Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Blogging Sabbatical

Sadly, with the start of my new job, its four hours of daily commuting, the weekend trips to Philly to repair my 85 yr-old house, and the additional time demands of cohabitation, I have not been able to blog much.

I imagine that will be the case until I sell my house (and there's still a ton of work) or quit / get fired (four weeks in and I have some stories already!) I'll not have time to blog. These days I can't even read blogs...or sometimes even news.

I do plan on posting more regularly (someday) but in the meantime, help yourself to the blogs in the sidebar.

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Sunday, April 01, 2007

The strange case of David Hicks

As an Australian fighter in the Taliban, David Hicks is one of those rare Gitmo detainees, who has "media potential" (by which I mean he's a white native English speaker). There's a lot of sides to this story: he's obviously a bad guy, but seems to have been mistreated. Some stories alledge retribution against his military appointed counsel, and then there are diplomatic efforts from the Australian State Dept. Today though what's most intriguing is the terms of his plea-bargain.

There was a really good article on this in the Philly Inquirer today, but I'm not sure how long that link will last, so here's a shorter digest. From the Inquirer:

A panel of military officers had recommended a term of up to seven years, but a plea agreement that had been kept secret from the panel capped the sentence at nine months for David Hicks, who has been held at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay for more than five years.

Hicks also stipulated under his plea deal that he had "never been illegally treated by a person or persons while in the custody of the U.S. government," Kohlmann said.

Furthermore, the judge said, the agreement bars Hicks from suing the U.S. government for alleged abuse, forfeits any right to appeal his conviction, and imposes a gag order that prevents him from speaking with news media for a year from his sentencing date.

Hicks previously reported being beaten and deprived of sleep during his more than five years at the Guantanamo prison for terrorism suspects.

Shayana Kadidal, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents many Guantanamo detainees, said the provisions appeared aimed at preventing abuse allegations from emerging and politically damaging the Bush administration.

So Hicks went from a really bad guy...down to someone who was found guilty and prosecutors wanted to lock up 7 years...down to someone who only serves 9 months (in Australia, no less) - provided he agrees not to sue us.

Evidently it's more important to buy his silence than keep him incarcerated. Kinda makes you wonder why...

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Saturday, March 31, 2007

The gross files

I interrupt the blogging hiatus with breaking news from one of my cats. Evidently Bennie has a hairball or something since he's gagging an heaving a bit. Unfortunately he is still hungry, so he was eating food, then spitting a bit up, then eating it again. Gross, huh?

Or maybe it's Feline bulemia? He's historically been unconcerned about his figure, and I doubt he's slimming down for swimsuit season. Lately though, some people have been calling him fat, so maybe that has sparked body image issues.

On a more serious note: ever since we've moved (about 10 days ago), he's also had an urge to use the litterbox 3-4 times an hour. I'm hoping it has something to do with the move/exposure to a new cat and not anything like the recent food poisoning in cats. Of course we checked his food against the recall list, but when I read lines like this:

Sundlof said the FDA had not found any studies of melamine in cats, and the results of only a single 1945 study that tested it on dogs. That study suggested the chemical increased urine output when fed to dogs in large amounts.

I worry the contamination might be more distributed than the pet food suppliers are letting on. It's time for a vet visit.

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Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Adjusting to changes...

So I recently moved most of my belongings from my house to an already occupied 1-bedroom (on the Upper East Side of Manhattan). My cat is slowly adjusting to the environment, though fiancee's cat has a bit of trouble coping with the idea of shared territory. The fiancee herself was keen to share territory - but perhaps not equally (at least when it comes to closet space). It's been a challenge finding space for all my shit.

On top of that, I've started a new job this week, and I really like it. This is my first job at the PhD level, and I was hired for my "expertise" in two fairly esoteric fields. That having been said, when you're hired into a job with a backlist of problems that have been awaiting the new PhD engineer, you quickly discover how little you know and how much you have to learn (and, oh, by the way, your project was supposed to be done a month ago).

The big downside of the job is that it's two hours away each way. I get up at 5 AM to get into work by 7:30, and don't get home before 7. That's kinda sucky.

So on top of unpacking, and the eternal commuting, and trying to learn my new job, I'm trying to get my house fixed in Philly to sell. I'll be going down tis weekend...that's a 3+1/2 hr trip on my day off. But hey it's less than my daily commute. When I get back Sunday, we're going to go get a entertainment center from a 5th floor walk-up.

Anyway, that's life. Blogging may be light for like...the forseeable future.

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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

Lately I've been thinking I should blog about things I actually know and do less of my usual, ahem, making shit up. The problem is, the stuff I know is largely boring, and moreover it kinda reminds me of work. Well, maybe my 2 weeks of pseudo-unemployment (I start a new job on Monday, and nominally had these 2 weeks off) have rekindled an interest in blogging about technical stuff. Or maybe I'm feeling didactic. Either way, when I read this bit below, I thought it was time for a lesson. (from TPM)

Six of the eight U.S. attorneys fired by the Justice Department ranked in the top third among their peers for the number of prosecutions filed last year, according to an analysis of federal records.

I thought...what are the odds of that? And then I thought, well that can easily be calculated by binomial statistics (better here). The binomal distribution is used when things are split into a binary (two option) state with a certain probability. The chances of rolling a 6 on a die is 1 in 6. The chances you don't are 5 in 6. You either do or don't (ie binary), and you have a probability of 1 in 6 (ie known probability). In engineering terms, you have a probability distribution of either one state or another each has a defined probability. In general the probability distribution for multiple events can be obtained by the mathematical convolution of the probability distribution with itself multiple times. Convolution sounds scary, but it's not bad for binomials. It is a little harder because there are more states: you could have 0 sixes, 1 six, 2 sixes ... 5 sixes. Anyway the whole problem was worked out long ago and reduced to a formula.

Unfortunately, some of the mathematical notation required to explain the formula is really hard to type into Blogger (if you recognize that as a cheap excuse, you win a cookie). So instead of hitting the theory, I'll show you how to cheat and just get the answer out of Excel! (Go surf a mathematician's blog if you want theory, engineers are all about plug 'n chug.)

The Excel formula is:

In this case the number and trials are, 6 (high-performers) of 8 (trials).

On to probability. We are given the criteria that some attorneys were in the top third of their peers. What's the probability that someone might be in the top third? Hmm, let's think hard... AHA! how about 1/3 (or 0.33333) ?

The next part gets technical. If we want a cumulative value, which is the sum of all smaller values in the probability distribution, we type "true". If we type "false" we get the probability for exactly 6 of 8. In this case we'll take the cumulative value to express the odds of getting 5 or less.

That gives us an answer of 0.9974. Probabilites are given on a scale of zero to one, so that means you have a 99.74% chance of getting zero through five attorneys from the top third. Alternatively, it means is if you randomly picked US district attorneys, there's a 0.26% chance that you would get 6 or more in the top third. When conducting a difference test one starts with the null hypothesis that two populations are the same. In this case, we compare our population to the general US attorney population. In most applications the threshold to demonstrate a significant difference is 5%. A result at 1% is usually considered a "highly significant" difference. So our value of 0.26% is highly significant. All of which reinforces the intuitive point of the article: that these attorneys were better than the baseline.

The White House originally claimed it fired the attorneys for performance reasons...and now we find that as a group, they do have a pretty uncommon performance record. Uncommonly good. Maybe so good they got fired?

Now the White House has retracted the performance issue (probably to draw attention away from the relatively good records). Even so, the chance of them randomly picking a set of attorneys with this quality work is under 3 in 1000. The chance of the White House being full of shit...it's significant.

BONUS MATH: If this is true, and the White House had not fired the loyal loser then the probability value would have been 0.99954. That would have been "extremely significant".

TAKEHOME PROBLEM: How many losers should the White House have fired to cover up for their purge of people actually doing too good a job?

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Interesting doublespeak

Lefty blogs are getting excited about the pressure being put on Alberto Gonzales for the firing of 8 US district attorneys. They're starting to talk about impeachments, and digging into the "data-dump" of 3000 pages of voluntarily released communications. Random thoughts, in no particular order.

1. The legislation to allow Gonzales to appoint replacements that was squeezed into the PATRIOT act (feel safer yet?) will be remedied by Congress, and probably unopposed.

2. The whole thing has an air of "Fitzmas" to it. I think perhaps the rabid masses are getting ahead of themselves. I too, share the conviction that there is something shady here, but I don't think it's what people think it is. On top of that, it doesn't matter what people think, it matters what they can prove.

3. Against the Fitzmas concern, is the suddenly real possibility that Bush is positioning to let Gonzales take the fall. That's not out-of-character for the guy who fired Rummy the day after elections. If Bush would only learn to act sooner...

4. Pundits are always saying things like I just said in 3 and you're supposed to believe them becuase they're knowledgable or some shit. Since I routinely opine on things where I have no clue, let me say why I'm starting to lean towards #3. Via TPM, Tony Snow (the president's mouthpiece) said

SNOW: The president's said he's got confidence in Al Gonzales. This is not fact-gathering on whether to allow him to maintain his employment. We hope he stays.

Q: He will remain in office for the rest of the administration?

SNOW: Well, we hope so

(In politician speak, this reads: Gonzales may decide on his own that he needs to spend more time with his family (wink wink), but we hope not, and in any case it would totally be his decision (wink wink), and not us throwing him under the bus.)

4. Data dumps of enormous amounts of info are great versus a small legal team. Sometimes there are nuggets in there that become hidden among the gobs of irrelevant BS. But you put that same mountian in front of a hoarde of liberal bloggers with an axe to grind, and they'll burn through it like nobody's business.

5. Personally, I think Gonzalez's time has come and gone. I think the best way to describe his mindset is "quaint". (Just like anti-torture provisions in the Geneva Conventions)

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Two Years of Blogging!

Spanning three St. Patrick's days...yay for me 'n all.

Blogging will be light as I've cancelled the internet in preparation for moving to NYC and starting a new job. Exciting stuff!

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Happy International Women's Day

Evidently it's gender week here at Cognitive Apostate.

Did you know today is International Women's Day? I wouldn't either, except I listened to some BBC world report news this morning. (All day on NPR they cover silly things like women's protests in Iran... what about Paris Hilton news? Pfft. They should learn journalism.) So I went looking for an International Women's Day Card. Sure enough, they have them! Unfortunately, they all appear to be women-to-women cards, so none of the women in my life will be getting any. After reading 3 or 4 I'm left with a pretty flakey perspective of this holiday. If there're any feminists out there who might want to comment on this tripe they peddle to women for other women, feel free to chime in. Hey did you know that today is a day for women to organize and make their needs known the world over? In Iran women under 40 aren't allowed to leave the country without male custody, and a pile of them just got beaten and arrested for a peaceful protest. I know, let's celebrate with an e-card about endless chit-chat, shoppin' sprees, and hours of relaxin!

Commercialism aside, if you happen to have 2 X chromosomes (or as I've recently been corrected: lack of a Y chromosome), then Happy International Women's Day!

Also, as a followup to recent posts on the genetics of homosexuality, this letter is pretty entertaining.
If you ask a heterosexual, he or she will generally deny that they had any kind of choice in the matter. They say that they were just born that way or at least knew at the first stirrings of sexual awareness that they were heterosexual. “It just feels natural,” they say and seem genuinely puzzled that anyone would wonder about it....

No one seems to have found any genes for heterosexuality. Nor have studies of human brain found anything that impels males to be attracted to females or vice versa...

Humorous. I understand some folks may be insulted if you propose searching their DNA to find a rationale for their behavior. Me? I still think we should look for a genetic basis for sexuality. Maybe it's the engineer in me just wanting to see how we're all wired. One thing I don't care to understand: What posessed the people who made those awful e-cards?

And since this is a political blog, and we're talking about women and homosexuals, I'd be remiss to not at least mention this.

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This feels good...

Just finished prep work for my very last experiment of grad school today. Officially 2 more days of school. After 5&1/2 years, it is time.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Will justice dept officials be subpoenaed?

Interesting stuff here. So a Senate Committee is going to request 5 officials testify voluntarily. They're also going to vote on whether to subpoena the people if they refuse. Isn't that odd? Why not wait until they actually refuse? There's a few ways this could play out.

1. The people want to talk and do it voluntarily.
2. The people don't want to talk, but would rather do it voluntarily (possibly not under oath) than by subpoena.
3. As with the US district attorneys, these Republican footsoldiers at least pretend to not want to talk, but will grudgingly spill the beans if subpoenaed.

I think we can mostly rule out case #1. These guys have some serious skeletons in the closet, and their only motivation to talk will be to keep from being somebody bigger's fall-guy. I can also predict they will decline the invite if the vote fails. So in that respect the voluntary bit is not only a courtesy, but a one-sided courtesy.

As for the vote, my initial guess was party line. But that gets a little tricky...if it's going through anyway, the Republicans might sign on to not look bad. One thing you can be sure of...these subpoenas would never have happened if Republicans still ran Congress.

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