Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Peer Review Reviewed

As long as I have managed to log onto blogger I thought I ought to throw in a link to this article about the flaws of peer review. http://www.the-scientist.com/2006/2/1/26/1/. I am, as you know, skeptical of the quality of work that passes as scientific these days and I find that this article fits comfortingly into my way looking at these things.

I really do think that the system of peer review is seriously flawed. I think one of the central ways in which it is flawed is a result of the efforts that universities have made to quantify or make measurable their 'productivity'. The things that universities are intended to produce, like useful knowledge an educated populace and a thriving culture are very easy to observe subjectively but very difficult to observe 'scientifically'. The way that many universities have attempted to solve this problem is by making peer reviewed articles the ultimate measure of accomplishment. The result of this focus is that academic workers are forced to literally spam the journals with endless waves of content in order to attempt to drive up their stats. This flood of papers, most of them of little interest or significance, breaks down the whole system. People do not have the time to read the articles being published because there are so many. Reviewers cannot be overly critical lest their own careers be jeopardized by overly stringent reviewers (a sort of grade inflation one might say). There are so many papers to be reviewed and the people who are supposed to be reviewing them are so busy trying rattle off papers themselves that it is not at all surprising that so much junk flows through the system. Nor is it surprising that it is so difficult for those with truly worthy ideas to be heard amongst all the noise (the whole point of journals in the first place).

What is perhaps more troubling is how this system reflects on the university system as a whole. Just examining the way the journals ideally function raises some serious questions. Researchers, funded by the public, produce papers, supposedly in the interest of public knowledge, which are then reviewed by other researchers, also funded by the public, so that they can then become the property of journals that then charge the public institutions at which these researchers work for access to the very papers they paid to create. Astonishingly enough, it is the very universities, who appear to be exploited by this process, that lend the journals the legitimacy they then turn around and pay for. What particularly bothers me is that, not only are the universities paying journals for doing virtually nothing but they are compromising their fundamental purpose by allowing the products of their researchers to be locked away from the eyes of the public whom they purport to serve.

In the interest of brevity I will close my comments here by praising the people at MIT for their success in recognizing what their institution's fundamental purpose is. The founders of our universities, whose goal it was to promote the growth and dissemination of knowledge and culture, would have embraced the internet as the ideal tool for the job. If the modern leaders of our universities paid anything more than lip service to these ideals they would provide every bit of information that they possibly could to the public through the internet. This is what MIT is doing and I cannot praise them highly enough for their efforts.

Appropriately, I think, I will sign off with a link to a lecture about this very subject on the MITWorld Distributed Intelligence server (I came across it (it is one among several that I have listened to there on related topics) while searching for a different lecture that I thought was particularly relevant to my topic but which I have thus far failed to locate).


The Decline of Dollar Hegemony

Just came across a link to this speech about Dollar Hegemony (http://www.house.gov/paul/congrec/congrec2006/cr021506.htm). It lacks some of the more nuanced and subtle points, but the fact that it was delivered before the house of representatives pleases me. I do recall having read another speech on the same topic by Ron Paul in the past. You may also have seen it.

It is a shame that addressing the halls of congress is now merely a way of having one's sentiment officially entered into the record. If the house of representatives were actually a place of argument and debate something like this might spark a meaningful discussion about a pressing issue facing our nation. As things are, it will only serve as a testament to Mr. Paul's prescience after more serious problems arise.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Jared Diamond and Ishmael

I recently happened across this article on agriculture that Jared Diamond wrote in 1987. Had I seen it earlier I could have avoided wasting several hours reading Daniel Quinn's Ishmael. It basically says the same thing in a sliver of the space without being as awkwardly heavy-handed and pedantic.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Re: Putting Numbers on Surveillance

I think generally that the amount of tortured logic we've seen from this administration in their legal justifications for a lot of things is fairly astounding. This definition of surveillance is par for the course. Respect for the law is obviously a foreign concept to these folks. It seems more like a game to them. If you want to read a great legal analysis of the NSA flap, a bunch of well-known legal academics and former high-level legal officials have written a very thorough and detailed piece for the New York Book Review.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Promise of Nuclear Energy

For a country that is "addicted to oil", there is surprisingly little discussion of a readily available and potentially safe form of energy: nuclear fission. Concerns about fission have been understandable, namely long-lived, hazardous waste products, the potential for use of nuclear waste in developing weapons for terrorists, and reactor safety.

In the recent article Scientific American: Smarter Use of Nuclear Waste [ ENERGY ], authors Hannum, Marsh, and Stanford detail a combination of new technologies that would essentially obviate these concerns. The approach involves a combination of fast nuclear reactors and pyrometallurgical processing (pyro). Currently, thermal nuclear reactors are typically used. These reactors use only about 5% of potential energy from nuclear fuel and create waste that requires some 10,000 years to decay to safe levels. Furthermore, the plutonium in the used fuel can be used to create nuclear weapons.

In contrast, fast reactors (already in use in Europe) burn a much greater percentage of the uranium/plutonium nuclear fuel, leading to a dramatic reduction in waste products. The real revolution will be pyro processing. A new technology, it involves reprocessing nuclear waste from thermal plants, separating unused nuclear fuel from waste products. The reprocessed fuel can then be used by fast reactors (not usable in the conventional thermal reactor). Unlike current reprocessing strategies, the reprocessed fuel is not suitable for nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the waste left over from this process requires only some 500 years to decay to safe levels, a dramatic reduction from current methods. Using this combination of technologies, some 99% of potential energy from nuclear fuel would be used.

In combining pyro with fast reactors, we would effectively have unlimited nuclear energy with minimal generation of waste products. Plutonium trafficking would be markedly reduced due to different processing methods. As far as safety is concerned, there are many ways to ensure a reactor is very safe (as an example, the authors detail building the whole reactor into the ground).

The authors estimate that, if we started now, the first such reactors combining these technologies would come online in 15 years. I am amazed that we haven't heard more discussion of this. I think there is a such a kneejerk negative reaction to the concept of nuclear power that politicians are afraid to approach it. Yet, this technology is already available and needs only to be expanded to a commercial scale.

Putting numbers on surveillance

The Washington Post has an article today that for the first time reveals the extent of the domestic surveillance program initiated by the NSA. In the past four years, some 5000 Americans have had "international" emails or phone calls intercepted. The administration claims that American lives have been saved because of this program, although there is no way to verify this. As it stands now, surveillance of purely domestic phone calls or emails still requires a warrant.

The article also provides some explanation as to why the administration circumvented FISA. Because this program has been of such low yield for information, it would easily be shown to be an unreasonable search given its unreliability. Hence, a violation of the 4th amendment.

In another insidious use of logic, NSA rules define surveillance as only occurring when a human examines surveillance data directly. The NSA is using more and more automated, computerized filtering systems that have the ability to scan large volumes of communications in the hopes of picking up information or patterns that could signal terrorist activity. Yet, only the hits that are actually examined by a human would be considered subject to possible legal protection.

This is a very slippery slope we are on. Intercepting terrorist communications is clearly important, but we can not allow it to come at the expense of speech and privacy. If it does, then the terrorists have already won. There needs to be an informed public debate about this, and it does not require divulging all details of current programs. If the government is listening in on me, I want to know about it.

Friday, February 03, 2006

The Economy: Full Steam Ahead

So... No jobs, no wages, but the economy is great. Hmm..

Be Careful What You Ask For

So Bill Kristol has been writing pretty consistently for a long time now about how the Bush administration needs to release all of the documents captured from Saddam. According to him these documents will vindicate all of the claims of serious and substantial ties between Saddam and Al Qaeda. Does Kristol seriously think the administration has not closely inspected the documents for this purpose? And does he think they wouldn't shout it to the world if they found something? Moreover, one wonders whether the administration's reticence to open this up to the public might have something to do with the fact that there is likely stuff in there about the Reagan administration and their serious and substantial ties to Saddam...

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Taxation Without Representation?

This isn't cool. Withholding aid funds from Palestine I can see. But stealing their tax money? That I don't get. The fact that Israel collects Palestine's taxes and has control over what to do with the money argues strongly in favor of direct Palestinian representation in the Israeli government (i.e. the one-state solution). This, of course, is precisely what Sharon (and now Olmert) hoped to avoid through unilateral disengagement. (From the article: "[Olmert] declared that Israel must maintain a Jewish majority by relinquishing control over large parts of the West Bank and establishing clear boundaries...")