Threat Advisory: Delusional

www.dhs.gov A friend of mine from the Pharos Book Club circulated a recent story about a student who was visited by agents of the Department of Homeland Security for his request to borrow Mao Tse Tung's Little Red Book.

There are a number of public services for which preservation of privacy is a fundamental aspect: think health care and taxation. Despite book loan transactions occurring through a public institution, I think that these lending institutions need to preserve privacy for the same reasons that we preserve it in other domains: to prevent secondary compromises to the individual; fear of those compromises may prevent an individual from pursuing those services at all. The free exchange of ideas would be curbed. Perhaps that is exactly what institutions like Homeland Security want.

www.dhs.govThere are exceptions to the preservation of privacy, instances when law enforcement can access information that may be linked to unlawful activity. Reporting of gunshot wounds, for example. What should the threshold be for lending information? I think the threshold has to be very high. It is intrusive, expensive, and unfruitful to have thresholds that are otherwise.

The interlibrary loan system is an international lending system. Presumably, Canadians who request flagged material through the system would also expose themselves to investigation by the DHS. I don't know whether such an international investigation has yet occurred, or how it would be handled. Canadian librarians are contemplating using anonymized borrower information to protect their identities.


Web Design Contest

Found this announcement (see end of article) in the NY Times for a design contest with a rather interesting payoff:

An [Iraqi] insurgent group, the Victorious Army Group, has extended a deadline for a Web design contest, according to an Internet posting. The group has set a Jan. 15 deadline for submissions of a design "worthy of the group's reputation and the reputation of the jihad and the mujahedeen," according to a translation provided by the SITE Institute, which monitors jihadist messages.

The winner is promised "God's blessings" and the opportunity to fire three long-range rockets at an American military base.

Get those entries in kids!


PM's Blog Boy

The man responsible for writing the clever things the Honourable Prime Minister says is also responsible for the PM's blog. Scott Feschuk, previously a Globe and Mail contributor who switched to the National Post at its inception, is now the PM's chief speechwriter. He is pictured reviewing a speech with PMpm in the Honourable Lavatory, wearing the PMO's off-duty uniform of blue pinpoint Oxford and khakis.

PMpm: Don't you think it's too long, Scott?
SF: Too long, sir? Ummmm...no. I think it's a, uh, a very nice length Mr Prime Minister.
PMpm: I could go on forever with this thing.
SF: I'm sure you can, sir. Mrs Martin must be very pleased.
PMpm: What? Who cares what she thinks. I need to impress the media enough to give me some airtime.
SF: ...oooo-kaay?
PMpm: Here. Cut out 200 words.
SF: From the speech! Oh, absolutely, sir.
PMpm: Of course from the speech. What'd you think I was talking about? [zzziiiip]
SF: Nothing at all, sir.

Scott Feschuk has authored the funniest movie reviews in the known universe, and for him to stodgify his writing with banal campaign fodder must be a terrific career move, though a terrible disappointment to his readership.

But there is a silver lining. Mr Feschuk is the PM's Blog Boy, and posts directly from his Blackberry to the PM's website. The blog is the only redeeming feature of the current election race. A typical Feschukism:

December 6, 6:56 AM - I didn't actually get a chance to watch Two and a Half Men last night, but darned if that's going to stop me from winning a vote by describing it:
The episode began with Charlie Sheen and that other guy, the one who didn't work between
Pretty in Pink and the year 2002, proving just how wacky a wacky odd couple they are by having profoundly conflicting views about a variety of matters. Then events conspired to place Charlie Sheen in a "situation." Mayhem and canned laughter ensued. Charlie ultimately triumphed over his "situation" by learning a valuable life lesson and making anywhere from three to seven sly references to his own real-life promiscuous and badboy ways. And then everyone died a little inside.

Here's the link.


Evolution, and nothing more

This is the title of an Issues & Ideas column by professor Jerry Coyne that recently appeared in the National Post (Friday, December 2, 2005). Dr Coyne presents a précis of Darwinian evolution, catching up his readership on what science has known for 150 years. He does little to update the concept of evolution, instead devoting the remainder of his column to undermining intelligent design. As a result, neither argument is especially compelling. That is unfortunate, as I have every confidence that Dr Coyne and I agree on the capacity of evolution and inadequacy of intelligent design to explain speciation.

It is tempting for me to rant about intelligent design. In fact, I think I did so last October (Intelligent Design and its unintelligent proponents). I don't know how constructive such rants are, but I have to confess it feels good to rail against ignorance. Even venerated evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has lapsed into a good rant or two (see "A Scientist's View" in the Guardian).

As far as I can tell, supporters of intelligent design fall mainly into two camps: scientists who are willing to abandon evolution because it cannot explain all phenomena, and creationists who seek to legitimize their faith by cloaking it in a mantle of pseudo-science. Both are dubious aims worthy of healthy skepticism. Intelligent design may have been a viable competing theory to explain speciation 200 years ago, when such explanations were being developed. There have been alternatives to Darwinian evolution, an explanation that was not immediately embraced. For example, Lamarck proposed speciation by the propagation of acquired characteristics to offspring.

The classic illustrative example is that of giraffes. Lamarck proposed that as giraffes consumed foliage on the lower branches of trees, they had to stretch their necks to reach foliage on the upper branches. The stretched neck trait would be transmitted to their offspring, and over successive generations, neck length increased.

Darwin offers a very different model. He contended that within a population of giraffes there are variations in neck length. In periods when low-lying foliage has been depleted, giraffes with longer necks will have a competitive advantage and be likelier to transmit their long-neck genes to their offspring. The long-neck trait would come to predominate in the population if the pressure on low-lying foliage continued, and over time, only increasingly long-necked giraffes would remain. There would still be variation, but around a lengthier mean.

What does intelligent design propose? That a creator designed the giraffe with a longer neck, despite fossil evidence to the contrary. Or that a creator designed the giraffe originally with a shorter neck but with a tendency to a longer neck. Or some ID proponents want to have their cake and eat it too claiming that the creator designed an initial deucedly complex form, then natural selection acted to refine it.

Intelligent design fails a number of scientific tests. Depending on its formulation, it may neglect the facts, commit fallacies of logic, or be sliced to shreds by Occam's Razor. It should not enjoy equal footing with current evolutionary theory, or even old school Darwinian evolution. I concede that evolution does not yet explain the emergence of all biological traits. But to dismiss such a powerful, predictive, explicative, and elegant theory because of some gaps would grind all scientific enquiry to a standstill if such a practice were more widely applied. Investigate, refine, enhance--don't dismiss.