Let's get that debate started

Unless that would be too misleading.

Healing and scarring

In Rocket Science piece, Ed Yong explores the state of research on limb regeneration.  It seems that mammals are much worse at this than amphibians, perhaps because mammals are more exposed to cancer risks if they take the lid off of cell growth, or perhaps because the excruciatingly long process of regeneration is more suitable for creatures with a very slow metabolism that can hibernate for long periods.  Perhaps fast-lane mammals had to develop a more quick-and-dirty way to seal off a wound.

Nevertheless, some mammals retain a surprising ability to regenerate some kinds of tissue.   Even humans, especially very young ones, can replace fingertips.  The process is of great interest, not just to replace missing parts, but to understand how to avoid disease processes that are associated with the formation of scar tissue, such as fibrosis of the heart or liver.

On the Road: Warner Robins Air Force Base, Air Museum

The P-40 Warhawk remains a highly iconic image.

Another iconic image, more recent.  This one is from the nose cone of an F-15.

This one's for Cassandra.

Transplants and trolleys

Popehat has a more thoughtful discussion of the lung transplant waiting list controversy than I've seen anywhere else--not so much the initial post as the comments.  Because the original post raised the issue of what unlucky person on the transplant list would die so that Sarah Murnaghan might get her new lungs, the talk naturally turned to the old "trolley car" ethical dilemma in which someone is asked to choose whether to divert a runaway car into a single person in order to save five people in its original path.

From my limited reading on the subject of transplants in the last week, I gather that the judge's order did not catapult Murnaghan to the top of the lung transplant list.  Instead, it made her eligible to be considered for a place somewhere on the list, taking into account everything about her disease and chances for survival, instead of being automatically placed below all adults on the list.  I gather also that far fewer people die while waiting for organs under the current system, which considers urgency, than did under the old system, which was closer to first-come-first-served.  It's not at all clear, therefore, that by being bumped up the list this little girl saved her own life at the expense of someone else's.  The most you can say is that her increased priority meant that others will wait longer.  If the list is ordered properly, most (if not all) of those others won't wait so much longer that they'll run out of time.

I was surprised to learn that lung transplants are even a reasonable option for cystic fibrosis patients.  Obviously the transplant doesn't cure the disease, which is genetic and affects the entire body, but the worst symptoms typically don't come back to affect the new lungs.  Although the CF patient still will suffer the disease's effects on the intestines and the pancreas, those are less likely to kill at an early age. In addition, while the new lungs themselves will not behave like CF lungs, the patient will be at risk for infection because of immunosuppression. That's a special problem for CF patients, who often have chronic lung infections, the seeds of which can be lurking elsewhere in the respiratory system, such as in the sinuses. Teenagers also have their own special post-transplant problems, because the rebellious years are not well suited for life on a strict medical regimen.

Lung transplants are a fairly new option for CF sufferers. The one-year survival rate is about 80%, while the 5-year survival rate is about 50%. For comparison, the five-year survival rate for kidney transplants is 90%.

When I was younger, children with CF weren't expected to make it to puberty. These days, with improved treatments, the life expectancy has increased to about 37 years.

Voters vs. cronies

This is what I like to see.  A Hackensack landowner's dispute with a local property board over a stinky eminent-domain gambit not only yielded a courtroom decision in favor of the landowner, but won't be going on to further expensive appeals, because the local community rose up and voted out the entire city council to the last man.

The surest way to win a lawsuit that never should have been brought in the first place is to induce a change of control in the other side's governance.

Voters should revolt more often.  We really don't have to put up with this.

Living cheek by jowl

I've been thinking more about the poo-print condo and why I find the prospect of living there so horrifying.  It's not so much that people are expected to pick up their dogs' droppings.  If you have dogs in a place so crowded that dog poop gets in the way as much as it would on your kitchen floor, without even having a chance to decompose properly and disappear, then of course people have to clean up after them.  It's just that these crowded people are so fundamentally unconcerned with each other that they don't naturally clean up after their dogs; instead they have to be forced to take responsibility by means of a DNA test.  It's the worst of both worlds:  neither intimacy nor autonomy; neither camaraderie nor privacy.

The challenge of civilization is to make bearable the choice of people to live in large numbers together while interacting closely in complex ways.  When it goes wrong, it really goes wrong.  In Heaven, I imagine, all men can "live in each other's trousers," as the Prince of Wales suggested to Camilla Parker-Bowles, in perfect joy.  Otherwise, as Sartre said, "Hell is other people."

It hasn't worked out so idyllically, by the way, for Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall now that they're free to merge as much as they'd like.  People choose to triangulate their marriages for a reason:  the mistress keeps the wife at a distance, and vice versa.  If you marry the mistress, it's not quite the same.

What those people in the poo-filled condo need is either a divorce or a better marriage.

Traveling Again

I'm on the road for a little while, heading south rather than north this time. Posts will be slow for a couple of weeks, at least from me: the rest of you are encouraged to post on any topics of interest for the Hall.

Places you couldn't pay me to live.

Poo-prints, for heaven's sake.  "Oh, no, my carpets!"

Freude, freude!

At least, of the schaden- variety:  Congress contemplates life with Obamacare, and finds that members and staff are quitting before it lands on them.  One guy worries about a "brain drain," which will keep me amused the rest of the day.

What's on their minds

A year or so ago, "Atlas Shrugged" surged in popularity on Amazon.  Now it's Orwell.

H/t Maggie's Farm.

Defensive dispersal

From a Samizdata article on the advantages of open-source software:
Should they decide they do not like us encrypting our files or obscuring our online activity, it would be very hard for authorites to take open source software away.  The nearest they have got is the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act [a failed 2002 anti-piracy bill] which was intended to protect music companies who wanted to put DRM [digital rights management, a tool to prevent copyright-infringement] into music by making trusted computing compulsory.  The idea was that computers would be required to have a special chip that would only let them run programs that would be cryptographically signed by some authority.  You would not be able to run your own programs. 
The bill got nowhere and such laws are unlikely to because open source software is so ubiquitous. It runs the Internet.  Samizdata runs on a computer running the Linux kernel using GNU libraries and uses an open source web server, database and blogging software written in languages compiled by open source compilers and interpreted by open source interpreters.  So do everyone else’s web sites.  Most of the electronic gadgets in the world that have any software at all have open source software in them, including phones and TVs.  None of this is going away. 
As much as Google and Microsoft have brands to protect, if the government makes laws big companies have to follow them.  Governments have no such hold over open source programmers who are geographically, organisationally and ideologically dispersed.
In other words, don't bunch up your forces.  And never, ever let the government get control of either communications or programming.

If you're in the mood for a terrific story about cyberparanoia, John Varley's 1985 novella "Press Enter" is available for the cost of shipping from Amazon, paired with a pretty good old story by Robert Silverburg, "Hawksbill Station," about a time-travel penal colony.

Honest ignorance

Maggie's Farm linked to this brief history of world maps.  Perhaps the most interesting thing about the series is not how knowledge expanded with the advent of sailing ships and navigational instruments, but the degree to which each mapmaker honestly confronted the boundaries of his knowledge.  There is a strong tendency to fill in the territory beyond the edge of human knowledge with "what must be there."  For a long time, even after mapmakers were forced to confront the existence of the New World, they insisted on portraying it as a long, narrow island.  Explorers had brought back the news that the new continent was quite narrow at the isthmus of Panama, and old habits of mind imposed the belief for quite some time that the whole landmass was almost that narrow.  Only quite late in the series do we see a map that allows the known territory to bleed away into a neutral unknown in the distance rather than to make completely unfounded guesses about what might be found there.

Class action re NSA surveillance

Let's see what happens:
Former Justice Department prosecutor Larry Klayman amended an existing lawsuit against Verizon and a slew of Obama administration officials Monday to make it the first class-action lawsuit in response to the publication of a secret court order instructing Verizon to hand over the phone records of millions of American customers on an "ongoing, daily basis.
The newest complaint is embedded in an article update here. (You may find it easier to read if you choose the download option, unless the trouble I'm experiencing scrolling on-screen is only a function of the nearby thunderstorm today.)   The lawsuit is a class action brought by a self-described public advocate who runs an organization called Freedom Watch in D.C.; he's also a Verizon customer.  His co-plaintiffs are Verizon customers who also happen to be the parents of a Navy Seal Team VI member who was killed when his helicopter was shot down in Afghanistan in 2011.  All three claim to be targets of hostile government attention as a result of their sharp criticism of the current administration.

The suit names President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, NSA director Keith Alexander, and federal judge Roger Vinson (the FISA court judge who approved the NSA surveillance order recently leaked by Edward Snowden and The Guardian), as well as the communications companies who divulged the data.   It alleges violations of the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments as well as a couple of federal statutes restricting communications companies from revealing data about customers.   It's framed as a "Bivens" suit, which refers to a 1971 Supreme Court case acknowledging a private right of action for damages against the federal government for the violation of constitutional rights by federal agents.  The starting bid is $20 billion.

This case is of special interest to me just now, because I've spent the last few weeks boning up on how to sue a federal agency:  very tricky business in light of the government's sovereign immunity, to which the exceptions are quite limited.  There is a maze of law addressing the differences between federal agents, federal agencies, and the Unites States itself, as well as the "discretionary function" exemption that shields the government even when there is a specific waiver of sovereign immunity.  So by taking time off to look into this lawsuit, I don't feel I'm entirely playing hooky today.  "Bivens" was on my list of subjects to master this week anyway.

I read the complaint closely to see whether it mentioned the issue raised by MikeD's recent post, about the illegality of NSA domestic surveillance, but there's nothing in it on that subject.

What I've not seen mentioned at all in this scandal

All debate of the rightness of Snowden's disclosure aside, there's one key piece of information I've not seen mentioned anywhere.  The President, the Speaker of the House, and many members of the Senate have come out saying that this program was legal, it was approved by congress, vetted by the courts, and the idea that this is somehow illegitimate has absolutely no basis.  But I think it does.  You see, the one missing element in all of this is that this sweep of meta-data is being handled by the NSA.

So what?  The NSA is certainly well equipped to handle this volume of data.  Communications Intelligence is their mission after all.  But there's one sticking point, and it's a doozy:

"The COMINT mission of the National Security Agency (NSA) shall be to provide an effective, unified organization and control of the communications intelligence activities of the United States conducted against foreign governments, to provide for integrated operational policies and procedures pertaining thereto. As used in this directive, the terms "communications intelligence" or "COMINT" shall be construed to mean all procedures and methods used in the interception of communications other than foreign press and propaganda broadcasts and the obtaining of information from such communications by other than intended recipients, but shall exclude censorship and the production and dissemination of finished intelligence."

The NSA may not, by its own charter, perform Communications Intelligence operations upon the United States or its citizens.  It's target, and mission, is COMINT ops on foreign targets.  Now, I am certain the Administration will claim that the actual targets of this program are foreign terrorists.  However, the one overriding law that the NSA must follow is the United States Signals Intelligence Directive (or USSID) 18.  I would draw your attention specifically to the unredacted portions of Sections 4 and 5, which specifically deal with how communications collected from sources known to be US citizens are to be handled.  I won't quote directly (you can read it all there) but in short, they can't.  They are forbidden by federal law from collecting, processing and disseminating Signals Intelligence gathered from US Citizens.  And I don't really care how the Administration spins it, this meta-data collection and processing, especially as laid out in everything we've seen, is in direct contravention of USSID 18.  And that makes it a federal crime.

Ideological Turing test

Clark at Popehat volunteered to answer questions about liberal policy, with the aim of challenging readers to distinguish between his answers and those of a true believer.  His purpose is to test whether he is able fully to understand his opponents' positions.  I find his assumed positions true to life.   I don't know of a liberal commentator who could do as well with small-government or libertarian viewpoints.

NYT, new and even more content-free

The New York Times is struggling with inconvenient climate data, but it's not ready to give up yet.  The caption to this week's environmental blogpost reads: "Despite a recent lull, climate scientists say it is an open question whether the pace of warming has undergone any lasting shift."

That sentence is almost entirely free of meaning.   Let's assume for the sake of argument that there was in fact warming in an earlier period, and not just jimmied data:  the sentence still is meaningless.   For one thing, the acknowledged "recent lull" would be more honestly described as a "period in which not even partisans can find evidence of warming in the actual data."   Discovering a flatline where you badly wanted to find an increase doesn't mean that the "pace" of warming has changed.  It means that any warming that might have been taking place earlier has stopped.  It has not merely "reduced its pace," it has stopped.

What's more, the question isn't whether a "change of pace" will "last," but whether the current lack of warming will shift into actual warming at some point in the future.   Again, assuming the prior warming period was genuine, what we have is a warming period followed by a flat period.  Does it make sense to assume that the previous warming trend was the true reality, and the recent flat period merely a "shift" in the reality that may or may not "last"?  It would be at least equally valid to say that the current flat period is the norm, and that the previous warming was the fluke that wouldn't "last."  That's especially true if your model is completely incapable of explaining or predicting either one.

The whole thing is just a muddleheaded way of saying the NYT believes that warming will occur in the future. When they believed they had a warming trend to point to in the past, they could with some credibility insist that there was no reason to believe it would not continue. What's the excuse now that the recent trend is flat? Why is the trend that suited their purposes decades ago more predictive than the more recent trend, which doesn't?

Particularly surprising is the casual reference to how the climate system is "still dominated by natural variability." Back when they thought the temperatures were still rising, "natural variability" was the refuge of denialist scoundrels.  Now it's back in fashion to explain why rising CO2 didn't result in warming after all -- even though it's surely going to someday.

Finally, the old straw man:  the NYT sneers at denialists who dispute the role of CO2 as a greenhouse gas.  News flash:  no one disputes the role of CO2 as a greenhouse gas.  Lots of people do point out that it is a very weak greenhouse gas in comparison with the far more abundant greenhouse gas known as water vapor, and that there is good reason to believe that initial warming from  CO2  causes an increase in cloud cover, which operates as a negative feedback mechanism to slow or even stop any warming that gets started.  All of which merely explains why the climate tends to cycle over very long periods rather than to run away in any direction.

Behind the veil

I've had the great pleasure of reconnecting with someone I knew in college:  a self-described "tunnel rat" who knew how to navigate all over campus using the underground steam tunnels.  Though I recalled that he knew all about the phone system, I didn't realize that he was paying his way through school by working for Southwestern Bell.  It's good to learn that he got his electrical engineering degree, got married, and recently retired in rural Southwest Colorado, where he volunteers for a narrow-gauge railroad.

What pleasant memories I have of his taking me under his wing and showing me how things worked behind the scenes.  It's odd that I never had any hesitation about following him into dark underground places.  He always gave off a simple big-brother vibe:  a Morlock checking to see if he could make friends with one of the Eloi.


This week's news raises an interesting question of ethics. Let's say that you are a citizen of some country, and take a job with a contracting firm who assigns you to a government agency belonging to that nation -- or you join the government agency directly. A condition of your job is that you take a high-level security clearance. As a part of this job, you give an oath to keep the secrets with which you are entrusted by your nation.

Now let's say that you learn a secret that you feel brings your duty to keep your oath into conflict with your duty to your fellow citizens. To be sure we don't just end up arguing about the politics of this case, let's say it's something really horrible. Say you discover that your elected government is brutally applying tax powers and audits to suppress political opposition... no, that won't do, it really happened.

Well, say you discover that the government is secretly recording the contents of every email or other electronic communication sent by anyone in the world... er, no, that one happened too.

Well, say that you discover that the government has a secret death program that it has been employing even though it can't be sure of who it is killing, and doctoring the records to make it look like the killings are justified... no, wait, that one's true too.

Well, OK, let's leave it hypothetical. Something really bad. Even worse than the things we've been learning are really true.

There's no question that your oath binds you to the duty of keeping the secret. You can't opt out of your oaths. The problem arises when we discover that there is a conflicting duty, a duty to your fellow citizens. In this situation, you will violate the one duty or the other: either you will fail to keep your oath, or you will fail to warn your fellow citizens of a great evil.

The question, then, is how to violate one of your duties in the least immoral way. Which one, and just how?

Two things make the Snowden case and the Manning case different in my mind. Manning strikes me as someone who should have been shot by firing squad, while Snowden is not for me in the same category. The first is that Manning broke faith with other soldiers, so that there were not two but three duties involved: his duty to keep his oath, his duty to keep faith with other soldiers under fire, and (he apparently believed) his duty to his fellow citizens.

The other thing that strikes me as an important difference between the Snowden case and the Manning case is the question of knowledge. One of the things that makes me believe that Manning is objectively worse is that he didn't even take the trouble to be sure just what he was releasing. He behaved recklessly by simply transmitting hundreds of thousands of documents he hadn't even read. He had no idea what or whom he was putting at risk.

So perhaps that's one criterion: being discriminate, rather than indiscriminate, in the violation of whichever one of your duties you choose to violate.

If so, though, doesn't that imply that it is better to release the information in a discriminate way than to keep the secret? Keeping this horrible secret -- whatever it is -- is to cause harm to every one of your fellow citizens, whereas releasing the secret is not. Thus, it would seem that someone who comes into possession of a truly terrible secret normally ought to violate the duty of oath-keeping, rather than the duty of a citizen.

Perhaps we could say that there can be no duty to keep an immoral secret, which would align with the above finding. However, we don't agree as a polity about just what morality entails. You would have to act on your own moral code, but as you are acting as a de facto agent of the government, you ought to be acting in accord with the morals of the polity as a whole. If you aren't doing that, it's hard to claim that you're acting in their interest.

If this is true, then you might release the secret, but only on the condition of submitting yourself to a trial by a jury of your peers. They would be the proper authority for evaluating whether the secret you released was indeed a severe enough violation of morality that your duty to your fellow citizens was more important than your duty to keep secrets.

For the current case, I think Hot Air is right about the proper route; maybe it mitigates the oath-breaking that the leak be given to a duly-elected representative rather than to some journalist (especially one who is himself immoral and hostile to your country, as Greenwald is). But again, I'm interested in the general question rather than the specific case.

Oath-breaking is a severe and serious moral crime. Is it ever appropriate if another duty conflicts with keeping your oath? If so, on what terms?

Three Birds With One Stone

I was very pleased today to drop a tree in the wooded section of the property just so that it would fall on another, standing dead, and get them both. They took down a smaller third tree on the way, which I wasn't planning to cut, but it'll do for firewood since it's down.

Now to buck them into logs and split them up, so they can season over the summer.

A Doggish Interlude

Normally I would not post videos of dogs here, but in honor of Tex's new companion and act of charity, I will relent and soften my humorless expression for just one moment.

There are your training goals, Tex!