new mine development, Mr Munk said.

Barrick’s chairman said that the leading NGOs had played a responsible role alerting the world to problems. The new breed are not accountable, he said. “They haven’t got an address. They incite people, mobilise volunteers and make outrageous statements.”

Barrick recently came under fire over plans to develop an Andean gold deposit on the Chile-Argentina border. NGOs accused the company of seeking to destroy glaciers.

Barrick said that the mine would not touch the icefields and it had received 50,000 job applications from locals supporting the project.

Nice idea but it will fail

Nuclear fusion is a wonderful idea. Clean, no risk of people making bombs from it, and nearly limitless energy. And we have people working on it. The problem is it’s not just some government program–which would almost for certain doom it. There are numerous governments working on it. Think of a committee of bureaucrats that don’t speak the same language. Now give them billions of dollars and tell them they aren’t expected to deliver a working prototype for years or even decades. Oh, and they aren’t ever expected to turn a profit.

When General Electric, Chevron, or even Toyota tells me they are building a nuclear fusion plant I’ll willingly buy their stock. But the government is going to have to get my money for this boondoggle they way they always do–at the point of a gun.

The words we use

Say Uncle reminded me of something and I had to go look it up. If you ever get a chance to hear Alan Korwin speak he’s just as brilliant in person. Here is his take on the words we use. A sample:

They want you to say
(and you lose if you say):
It’s better to say
(and they lose if you say):
pro gun pro rights
gun control crime control
anti-gun movement anti-self-defense movement
semiautomatic handgun sidearm
concealed carry carry or right to carry
assault or lethal weapon household firearms
saturday night specials racist gun laws
junk guns the affordability issue
high capacity magazines full capacity magazines
Second Amendment Bill of Rights
the powerful gun lobby civil rights organizations

An update on government health care

Just a little over a week ago I brought you this story on how you get what you pay for with government health care. It’s “free”, right? Here’s a follow up story on it:

Patients spoke yesterday of their grim experiences in mixed hospital wards and claimed the Government fiddles the figures to suggest that most are now segregated.

Readers of The Daily Telegraph, from Truro to Manchester, said there were often naked and semi-naked patients of the opposite sex in full view and intimate medical discussions were easily overheard.

They said that flimsy partitions were used to indicate that the sexes were separated and that wards were classed as emergency or temporary in order to get around the rules.

The Department of Health says that 99 per cent of NHS trusts comply with the requirement to provide single-sex accommodation but on Thursday Patricia Hewitt, the Health Secretary, admitted there were problems.

Single-sex lavatories were achieved by changing the designation on the doors to either male or female depending on the sex of the occupant. “In effect this made the facility unisex,” she said. “I had to endure all the mess left by ill and confused male users of the lavatory.”

A reader from Weston-super-Mare said that last March, at Weston General Hospital, she was on a ward with a partition half way through the room.

“I was taken to a bed on the male side. They said they would move me when a female bed was available.

“When I asked for the curtains to be drawn I was told it was not possible as the nurse needed to see me. I was on the male side when I came round from my operation and found this extremely stressful.

“When I needed to use a commode the curtains were at least 2ft from the floor — very distressing and undignified.”

A woman admitted to the Princess Royal Hospital, Telford, wrote: “I was amazed and embarrassed to find myself staring at a row of men.

“The man opposite had a skin complaint and lay on top of his bed with his pyjamas open and a small paper towel balanced on his private parts.

“Every time he moved the towel fell off.”

A Department of Health spokesman said: “We are aware of these issues and know there is a disparity between our figures and the public view. That is why the Secretary of State has asked strategic health authorities to look into this and to report back to us.”

Government officials love to make reports. It’s one of the few things they are actually pretty good about doing. Too bad they can’t actually accomplish something useful.

Some people just don’t get it

This is one of the dangers we face. People are getting used to having their freedoms violated. Some people get it. But others don’t:

Stop griping about airport security

As the daughter of airline employees, I was practically raised on an airplane. I’ve been swabbed for drugs, had my shoes examined for explosives, had my bag torn apart and been patted down in plain view.

Yes, it’s an inconvenience, but it’s really not the end of the world.

I’m personally willing to sacrifice an hour of my life to not lose my life in an hour.

Whenever some nutcase tries to sneak a knife on board to prove a point, there is an immediate reaction of, “Oh look! Security is insufficient! Another 9/11 could happen now!”

Until you stop complaining about having to take off your shoes, you cannot complain about a lack of security.

“An inconvenience but not the end of the world.” I’m sure similar words were used by a lot of the homosexuals when they had to wear the pink triangles in Germany in the late thirties. Or maybe by the Jews when their shop windows were broken on the Night of Broken Glass. It’s only in hindsight everyone can see things clearly.

What this woman doesn’t realize is that she is completely missing the point or perhaps even willfully avoiding the point. She thinks the point to be learned from the “nutcase” is that existing “security” is inadequate. It’s not. The point to be learned is that we are spending billions of dollars each year and getting nothing good in return for it. That money could have been better spent on something else. What we do get from it is a desensitized population. It’s just a pink triangle or a Star of David you have to wear. What does it matter? Just go along with it and don’t make such a fuss. Right?

It’s the creeping of the searching that is the problem. You are searched before you can enter a Federal Courthouse, tour Grand Coulee dam, or visit the top of the St. Louis Arch. You can be stopped on the road for no reason and your car can be searched if a dog takes an interest in it.

People are getting used to being searched for almost any reason. It’s “an inconvenience but not the end of the world”. Those people are wrong. It fails my Jews in the Attic Test. End of story.

What he said about snow in the Seattle area

Phil has better stories than I do about getting home after work last night. I had to take numerous detours from my planned route because of all the backups. Even though it was 00:45 after watching another four episodes of Enterprise with James’ at his apartment there were cars backed up for miles in some locations. I managed to look far enough ahead to detour around them and didn’t actually have to stop for the traffic.

It was 01:15 when I arrived in my neighborhood and there were people on the street directing traffic down a little hill. I have the best snow and ice tires Les Schwab sells without getting studs and didn’t really have any problems. There were places where I expect my 10 MPH stopping distances would have been 50 yards (downhill on a glaze of ice) but I could stop, I could go forward, and I could steer.

There were lots of cars abandoned along the streets and there were “interesting” vehicle tracks in places vehicles had no business going. I’m in the middle of a conference call from work right now (my input isn’t needed right now) but soon I’m going to grab some food and cooking utensils (the cafeterias at work are closed) and head off to work. I’m hoping to get some good pictures.

Interesting solution

This “male pill” works by preventing ejaculation without inhibiting orgasm. For some people that would eliminate a lot of the fun but for others it would be most welcome.

Also “useful” is that it can be taken as a “one of” a short time before its effects are needed and normal function returns a few hours later:

A male contraceptive pill, which can be taken as a one-off dose just before a date without any side effects, is being developed by British scientists.

The tablet would prevent a man from being able to impregnate a woman by creating a “dry orgasm”. But the user’s fertility would return to normal within a few hours of taking the drug.

The pill, which was derived from drugs used to treat schizophrenia, prevents ejaculation but does not affect the intensity of the orgasm.

Very interesting.

Posted in Sex

Doing research to confirm your beliefs

As a scientist I can’t think of a better way to bias your research and end up with bogus results:

The record is clear, and once we are able to get hearings on this, everyone will see what they already know, and that is that those who have the least opportunities at this age find themselves in the military, as I did when I was 18 years old.

Not only is Charles Rangel looking to find what he wants to find in these proposed hearings but he is announcing to the world what data he will find and what his conclusions are. Even if he managed to find data completely contradictory to what he believed he would have a difficult time admitting he was wrong and changing his conclusions. For a politician this is even more difficult than for a scientist. But then again he is a politician, not a scientist. For them it’s not about finding the truth or doing the right thing–those things are irrelevant in politics.

That reminds me of a couple jokes:

POLITICIAN: From the Greek `poly’ (“many”) and the French `tete’ (“head” or “face,” as in `tete-a-tete’: head to head or face to face). Hence `polytetien’, a person of two or more faces.

Martin Pitt

And my favorite along this line:

The word ‘politics’ comes from the Greek root ‘poly’, meaning many, and ‘tics’, meaning blood-sucking parasites.