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    Lies, Damn Lies and…

    Posted by John Jay on 28th October 2009 (All posts by )

    One of my academic advisors used to say that any argument without numbers is a religious one. And we all know how productive they are.

    Being a numbers jock and P-Chemist, that statement resonated with me. It still does.

    But then I went into business, and for a while my job involved the quantitative prediction of consumer behavior. Entering into the social sciences like that, where there is no ideological bias, just a financial incentive to get the model right, was good for me. It trained me to look at the instrument that was used to derive the numbers. To ask if the questioner was asking the right questions.

    So my brain perked up when I saw this article on the decline of newspapers:

    Big whoop. After several statistical triple back-flips, we now know that 96 percent of newspaper reading is done in the printed product. That’s like talking about modern transportation by pointing out that 96 percent of buggy drivers use buggy whips. Hello? We switched to cars 100 years ago.

    Writing on the Nieman Journalism Lab Web site, Martin Langveld made some valid statistical conclusions about newspaper readership. The problem is that he was asking the wrong questions. It isn’t about newspapers; it’s about news.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Advertising, Economics & Finance, Media, The Press | 14 Comments »

    Out of the Woodwork

    Posted by John Jay on 22nd September 2009 (All posts by )

    My friend Janiece seems to attract the whackos. This time it is the alternative medicine crowd glomming on to an old post – what is it with these people? Neither they nor Wagner can stand having a piece of criticism out on the Net, even an old one. Do they spend all day vanity Googling? I had completely forgotten about Janiece’s post until the crazies showed up again months later.

    One of the crazies showed up with “data” from the Gerson Institute, and being the truth seeker that she is, Janiece responded:

    I’m not a doctor, but I do understand the scientific method, and this is not a clinical trial or a well constructed study. What I will concede is that the information was interesting enough to me as a layman that I think further study by qualified professionals wouldn’t be uncalled for.

    Janiece is quite kind in her willingness to be open minded. This is not a character flaw*, because she also wanted to test the hypothesis provided – this is precisely what internalizing and living the scientific method as an heir of the Enlightenment and citizen of the modern world entails. But then, Janiece is my friend for many reasons, and this is one of them.

    I do have a little bit of experience with clinical trial design, however, although (let me be very clear, here) I am not an MD. There are, however, methodological flaws in the study that negate even the glimmer of interest that Janiece detected – ones that do not require a statistician or an MD to find, though I will concede that the layman will need some specialized bits of information to parse the full impact on the claims made by the alt-med whackos.

    There are so many red flags for quackery in that article it is hard to know where to begin. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Health Care, Human Behavior, Science | 6 Comments »

    In Town

    Posted by John Jay on 6th July 2009 (All posts by )

    I’ll be in Chicago on Wednesday. I don’t entirely know what my schedule will be yet, but anyone interested in getting together for a few beers in the afternoon or evening please leave drop me a line at my gmail account: perestrelka91.

    Posted in Personal Narrative | 5 Comments »

    A Delayed Feedback Loop from 1982

    Posted by John Jay on 9th June 2009 (All posts by )

    Western Europe is currently a shining example of Normalization of Deviance.


    This is why.

    In his book Riding Rockets, Astronaut Mike Mullane explained that NASA ignored known risks with the Shuttle because the craft had flown without those risks manifesting themselves in an incident. It is a common feature of humanity. Someone tells you that riding motorcycles without a helmet is dangerous. But you do it once and get away with it. You do it twice. A thousand times. But on the thousand-and-first, someone cuts you off, and you spray your brains all over the landscape, realizing, in your last, painful instants on this Earth, exactly why doctors call people like you “rolling organ stockpiles”.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Economics & Finance, Energy & Power Generation, Europe, International Affairs, Russia | 19 Comments »

    If You Can’t Dazzle Them with Audacity…

    Posted by John Jay on 28th May 2009 (All posts by )

    David Foster’s post on the Blatherification of America, specifically based on this post over at Joanne Jacob’s site by guest blogger Diana Senechal, reminded me of my own problems with the American educational system.

    I have a daughter in first grade. Although Blatherification is evident in her classroom, it is probably the least of my concerns. I’m a physical chemist by primary training, but I make my living with my MBA in Marketing, so this is not a Snowian Two Cultures disconnect. The No Child Gets Ahead errr… No Child Left Behind standards have had a pernicious effect on education, and nowhere is this more evident than in the phenomenon of curriculum reorganization. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Education | 27 Comments »

    Decaying in Front of Our Eyes

    Posted by John Jay on 24th April 2009 (All posts by )

    I have stumbled across a couple of musings on the MSM from different perspectives that throw into sharp relief a lot of the problems with our present media that we regularly discuss on this site. First, from my friend Jim Wright comes an insider’s view of the biggest Alaska story to hit since Sarah Palin: “Alaskan Middle School Students Scare Moose to Death“. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Business, Internet, Media | 5 Comments »

    Junk Science Warning Signs: Part III

    Posted by John Jay on 5th March 2009 (All posts by )

    You keep citing that paper. I don’t think it means what you think it means.

    Another trap that laymen fall into when evaluating competing scientific claims is to uncritically accept scientific citations. When I first stumbled across Walter Wagner, I found in various places on the Internet the claim that he had discovered a magnetic monopole, and a citation on his website to this article. The citation was not in the normal format for scientific cites, and upon finding the publication, I figured out why. Wally was not even an author on that paper, he was the lab tech who looked at the stack of lexan sheets under a microscope for particle tracks that met the criteria outlined by the principal investigators – some of the lowest grunt work available in a physics lab. Wagner was, indeed listed in the acknowledgments of that paper, and has used that brief brush with fame to create a highly colorful, and highly fictional, scientific background for himself.

    There is another object lesson in scientific citation for the layman here, as well. Science moves. It advances. The date on a cite is important. If someone is citing only older papers (and “old” in science means about 5 years), the layman needs to check for him or herself (or check with a trusted expert) that the argument presented has not been made obsolete by new evidence. Let’s look a little closer at the magnetic monopole, shall we?
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Science | 19 Comments »

    Junk Science Warning Signs: Part II

    Posted by John Jay on 4th March 2009 (All posts by )

    Another aspect of being a discerning customer of scientific information is that the careful consumer looks at the source of the information. Not as an ad hominem on any particular researcher, but with an eye to how much quality control went into the peer review, as I mentioned in my last post.

    This is directly related to an old post of mine: “Why There?“, and that is a question that you should ask yourself every time a new publication hits the lay press:
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Science | 4 Comments »

    Junk Science Warning Signs: Part I

    Posted by John Jay on 4th March 2009 (All posts by )

    So, commenter Tatyana asked about how a layman can discern the signals that indicate that a discussion has left the realm of rigorous thought. I thought I’d set down some thoughts on that over the course of a couple of posts, starting from the extreme left tail of the distribution and working my way in to stuff that’s more mainstream, could possibly be true, but ought not to be pounced on because there’s a lot more work to be done before a conclusion is reached.

    So, to start out with, I’ll tackle something that’s obvious to me as being in the looney science bin: the attacks on the Large Hadron Collider. As I mentioned before, my little online Science Fiction group ran afoul of the utter nutbars in the “LHC Will End the Woooorld” camp. I dug a little deeper into the “some scientists” whom the anti-LHCers cite. I uncovered that the most prestigious scientist whom they could quote was a German biochemist I’d never heard of named Otto Rössler.

    So then I dug a little deeper into Professor Doctor Rössler’s record, and came up with quite a lot. Unfortunately, it was quite a lot of utter rubbish. I see that rubbish cited all over the Internet, so I tried to set the record straight. After the jump is the blog post I made, mostly for my SF group’s amusement, about how I was able to tell Rössler was a crank. Enjoy.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Science | 4 Comments »

    Brain Rinse

    Posted by John Jay on 27th February 2009 (All posts by )

    “The cat, having sat upon a hot stove lid, will not sit upon a hot stove lid again. But he won’t sit upon a cold stove lid, either.” – Mark Twain

    My friend, former Chief Warrant Officer Jim Wright, has made several interesting posts on information warfare.

    Of all the words he’s written on the subject, the most important quote is this one:

    When information arrives, how many folks ask themselves: How was this information acquired? Is it complete? Is it accurate? Is it biased. Is it relevant? Is there enough detail? Do I accept it because it reinforces what I think I know, or do I reject it for the same reason? How can I verify it? How can I test it? If I can’t test and verify the information, do I accept it anyway? If so, why?


    Those who fail to ask themselves such questions place themselves and those who depend on them, at a significant disadvantage – they will always be at the mercy of those who can observe the universe critically, adjust their worldview appropriately, decide and act.

    I have an affinity for that type of inquiry because I am an accredited professional in information warfare – I hold an MBA with a subspecialty in marketing. Some segment of society wages information warfare on the individual practically every day of his or her life. And the individual wages it right back.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Advertising, Human Behavior | 13 Comments »

    Outblogging the MSM

    Posted by John Jay on 23rd October 2008 (All posts by )

    I belong to an internet group called the UCF, who started out as members of John Scalzi’s Wateveresque forum until an army of trolls came in and set up residence in that once-fine space. We gradually retreated to our own blogs and set up an online community for ourselves. Most of us are aspiring writers, all of us are science fiction fans, and we’re all a little goofy, but that’s about where the similarity ends. We run the political spectrum from socialist to me. There is a lawyer, a film and TV location manager, an administrative assistant at JPL, and editor for Linux Journal, several other IT professionals of various stripes, an architect, a marine biologist, and a former Navy Chief Warrant turned writer and woodworker, among others (oh yeah, and me, a chemist). Over time, I’ve come to regard all of them as friends, although I’ve only met two of them in meatspace. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Blogging, Human Behavior, Science | 23 Comments »

    Mud Buns

    Posted by John Jay on 14th August 2008 (All posts by )

    The Chinese government have shown themselves to be bunch of peasants with dung on their boots when it comes to international propaganda. The term in Chinese is “tu bao tz” (土包子) – pork buns (bao tz) made out of dirt.

    Forget Yang Pei Yi (楊沛宜) and Lin Miao Ke (林妙可) – well, mostly. Forget the CGI fireworks. Forget that the enormous number of people used in the opening ceremony were from PLA song and dance troupes.

    The big scandal of this Olympics isn’t even that that China promised to clean up its act (and its air) when the games were awarded, and this is exactly not what we are getting.

    The big scandal is that China is showing us just exactly why investment there is still risky; why the “golden opportunity” everyone seems to be thinking lurks in China’s market is as frail as a butterfly. The Chinese government still has its fingers in every aspect of society, and that makes the shift from stable to unstable business environment just a power struggle away.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in China, International Affairs, Sports | 5 Comments »

    The Children of the Mountains Are Wild…

    Posted by John Jay on 8th August 2008 (All posts by )

    So goes the Russian proverb about governing the Caucasus. The entire Caucasus region seems to be one of those areas hell-bent on proving right those of us who believe that not every culture and people is ready for prime-time democracy. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in History, International Affairs, Military Affairs, National Security, Russia, War and Peace | 37 Comments »

    No Parking

    Posted by John Jay on 3rd August 2008 (All posts by )

    My friend Nathan and I differ greatly in our perspective of how and when film crews ought to be allowed to close off parking in the maze that is Manhattan’s Chinatown. You can catch some of our debate here and here.

    What it comes down to for me, as a libertarian, is that the film studios are using the coercive power of the state to force (see if the police won’t clear away any protests before you object to my use of the word “force”, especially if the protestor is a lone businessman) the neighborhood into accepting something that will benefit the private film company, and a minority of the businesses there. The difference from the Suzette Kelo case is only a matter of degree. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Advertising, Arts & Letters, Civil Liberties, Civil Society, Economics & Finance, Film, Human Behavior | 21 Comments »

    The MSM Misses the Bout: Part I

    Posted by John Jay on 28th June 2008 (All posts by )

    As an amateur historian, I am given to musing about the flow and processing of information. People make mental models of the past, but those models are usually highly skewed. As both Napoleon and George Orwell are alleged to have observed, it is the winners who write history. Beyond that, most historians rely primarily on written sources, which further skews our perspective to the prejudices of a given time’s literati, as well as limiting our perspective by that self-same “intelligentsia’s” intellectual shortcomings. The uptake curve of any new trend is difficult to perceive at its inception. Important events often show up as important only well after the fact. Of all the news stories of today, how many human beings can predict what story will actually shape the world of 50 years from now? Even experts fail at this. And often, the true import of events is obscured until the generation who experienced those events has passed away, along with their distorted perceptions.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Crime and Punishment, International Affairs, Military Affairs, National Security, Russia, Terrorism, War and Peace | 11 Comments »

    The MSM Misses the Bout: Part II

    Posted by John Jay on 28th June 2008 (All posts by )

    If “fourth generation warfare” is, as I suspect it is, the leading edge of one of the greatest historical trends of our generation, then the mechanisms of that trend should be the subject of serious academic and journalistic study. The trend may be part of a larger trend that encompasses the gradual weakening of the modern state’s attempt to monopolize violence that was heralded by the Treaty of Westphalia and celebrated by Max Weber.

    As I mentioned in Part I, small scale conflict is largely a police action if one or both combatants are restricted to small arms. Sophisticated weapons, especially anti-aircraft systems, are crucial for fourth generation actors to rise beyond the street gang level when operating against states that have not yet collapsed internally. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Crime and Punishment, International Affairs, Military Affairs, National Security, Russia, Terrorism, War and Peace | Comments Off on The MSM Misses the Bout: Part II

    The MSM Misses the Bout: Part III

    Posted by John Jay on 28th June 2008 (All posts by )

    The press coverage on the arrest of Viktor Bout has been sporadic. It is a sad commentary on the MSM that one of the best reports I’ve been able to find is from Mother Jones. Given Bout’s importance, a fourth estate that is actually fulfilling its part of the social contract should be blasting the story of Bout’s arrest from every headline.

    Reading through this mound of background material for these posts, I still have some very nagging questions that cry out for some decent investigative reporting, the most prominent of which are:

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Crime and Punishment, International Affairs, Military Affairs, National Security, Russia, Terrorism, War and Peace | 3 Comments »

    Some Thoughts on Kosovo

    Posted by John Jay on 2nd March 2008 (All posts by )

    The former Yugoslavia is a mess. It has been so since before the Ottomans ruled that part of the world, and judging from recent events, it will continue to be so long into the future. My blog partner CW is fond on quoting from Dame West’s “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon”, because the pre-war Balkan region she describes in that book is remarkably similar to the situation today.

    In “What Went Wrong”, Bernard Lewis noted the stark cultural difference between Turkey and the rest of the Muslim world in the period from roughly 1880 to 1922. When confronted with the reality of European dominance and success, the Turks asked themselves “What did we do wrong?”. The Arabs asked themselves: “What did they just do to us?” Turkey flourished, relatively speaking, and the Middle East today would be right where it was in 1922 if it were not for oil. In fact, it is pretty much where it was in 1922, just with more automobiles and guns.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Anti-Americanism, Book Notes, Europe, France, Germany, International Affairs, Military Affairs, National Security, Russia, United Nations, War and Peace | 13 Comments »

    Turning the Sow’s Ear into a Silk Purse

    Posted by John Jay on 30th January 2008 (All posts by )

    Lately I’ve been struggling with the concept of “educated beyond one’s intelligence”. Testing and education is supposed to separate the meritorious from the masses. Unfortunately, education serves only to cut off the very bottom, obviously inept cohort, but seems to have less ability to separate truly good people from mediocre intellects and fakers. This has direct implications beyond Academia, as David Foster pointed out when he noted the reliance of businesses on paper trail rather than accomplishments as a means of filtering potential new hires.

    I’m now starting to construct a mental model for why education seems to be failing at this central task, and a few terms spring immediately to mind. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Business, Civil Society, Education, Human Behavior, Management | 12 Comments »

    What to get the girl who has everything…

    Posted by John Jay on 4th January 2008 (All posts by )


    Posted in Humor | 1 Comment »

    More Zen Meditation

    Posted by John Jay on 19th December 2007 (All posts by )

    Following on the last post, here’s another one from the Zen Master:

    If multiculturalists are correct that that the non-Western cultures are of greater moral stature than the oppressive West, then why did none of the non-Western cultures ever practice multiculturalism ?

    Quite honestly, I don’t care if a culture practices inclusion, as long as it advances science. As it so happens, cultures that do practice inclusion do so because their mindset is eclectic and evolutionary (in terms of ideas), which also happens to be the best societal fit for the scientific mindset, but the multi-cultural part is an unanticipated side effect that ultimately I do not give a rat’s about.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Americas, Philosophy, Political Philosophy, Science, Society | 1 Comment »

    Zen Meditation

    Posted by John Jay on 19th December 2007 (All posts by )

    Zendpundit posed a bunch of provocative questions over on his site, and I thought they might start some lively discussion over here if we took a stab at them. Here’s my favorite, because it touches on a couple of themes we’ve been exploring on this site over the past few weeks:

    If the EU has genuinely changed the twenty century-long warlike character of Europeans to apathetic, bureaucratic, declinists why does the idea of Germany with nuclear weapons still give everyone pause ?

    Or for that matter, who’s up for the Japanese Prime Minister announcing a successful test of a hydrogen bomb ? If you’re not but you are also ok on a nuclear Iran, can you give an intellectually credible explanation as to the difference?

    Here’s my take: what we are looking at in Europe is a metastable state. In physics, that is a state that should have undergone a phase transition, but is being held back by inertia. One small perturbation, and the whole thing goes up, though. It is the packed snow waiting for a footstep to start an avalanche. The roulette ball perched on the wall between two numbers, waiting for a breath of air to push it over. Not a long-term tenable position, energetically.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Europe, Germany, History, Human Behavior, Military Affairs | 7 Comments »

    Close Enough for PRC Work

    Posted by John Jay on 17th December 2007 (All posts by )

    In my last post on China, Zenpundit mentioned that a lot of Westerners are confused about what China is and what it is not. That first post was an attempt on my part to try to create a predictive mental model for the future of Chinese politics. I did not, however, manage to cover even half of the terms I’m trying to cram into the thing. One glaring omission that Chinese people would pick up on right away is that I postulated a separate Canton in a putative breakup scenario. The truth is that there has been no strong Cantonese separatist movement since before the Republic, and currently that trend shows no sign of reversing itself. On the other hand, Canton has never in its entire history been as rich as it is now, nor contributed as much to the coffers of the North as it does today. So I weaseled out and finished with the thought that I just don’t have enough information to weight the terms in my model. Which is true.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, China, History, Human Behavior | 3 Comments »

    Household Armies

    Posted by John Jay on 28th November 2007 (All posts by )

    My curiosity was piqued by Zenpundit’s post on the psychology of the Warlord, since a lot of my interest in China centers on the Republican period, otherwise known as the Warlord Era. That nomenclature is not without justification – at one point in 1936 the Warlord Chang  Hsüeh-liang  felt empowered enough to arrest Republican President Chiang Kai Shek and order him to stop fighting the Communists and focus on the Japanese what became known to history as the Xi’an Incident. As an aside to the recent comments on this site about the length of historical memory and the importance of the Glorious Revolution to our Founders and the Civil War to our grandfathers, Chang (or more properly Zhang: 張學良)  Hsüeh-liang remained under house arrest in Taiwan until 1990. He was freed upon the death of Chiang Kai-Shek’s son and successor, and died in Hawaii in 2001. This period is indeed still vivid in the living memories of Taiwan’s and China’s elites. And, as I will get to later in this post, Chang’s living memory included encounters with major actors in the Taiping Rebellion. 

    Certainly some of my interest in this time period is personal – my father-in-law was a teenage GMD soldier of that era. However, the rest of my interest centers on the post-nation-state character of Warlord conflicts. It is not out of the realm of possibility that China could degenerate once again into regionalism in our lifetimes. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in China, History, Human Behavior, International Affairs, National Security, War and Peace | 16 Comments »

    What are You Going to Do About It?

    Posted by John Jay on 18th October 2007 (All posts by )

    David Foster’s post got me to thinking about the ex-Mayor of Bogota. Unfortunately, my real world experiences are closer to this guy’s observations than what happened in Bogota. In general, I like the Mockus approach to re-establishing an atmosphere of intolerance for incivility. Being a libertarian, I prefer to rely on social opprobrium to discourage behavior that I think is fairly negative, but not negative enough to warrant giving the government more power to regulate.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Civil Liberties, Civil Society, Crime and Punishment, Human Behavior, Libertarianism, Political Philosophy, Society | 3 Comments »