More on Saddam's death

This is a brief additional note to the longer post I made yesterday regarding Saddam's execution. It is in response to the description of the details of how he died.

As is being reported, he apparently showed no fear. He responded curtly to those who were taunting him in the room, describing their behavior as "unmanly". He refused a mask. As he was waiting for the trapdoor to drop, he recited the Shahada, and his last word was "Muhammed". Most reports I have read have been by Shiites or Kurds, his enemies, and I believe that it is possible to read between the lines that even they consider him to have died in a manly, faithful, and correct manner.

So what is going on here? During his time in power, Saddam's Iraq was characterized by secularism. One of the reasons why he and ObL hated each other was because Osama is a religious fanatic and Saddam was a secular leader who patterned his government after Stalin's. Did Saddam really become more religious?

I actually don't think he did. He has been playing the religious card since the 1st Gulf War, building huge mosques, associating himself publically with the Koran and with the rites and practices of Islam. I've never really taken that seriously, nor do I think many Iraqis or Muslims elsewhere took it seriously. Remember, alQaeda and Saddam's government of Iraq remained enemies until well after the 2003 invasion. It was widely seen as a shrewd but not too effective political move on Saddam's part.

But now we have a man who died affirming himself as a Muslim, unrepentant, with the name of the Prophet on his lips. This death-"bed" affirmation will be harder to doubt than his religiosity while still in power. But I do doubt it.

Saddam had plenty of time to prepare for his death. Undoubtedly, based on his culture and his personality, the thought foremost in his mind, once he had accepted the fact that he would be executed, was revenge. What could he do to avenge his own death, the death of his sons, and the occupation of his country?

His options were very limited, to say the least. But one thing that he could do is to maximize the likelihood that other people would attack his killers and his country's occupiers. And clearly, the best way to do that would be to play once again the religious card, and that is what he did.

He knew that the execution would be videotaped, and this played right into his hands. Note the refusal of the mask: if he had been masked, the video would have been much less compelling. Unmasked, there was no doubt that is was, in fact, Saddam Hussein who was dying bravely, epitomizing the qualities of a martyr. He will be the inspiration of millions of his Sunni coreligionists around the world.

And what will he inspire them to do?

Well, it's important to remember that those who killed him were in large part Shiites, and there has been warfare between Sunnis and Shiites for many centuries. Furthermore, his executioners where backed by the United States, a country that is deeply hated by many Muslims in every corner of the world. As he died, he exhorted those who could see and hear him to kill the Americans, to kill the Persians (i.e., Shiites), and so on. And to cap it all off, his executioners did the deed on a day considered by most Muslims around the world (i.e., Sunnis) to be one of the holiest days of the haj, and there were several harsh criticisms of the timing by religious leaders in Mecca. This, coupled with Saddam's theatrics, created a very powerful image.

I have no doubt that his dying wishes will be carried out, and that his plan to die in a manner that would cause his death to be avenged will succeed.

Of course, he won't be around to gloat, but I think that once he had concocted his plan, he was canny enough to understand that it would work at least to some extent, and perhaps as he felt the floor fall away from his feet, he was gloating all the way down.


Harry Potter et la quête mortelle

Depuis dix ans presque, mes filles m'ont dit que je devais lire les romans Harry Potter. Mais je ne voulais pas lire des livres pour enfants sans quelque chose de plus. Donc, quand je découvrais que la bibliothèque ici à Davis avait les deux premiers tomes en espagnol, je les ai lu dans cette langue. Ils m'ont plu beaucoup, mais la bibliothèque n'avait le tiers tome qu'en français, donc, je l'ai lu en français. Le changement de langues me bouleversait un peu, parce que plusieurs noms des personnages et des objets ont entièrement changé, donc j'ai décidé de relire tous les livres en français, et après, quand des nouveaux tomes paraissaient, je les ai lu en français exclusivement. Je n'ai pas lu ni un volume en anglais. J'ai lu également en français les autres petits livres écrits par JK Rowling : Les animaux fantastiques ; Le quidditch à travers les âges. Et, après toute cette lecture, quand j'ai cherché encore plus, je me suis enregistré dans le site web « Poudlard.org ».

Donc, même que ma langue natale est l'anglais, dans le monde harrypotterien de la magie, je suis plus habitué en français. Par exemple, l'école reste toujours Poudlard pour moi, et ne pas Hogwarts. Ma maison dans Poudlard.org est Poufsouffle et ne pas Hufflepuff.

C'est pour cette raison que j'écris cet article en français, même que c'est abondamment clair que je suis, comme on dit en Amérique, "French challenged", c'est-à-dire, moins capable en français qu'en anglais. Tant pis.

Passons au titre du septième et ultime tome de la série : Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Qu'est-ce que ça signifie ?

En anglais, le mot Hallows et plutôt rare. Il apparaît dans le mot "Hallowe'en", et comme verbe dans des tournures comme "Hallowéd be thy name". Donc, pour la majorité d'anglophones, ce mot ne signifie pas grand-chose. Et pour le francophone typique, muni d'un bon dictionnaire français-anglais, ça signifie encore moins.

Mais dans la tradition anglaise de la magie, un « hallows » est un objet sacré ou magique, doué d'une grande signification : un talisman ou une relique. Fréquemment, un hallows peut être le sujet d'une quête. Par exemple, le saint graal est un hallows ; même le couronne et le sceptre d'un royaume. Je crois que la phrase "deathly hallows" doit signifier quelque chose comme "talismans funestes" ou "relique mortelle".

Et, dans le monde de Harry Potter, après les développements du sixième, je suis presque sûr que les hallows sont les horcruxes dont Voldemort ont déposé des fragments de son âme. Il a choisi déjà des reliques et des symboles des fondateurs de Poudlard pour des horcruxes, et le thème du septième livre sera, sans doute, une grande quête pour tous les horcruxes, chacun imbu du pouvoir de la mort.

One more Iraqi fatality

Today I'm pondering the death of Saddam Hussein at the hands of a government made up of his enemies, supported by a foreign occupying power that is in turn supported in very small part by my tax dollars.

To start out, I don't support capital punishment. It almost never has its intended effect of reducing violence. All it really does for sure is to kill a human being. I freely admit that that position biases me against the execution of Saddam.

In the case of reaction to Saddam's death, who knows what the future holds? I suspect that throughout the Sunni Muslim world, Saddam will be viewed as a martyr, killed by agents of the US. This will do two things: it will deepen resentment against America, and it will also strengthen the branding of the current Iraqi government as an American puppet. Neither of these things will have a positive effect.

And even within the world of Islam, there already has been complaining about the interruption of the trials. Saddam was executed well before all of the facts regarding his rule could be made public. Iraqi Kurds and Shiites bemoan this because they wanted the extent of the harm done them to become public. However, there is a more serious (in my view) reason why the too-hasty execution of Saddam was carried out: the US and various European powers were deeply involved with Saddam. For example, they supported him against Iran, during the period when the most serious atrocities were carried out. By ending the projected sequence of trials when they did, in mid-trial, it is now very unlikely that any embarrassing details (or lack of embarrassing details) about the oil-consuming powers will be made public.

To summarize so far: the execution of Saddam was barbarous (as is all killing of humans) and premature.

But of course, on top of this was the farce of his trial. I have written here, here, and elsewhere about the marsupial character of Saddam's trial(s). Clearly, among his prosecutors there were two camps: those who wanted to create the illusion of a fair trial by honoring at least some of the forms of procedure, versus those who could have cared less about that and simply wanted to throw a sop to the Americans by holding a trial, but moving through it PDQ and on to vengeance. The fact that none of the prosecutors apparently wanted a fair trial, or made any effort to neutrality, was never an issue, it simply went without saying.

And this is another reason why it was important for the Iraqi government and their American supporters to kill Saddam as soon as possible: since he is dead, it is now very unlikely that the gross (and in the US reversible if not criminal) malfeasance on the part of the prosecution will ever be challenged and made public.

To me, an unjust trial is no better than a lynching except that it takes days rather than hours. And that is what we have here: a public, officialized lynching. How can this farcical kangaroo court augur well for a new, improved future Iraq? It's exactly like something that might have happened during or before Saddam's rule. It works exactly against Bushco's apparent desire that people believe he intends to produce a new, improved, lower calorie version of Iraq.

So in summary, what we have is the cruel, premature, injust, and politically boneheaded killing of one more Iraqi as the result of our invasion.

But you, gentle reader, might be wondering: Well, what should we have done with Saddam, given that we had invaded, occupied, deposed, captured, and imprisoned him?

In this random philosophizer's opinion, the most critical thing would have been a thorough, neutral, internationally-monitored investigation of all the facts. This could not be done quickly or efficently in a country wracked with violence, so it would undoubtedly be ongoing. For example, we would still be studying international records, taking depositions from Saddam and other members of his government, from various witnesses; examining of Iraq government records, and so on. This would probably best have been done in a neutral location outside of Iraq. At a certain point, it would be possible to conduct the kind of thorough, neutral, public trial that the situation deserves. The trial would also be outside of Iraq, and would not be carried out under the auspices of the new Iraqi government. There are many reasons for this, including questions of jurisdiction and conflict of interest.

There would be no question of the death penalty, but life imprisonment, payment of fines, exile, and that kind of thing certainly would be on the table. At the end of the process, the world would really understand what happened in Iraq over the decades, who profited, who did good, who did bad, and whether certain things that have been alleged actually happened as claimed. Saddam would probably be convicted of some things, not convicted of others, and he would receive some kind of punishment. If a foreign government would accept him, perhaps this could be simple exile, or perhaps he would have been imprisoned for life.

Instead of modeling cruel, arbitrary, lynch-mob behavior, it could have been a model for what happens when the world unites for justice and transparency. But, it didn't happen.


Reporting significance

This is a rather specialized and personal entry on the topic of reporting the p-values resulting primarily from ANOVA on psychological data. It is something that has been bugging me for a couple of decades or so, and so it's time for me to put some thoughts down about it. I'm not going to do much explaining of basic terminology here, the reader is assumed to gone through the kind of statistics classes required, for example, in undergraduate psych programs.

The "traditional" way that ANOVA results have been reported during the past several decades is to give the F and its degrees of freedom, and one out of four (or five) characterizations of the probability of getting similar results by chance alone:

  1. n.s., not significant, failed to reach significance;
  2. p < .05, significant;
  3. p < .01, significant;
  4. p < .001, [highly, very] significant;
an additional level is sometimes added: "p < .1, marginally significant". Sometimes these characterizations are referred to incorrectly as "alpha levels".

The alpha level, however, is part of a much simpler but harder to interpret approach to reporting ANOVA. It is intended to be an all-or-none hypothesis testing tool. Given a certain null hypothesis, the results must indicate a different result with a certain probability value (the same probability as above, but conceived differently). When the probability is less than alpha that the outcome resulted from chance, the null hypothesis is rejected; when the probability is greater than or equal to alpha, then it is not rejected. There are several conventional alpha levels: .05, .01, and .001. Notice the very good correspondence between the conventional alpha levels and the way that results have been reported even when no specific alpha level is being used. Some have called the traditional way of reporting results "variable alpha" or "multiple alpha", because those authors often are trying to bridge the simplistic, cookie-cutter alpha-level, null-hypothesis rejection methods (beloved of statisticians), while still trying to give the reader some idea of what else might be going on in the data set.

The problem with the single-alpha approach is that the kinds of hypotheses that interest psychologists are almost never amenable to black-or-white, yes-or-no analysis. On an assembly like operated by a robot (or human reacting robotically to numbers on a read-out), this approach makes sense. If you are making batteries and after a charge test, a certain battery fails to charge to criterion, then fine: it is a defective battery, toss it in the recycling pile; otherwise, it is a good battery, put it in an impossible to open plastic package and send it to a drug store for sale. In such a situation, a battery that charged only to .09 V is treated exactly like one that charged to .9 V; they are equally bad.

In the world of psychology, however, experimental hypotheses virtually never are so easily evaluated. As in horseshoes, close can count in psych experiments. For example, "close" in an unexpected direction can indicate new avenues for exploration; close but no cigar is also not as much as a problem for an hypothesis that has been supported by good deal of other experimentation, as it would be for an novel hypothesis with little confirmation elsewhere. In other words, using a single, yes/no alpha level simply doesn't supply enough information about the results of an experiment for readers to get a good understanding of what happened.

And in fact, almost no one uses single alpha in its strongest form (selecting a single, study-wide alpha level, and rejecting the null hypothesis when it is met while simply failing to reject it when alpha is not met). Instead, psychologists tend to act like they are using single alphas, but then they report the standard p < whatever regardless of whether the result met their alpha criterion. For example, if they set a liberal alpha of .05, they still report p < .001 when they get that result; if they set .01, they still report p < .05.

And this is what bugs me about it: why bother setting an alpha if (1) you aren't going to use it, and (2) it doesn't make sense anyway. Maybe the whole alpha thing is just a source of noise in experimental reports, and it would make more sense to give the reader a little more information than just a yes or a no, or even a p < .05/.01/.001 classification.

Now, the APA manual is somewhat ambiguous on this question. In some places, they seem to be suggesting that one should go back to the approach advocated by RA Fisher, the inventor of the ANOVA, of reporting the exact probability to two or three digits of precision (Fisher himself did this, but he was also fond of using common fractions to report probabilities). In other places, they seem comfortable with the variable alpha approach, and even with the Pearsonian single alpha. Furthermore, they fail to deal with what may be the real issue here, which is basically readability.

Strictly adhering to Fisher's exact reporting of probabilities is workable only when the results are not very strong, that is, when they fall into the range from, say, .1 to .001. That would give us results like .12, .034, and .0067 with two digits of precision, and .123, .0345, and .00678 with three. None of those are too hard to read, even compared with n.s., < .05, and < .01. When you get down to numbers less than .001, then you end up with .000876 and the like; this is becoming a bit awkward.

If you really want to have exact results even with very small probabilities, there is only one reasonable possibility: you can use scientific notation. That is, instead of .0000...00456 you can have, say, 4.56e-12. But in terms of readability, this would be a disaster. People simply aren't used to reading probabilities in scientific notation: p = 4.9e-2 and p = .049 both mean about the same thing as p < .05, but psychologists simply aren't used to seeing the former, whereas the latter is closer to what they are used to. Now, you could also do a kind of switch, using ordinary decimals for p >= .001, and scientific notation for smaller probabilities. This would solve the problem in many cases, perhaps even in most of the more common ones. But that kind of switch would make it hard to understand differences between two conditions, where one is, say, p = .00123 and the other is p = 9.87e-4 : are these very different or rather close? In other words, while this would indeed give the reader a lot more information, it may be that its readability would actually go down rather than up.

My current proposal for how to deal with this problem builds on all of the above, but it questions one of the assumptions made by the APA, namely that the same number of digits of precision should be used for all p values.

When I talk about this with psychologists, they often agree with me when I suggest that the use of exact probabilities will allow a more correct handling of p values like .056, or pairs of p values like .0101 and .00980: if they were reported simply as n.s., p < .05, and p <.01, respectively, information useful to the reader would be lost. However, when one extends these examples to numbers like .47, or pairs like .0000101 and .00000980, the response becomes, "Who cares?". That is, a probability of .47 is so likely to be the result of chance, that calling it n.s. is probably fine (as long as results like .056 are written out), and also, p values down to the 1/100,000 level are very unlikely to result from chance, and so even fairly large differences (such as between 1/10,000 and 1/1,000,000) are unimportant.

This suggests that there is a critical range of p values where relatively high precision is useful to the reader, but that outside of that range, even very low precision is perfectly adequate. Therefore, it may not be of any particular value to maintain the same degree of precision for all p values. And this is what leads to my proposal.

Many statistical programs print out p values using a fixed, 3-decimal format. That is, p < .001 are printed as 0.000, or in other words, 0 digits of precision. But p < .01 are printed as (e.g., 0.004), namely with one digit of precision. And p < .05 have two digits of precision (i.e., 0.049), as do marginally significant results p < .1 (such as 0.087). If one is determined to use a constant number of digits of precision even for very small p, this is frustrating. But as we just saw, it may not be advisable to maintain a constant precision. Therefore, what I suggest is that we report p values within the range where there could some ambiguity as to the significance of the result with three decimal digits, using other methods for p values outside that range. This will automatically change the precision to be highest where the ambiguity is highest and lower where there is little doubt. Here it is, all spelled out:

A simple proposal

  • If the error mean square is larger than the treatment mean square, that is, F < 1, then no p value need be reported; F(2, 8) < 1
  • Large p values of little significance will be reported to three decimal places,or example: F(2, 4) = 2.295, p = .217; F(2, 8) = 2.62, p = .133
  • For smaller p values in the range sometimes called "marginally significant", p is still written out using three decimal places, but only two signficiant digits: F(2, 8) = 3.85, p = .067
  • For smaller p values greater than or equal to .01, still use two significant digits and three decimal places: F(2, 8) = 5.10, p = .037
  • For smaller p values greater than or equal to .001, use one significant digit (and three decimal places): F(2, 8) = 17.8, p = .002
  • For p less than 0.001, simply write it that way: F(2, 8) = 54.8, p < .001
One might reduce the precision of large p values such as .237, or even not report them at all. However, reporting them using three decimal places as is done in every case when p is greater than or equal to .001 reduces the potential confusion that could result from changing the format. The end result is that all p's are written using three decimal places unless they are less than .001.

I believe that this approach will improve the current situation in psychological research papers. It gives the "right" amount of information to the reader: where the result might be interesting but not reach a traditional "alpha" level, enough information is given for the reader to decide for himself as to what the results mean. Similarly, when there is little doubt that there is a significant effect, no useless extra information is given, thereby avoiding awkward, less readable reports.

In addition to reporting the exact p values of the result, I recommend that partial η² also be reported as an index of the size of the effect. Note that while effect size and p tend to be negatively correlated, it is quite possible to have large effect sizes with large p values and negligible effect sizes with very significant p values. Jacob Cohen (Statistical Power Analysis for the Behavioral Sciences, 2nd Edition, 1988) suggests that η² can be characterized as follows: 0 < η² < .010, negligible; .010 ≤ η² < .059, small effect; .059 ≤ η² < .139, medium effect; η² ≥ .139, large effect. These should also be reported using three decimal places, and we can use η² < .001 for those rare cases where the effect size is extremely tiny and can't be represented at all in three decimal places.

To summarize, results of ANOVA F tests should be reported using the standard format, except that three decimal places are used to report p values. For the F's themselves, use three significant digits (i.e., 12300, 1230, 123, 12.3, 1.23) except that F's less than one are not reported. Also, the effect size will be reported after p as a partial η², also using three decimal places as for p (for example, F(1, 20) = 12.3, p < .001, η² = .347).

One final recommendation is stylistic: instead of simply listing results and classifying them as signficant or not significant, as is done very often, the results of the ANOVA and possibly of any post-hoc tests should be composed as a paragraph based on how the hypotheses, the elements of the design, and the pattern of results interact. That is, in a complex analysis, the hypotheses will be summarized and statistical tests reported in such a way that the reader can easily assimilate the pattern of results and whether and to what degree they confirm or run counter to the hypotheses. Part of this is the report of the effect sizes. The report of the statistical tests per se is subsumed in a description of the results; since the actual p values and effect sizes are fully reported, it is not necessary to classify them into discrete levels of significance; instead, it is more meaningful to refer to p values as "noteworthy", "reliable" and so on, and to effect sizes as "small" or "large". The conjunction of a large effect size and small p could be characterized as "robust" or "clear"; other possibilities include things like "small but reliable effect". For example, "The large but only moderately reliable interaction between Group and Lexicality (F(2,8) = 2.57, p = .021, η² = .210) is compatible with the hypothesis that females generally have disproportionate difficulty pronouncing nonwords".

As is stated in the APA manual, when a large, dense set of statistical results are being reported, such as correlations, or means compared to a standard, p values can be condensed into a handful of levels such as < .05, < .01, and < .001, indicated by *, **, or ***. A similar method could be used for effect sizes, perhaps using plus marks (+, ++, +++).



This is just a quick thought about taxation. There are really two ways people tend to think about taxes. One way is to add up all the dollars and brag about how little or complain about how much tax we all pay. The other way is to add up everything we get from the government and brag about how great or complain about how rotten it is to live in America.

In fact, a more reasonable approach, harder, is to think of taxes as one way that we can improve our lives, along with payments to the butcher and the dressmaker. Some things really need to be done by the government, and other things are done better by the government, but other things really can't be done by the government, and other things are done better by non-government groups or individuals. When things are done by the government, we call what we pay for them "taxes", and when things are done by non-government groups or individuals, we don't call them taxes. But in terms of our daily lives, the effect is the same: we pay out our money and we receive various kinds of services or benefits.

It seems to me that the trick isn't to try to get taxes down to the lowest possible level. The trick is to determine which things are done better by government, and to support those things with as much tax money as necessary. Things that can be done better by non-government groups or individuals shouldn't be supported by taxes.

By "better", of course I mean better for humanity, or better for Americans. I don't mean better for me or better for you.

It is a cliché that polls that ask about taxes show that people want taxes to be reduced, but polls that ask about things that people receive that taxes support show that people want taxes to be maintained or increased. The fact that there is this split indicates that something is wrong in how people understand the relationship between tax and non-tax support of services: they simply aren't used to thinking about things in terms of optimizing their lives and maximizing the value they receive from money (tax and non-tax) they pay. Instead, demagogues have learned that by focusing just on a benefit or just on a cost, they can swing votes one way or another. This isn't good for us as a people, and it illustrates a real vulnerability of the democratic system of government.

To counteract this, people need to develop a contrarian habit of mind. If some politician says, "I'll cut taxes", you need to ask, "What services will be lost? For services that will be maintained, how much will I have to pay compared to what I pay now in taxes? Will services be maintained at the same level or will they be lower quality?" If some other politician says, "I'll give you this great service", you need to ask, "Can this service be provided better and/or more efficiently by a for-profit operation? What will this cost in terms of increase taxes? How will that cost compare with paying a non-government group or individual for the same service? Will there be a windfall profit that could be avoided by a tax-supported, government operation?" Of course, those are just examples, the general idea is to be a little skeptical, to recognize a lack of balance and try to fill in the missing pieces.


Colonoscopies and anesthesia

Reader warning: this blog has strong anal and colonic content.

OK, I'm kind of pissed off. This article says that due to the popularity of the colonoscopy and possibly because of the large profit to me made from administering it, some surgeons are rushing through the process, fairly often taking only around two minutes for the whole thing. As a result, there have now been an unreasonable number of colon cancers found after one or even two normal colonoscopies.

Because my brother actually had colon cancer, I was judged to be at increased risk, and so I started having colonoscopies earlier than many people. I've now had three and am coming up on number four. So far, they've all been normal, but that article makes me doubt the third and most recent one.

Why just that one?

Well, because for the first two I was, at my request, conscious during the entire procedure.

(Apparently some people don't take any anesthesia at all during the procedure, but that would be hard for me, especially if it lasted 20 minutes. It feels like an extremely crampy session of major flatulence, but with no possibility of a relieving fart.)

What they did was to give me an analgesic, probably morphine, to "dull" the pain (most of the pain is from the air they use to inflate the colon so that they can inspect the surface better). I was able to look at the monitor during the procedure, and even listen to the doctor and ask questions to a limited degree. I found the whole process very interesting. During the second one, the doctor even gave me a copy of a photo they took showing a slightly inflamed region (which turned out after biopsy to be normal). I genuinely appreciated being awake and to a limited degree made a part of the process.

Number three was different. I made the request to the doctor, who was some guy with an office 30 miles away from where I live who I'd never met before. He basically said, well, ok, I'll "try", but I prefer the patients to be fully under. In the actual procedure, the very first time I said it was painful, wham!, I was out and don't remember a single thing after that. I was P.O.ed at the time, but since I just put it down to a concern that I might move or something if I were conscious, I basically let it go, although I was determined to make a bigger issue of it next time.

Well, now that I've seen the above-mentioned article, there is a new theory on the table for why colonoscopists prefer to have their patients unconscious: so that they won't go back and tell their primary care docs that the damn colonoscopy only took two minutes!

And not only that, the trust that medical people put in colonoscopies is impressive: I've talked to many doctors about them, and it is universally believed that if you have a normal colon after a colonoscopy, then you aren't going to get colon cancer for at least 5 years. After two, they say that it's 10 years (one surgeon I spoke to recommended 2-3 years, but he was a krufty old geezer who probably knew things that even most docs don't know about the interaction between medical practice and everyday human greed, laziness, and incompetence).

OK, here's the "bottom" line: If you can stand it, pressure your colonoscopist to allow you to remain conscious during the procedure and look at the monitor screen. Interact with him. If you see something that you think he may have overlooked, tell him. Yes, it may annoy him, but colon cancer is pretty annoying too, and according to the NY Times article, you're probably paying about $2000 for the test. And it's pretty interesting to observe the procedure. You're actually going to see the inside of your large intestine in detail. Let's not forget that the word doctor comes from Old French docere to teach, and that the cognate noun meant "educated person" or "teacher". Let's let the docs teach us something about what's going on in our own colons!

You could also ask for the start (insertion of the colonoscope sensor) and end (final removal of the sensor) times, but here again, if you're unconscious, then it would be difficult to distinguish between a "transcription error" and a fraudulent report.


Cheapskate philosophizer's Iraq withdrawal plan

There seems to be a gradual acceptance that some kind of withdrawal of American forces from Iraq is in the offing. But how can we do it without endangering the Iraqi people even more than they are currently in danger? Or without, in the words of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, somehow threatening his people's sovereignty?

I believe there is a way to do it that is extremely simple, suggested by a story in this morning's New York Times and elsewhere reporting that for various reasons, Iraq is not spending the money it earns from the sale of its oil. Apparently the money is starting to roll in, but through fear, greed, or incompetence, over 20 billion has not been spent so far.

There are many reasons why the pressure is building to withdraw our troops, and the cost is only one of them. Yet the cost of our involvement may be the key to us getting out.

Here's one random philosophizer's plan for getting us out of there.

First, establish a timetable for a phased withdrawal: I suggest one US federal fiscal year, but any other fairly brief interval would be fine. Within this withdrawal window, set additional milestones each quarter. But the withdrawal is not directly that of US troops, but rather the withdrawal of US financing for the occupation. That is, each quarter, America cuts its financial backing for Iraqi nation-building by 1/4. If Iraq steps up and covers the tab, then no troops would need to leave, but if they don't then US commanders would have to make whatever adjustments they considered optimal while reducing the cost of their presence to 3/4, then 1/2, then 1/4.

At the end of the one-year period, the US contribution would be reduced to the level of conventional, long-term financial aid to an important ally, and Iraq would be expected to pay the full cost of US occupation and security forces.

What this does is to move the question away from the emotional "support the troops" rhetoric and over to that American specialité, bean counting. It also enforces rather than weakens Iraqi sovereignty, because it puts the ball firmly in their court. US forces are willing to back up the pledges made by Bushco in our name, but the American people would no longer, after the transitional year, agree to pay for it. If the Iraqi government wants us to stay, then they can pay for it by selling oil (to us or to others). In other words, the Iraqis get to decide how much US involvement remains in their country.

To prevent various absurd scenarios, it would probably be wise to set a limit on how long actual US troops could remain even while supported by Iraqis, say, two additional years. But even in that case, the Iraqis could continue to maintain and support a presence of American civilian forces by contracting directly with one of the mercenary or construction groups already heavily used by the US government, such as Blackwater or Halliburton.

What I suspect is that when it comes down to a choice between better roads, schools, electric services, and so on, the Iraqis will vote with their pocketbooks and we will rapidly cease to be an occupying power in the Middle East.


Previous blogs and question: What to do?

I just did some googling on "random philosophizing", and discovered to my chagrin that there is already a blog here called "Crazy Willie's Random Philosophizing". It is well-established, while mine has been here for only two days. Should I change the name of mine? Or should I continue with its original name?

I feel like Laura Bush with her $8000 de la Renta gown that was worn by two or three other women at the same gathering. Quel ennui.

The problem is that I have used the "random philosophizing" tag in a number of diaries on dailykos.com over the past year to year and a half. Those can be read by going to my dKos page. I have slowed down my blogging there because the dKos administration seemed to be getting a little too bureaucratic for my tastes; the current blog page is an expression of the same desire to air my r-phizing that I had exercised on dKos. I've sort of gotten used to the phrase as a description of my blogging efforts.

I suppose that I'll just let Crazy Willie decide--if he should happen to notice my blog and object, then he can contact me in the comments and let me know. I'll change the title if I have to, or in any case, if I should happen to think of a better title in the interim.

Is Barack Obama Christian?

Barack Obama is surging. I've seen quite a few Democrats who are turned off by his statements of Christian faith, and of course, many Republicans are extremely critical of the flavor of Christian he seems to be, even flatly stating that he is no Christian.

We've seen lots of different flavors of Christian politicians come and go (no non-Christian ones to speak of, except for some famous foreign ones such as Ghandi and binLaden). As far as I can tell, there is no correlation between how good a politician is and his religiousness. In fact, it seems to be generally true that some of the best politicians are deeply religious individuals who are successful in keeping their political decisions separate from their religious activities. This principle seems to be especially clear in a religiously diverse nation such as the US.

As nearly as I can tell, there have been no political leaders, at least in America, who have been both a good leader in government and someone whose actions are determined (limited, controlled) by the dictates of a religion. Now, I'm separating success in gaining and holding power from being a good governmental leader. There have been, in fact, various examples of religious zealots who have gained and held political power, but I don't think that any of them left humanity better off than they found it.

Therefore, my attitude toward the flavor or degree of religiosity in our political leaders in general, and Barack Obama in particular, is Who cares? That is, if it doesn't matter what denomination one is in (if any), or the strength of one's faith, then as far as I'm concerned, it's of no interest whatsoever during the political debate. In fact, the only religious issue that should be part of the debate is the question of whether a certain politician is willing to keep his religious beliefs or nonbeliefs out of government. Anyone who cannot promise this, or whose actions show that he is incapable of it, is unqualified to be part of our government, in my opinion.

Now, if you're an atheist or agnostic, you may have been put off by Obama's references to his faith and to his religious institutional figures. I am too, but only in the sense that I consider such statements to be irrelevant noise. What I see in Mr. Obama is someone whose religious faith may or may not be deeply held within his own heart (how can anyone besides he himself ever truly know this?), but whose actions as a political leader are largely independent of them. This puts him into a fairly large group of leading politicians in our country; names such as Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton come to mind.

Basically, until someone can show me evidence of theocratic leanings on the part of Obama or Clinton, I will be making my decisions with no reference whatsoever to their religion. I sincerely hope that that's what everyone else does too.

Cloves and teeth

For the past few weeks, one of life's pleasures has been a certain variation on the veritable fried egg sandwich that I have been enjoying. What you do is to chop up a couple of garlic teeth (see below), a small jalapeño or similar pepper, a bit of onion, plus a squirt of olive oil, and sauter those in a frying pan at low heat until the onion is transparent and some of the garlic bits are starting to get brown. In the meantime, you take a couple of Micaela's Original Recipe California Fresh Wheat Tortillas and spread each one with some Mrs. Renfro's Habanero Salsa and crumple a small amount of Black Diamond Cheddar Cheese on top. At about the time you slide the two tortillas into the toaster oven for 3 minutes, you pour some Nulaid Reddiegg Real Egg Product on the sofrito in the frying pan, picking up the pan and moving it so that the eggs cover a region about the size of one of the tortillas. Sprinkle a little Mexican Seasoning mix on the wet upper surface of the eggs. When the first side is done, turn the eggs over to cook on the other side. Use the spatula to cut the eggs into two half rounds. Put the tortillas onto a plate and put one half round of egg on each one, and fold the tortillas over to enclose the eggs. You can pick these up to eat (but lean over the plate), or you can use a fork if you're wearing clothes you have to see people in. This is really, really, good stuff.

Well, what about garlic teeth?

It seems to me that when it comes to garlic, there are two kinds of people: enthusiastic and reluctant. For garlic enthusiasts, you can always put in a little more; for the reluctant, you can always put in a little less. This is true for individuals and it's true of cultures.

Well, a "head" of garlic is called a clavo in Spanish, and I'm not sure what it's called in English. I just asked my wife, and she agrees that it doesn't seem to have any established name, but that she would call it a "bulb", which sounds about right to me. An individual piece of garlic is called a diente ("tooth") in Spanish, and is called a clove in English. Note that clavo and clove are similar in form and may be related etymologically, but of course the etymology of English cleave is one of those famous examples where two historically different forms become one (cleave together versus cleave asunder, both with past participle clove), plus the Latin word for nail that gives rise to Sp. clavo also becomes clove in English. Anyway, it is clear that Spanish clavo, even though translated, in the context of garlic, as clove, actually corresponds to the entire bulb, while in English, the clove is, of course, just one piece.

The etymological derivation is confusing enough that it shouldn't be too surprising that there is a difference, but what interested me was the correlation between the Spanish pro-garlic and the English anti-garlic cultural stereotypes and the amount of garlic that is referred to by the cognate words, clavo/clove.

Another way to look at this is in terms of what Eleanor Rosch called the basic level. Her idea was that even though the world can be arranged into unlimited, recursive, semantic hierarchies, some common words that are frequently used to refer to a segment of semantic space have a special salience, because they refer to a level that is particularly useful for humans: not too high up (general) in the hierarchy, and not too far down (specific) in the hierarchy. For example, dog is a basic level object, while collie is not, and canine is not. There are numerous psycholinguistic consequences of Rosch's basic level objects, and one of them is that there are certain cases where the basic level changes. For example, for non technicians, "pliers" is a basic level object, but for a technician, "needle-nose" is a basic level object. In other words, the basic level of a semantic hierarchy for a given group (and maybe even for a given individual) can adjust to maximize utility.

And finally we come to what was interesting to me about the clavo/clove dimension's correlation with the garlic enthusiasm/reluctance dimension: in both cultures, the cognate clavo/clove refers to the basic level object, but in the pro-garlic Spanish community, the basic level is the entire bulb, while in the anti-garlic English community, the basic level is one piece taken from the bulb.

Be that as it may, those omelette-tortilla thingies sure do taste good. (BTW, omelette versus tortilla is another interesting puzzle, perhaps for some future random philosophizing.)


Philosophy versus Philosophizing

Some might say that a more grammatical title for this blog would be "Random Philosophy", but I think their is a substantial difference between the two nearly-synonymous alternatives "Philosophy" and "Philosophizing". For one thing, -phy focuses on the entire body produced by philosophers since ancient times up to the latest neuroscience-inspired zombie theory of non-consciousness. -Phizing, on the other hand, is less weighty--much less, in fact. It's what happens when you realize omigod, there's a there there that's always been there but I never noticed it before. One might say that philosophizing is philosophy unzipped.

There's another difference, too. -Phy has a kind of permanence to it. Sometimes this is more of a hope chez le penseur than something that is actually realized in actuality, but it can't be denied that philosophy contains many structures "built to last", as it were. -Phizing, on the other hand, is much slipperier. In particular, random philosophizing of the type this blog is anticipated to contain is almost ethereal, nuageux--intended to reflect the writer's thought of the moment. Perhaps one way to express the difference is that -phizing is a nominalized verb form, while philosophy has no apparent derivation from a verb (the verb philosophize, whence -phizing is derived, is derived from -phy, as far as I know). This difference in derivation represents syllogistically the difference: -phy is noun-like, and -phizing is verb-like.

Well, actually they both are nouns, except in answer to the question, "What were you doing in the bathroom for 30 minutes?", you can say "I was philosophizing". You can't say "I was philosophy" unless you were in an unusual, possibly drug-inspired hallucinogenic ecstasy, in which case the whole like-a-noun, like-a-verb question is probably going to be pretty uninteresting to you (or perhaps extremely, intensely interesting).

You see?