Friday, February 08, 2008

A Couple of anti-Liberal Rants

I have a couple of anti-liberal tirades for this lovely Friday morning, one of which actually has to do with analytical science. So we’ll get the completely off-topic one out of the way first. Paul Krugman of the New York Times has written a particularly arrogant opinion column for the New York Times. Comparing the Clinton and Obama health plans, he argues that the Clinton plan is superior because it uses mandatory coverage to cover twice as many people for only slightly more cost. I can’t knock the economics of it; from a statistical point of view it makes perfect sense. What pisses me off, though, is that he doesn’t even consider the possibility that there could be non-economic reasons to avoid forcing 20 million people to pay for something that they wouldn’t buy if they had a choice. Now, there may be arguments, economic or otherwise, that show that the benefits of mandatory cover outweigh the loss of self-determination. But he doesn’t bother to restate, or even refer to them. Because the idea that the ignorant American underclass should actually have control over their own livelihoods is completely foreign to this arrogant liberal’s mindset.

Of course, this should not surprise me. Krugman is the hypocrite who spent most of 2004 belitttling Republicans for voting against their economic interest, despite the fact that as a Princeton Professor, best-selling Author, and NYT columnist, he was almost certainly campaigning against his own economic interest by not supporting Bush. Evidently, it is a noble thing for a ivory tower professor to do, but idiocy when practiced by a bunch of rednecks*.

Anyway, enough economic paternalism. This is nominally a geology/analytical science blog, so let’s talk about analytical paternalism instead. These clowns have come up with a interesting, if not somewhat naïve idea for the war on terror. What they propose to do is put gamma-ray detectors into everybody’s mobile phone, with a link back to a central super computer that will process the data and determine whether or not the detections on one or more instrument is a dirty bomb.

First, let us look at the radiological issues associated with this suggestion. While this approach may or may not pick up radiological terrorists, it would be a really good way to catch people who forget to turn off their phones on airplanes. This is because the cosmic ray-related radiation on airplanes is an order of magnitude or two higher than it is on the surface, so any moderately sensitive detector designed for use at sea level would go off at 39,000 feet. What this means is that, were you to forget to turn off the phone, it would have its radiation detector triggered at altitude, and then automatically dob you in to the authorities without even notifying you that it has done so. But you’d probably still get charged for the transmitting from an airplane that the phone did for you.

Of course, before you get to the plane, the phone would have to go thru the X-ray machine. And in order to penetrate the steel laptop cases and huge suitcases that people insist on bringing as carry-on, the X-ray machines generally run at fairly high energy (greater than 100KeV, I think). Which is an energy range that overlaps with some of the lower energy gamma rays from many potential radiological weapons. Finally, I know of at least one Monazitite outcrop, which probably contains several percent ThO2, that is on a roadcut for an east coast freeway. It was originally discovered by a geologist who left his scintillometer on driving home from the field, but I’m sure that phone detectors could find it too. Over and over and over again.

Analytical issues aside, there is also the matter of cost. Even if a phone detector was only 1% of the cost of a Gamma-Ray Spectrometer designed for security-related use, it would still be so expensive that you’d have to put a lowercase vowel prefix in front of it to get anyone to buy it.

But one again, the thing that really pisses me off is the top-down approach that these people assume when suggesting uses for their idea. At no point do they consider the living, thinking person in possession of the phone to have any value other than moving their detector around (and paying for it). I’m all for a phone with a built-in radiation detector, provided that the phone owner can actually view the output and exercise some sort of control over how the phone that he owns is used. The level of fear and ignorance surrounding ionizing radiation is quite considerable in western society. And educated, informed humans can do a lot of the cognitive processing that would otherwise require vast computing networks, if they are given the chance. But the idea of co-opting private communication devices for a centralized communication network is both scary and counterproductive. After all, it was private citizens, and not the centralized government using mobile phone that stopped the UA 93 attack. So they should be given more power, not less, when it comes to organizing their own defense.

* As an ivy-league educated redneck, I’m not sure which category I fall into. So I’ll cover my butt by telling y’all to vote for whomever you want, for your own reasons.


Garry Hayes said...

I'm not sure that analytical paternalism falls into the category of "liberalism", since the entire "war" on terror has been top-down paternalism from the beginning, with President Bush as our stern protective father. I'm not sure, but I don't think anyone is calling him liberal.

C W Magee said...

There are plenty of conservatives who think that too much paternalism has been committed in the name of war, whether it be nationalizing the airport security business or spying on people.

BrianR said...

Who are these conservatives that denounce the security state? They sure aren't the ones who have been in power the last 7 years. Today Mitt Romney said a vote for democrats would bring more terror...they rule by fear.

The old-school conservatives are more what you are talking about. So, it's not too fair to call it "anti-liberal" ... it's actually "anti-neoconservative".

Jul said...

Do you think people should have the option to opt out of mandatory elementary education, too? As the only non-liberal I'm willing to talk to, you'll have to represent your entire folk with your answer. Thanks in advance.

PS - Does Brown still count as Ivy League these days?

Dr. Lemming said...

When I was getting my own elementary school education, I did everything I could think of to opt myself out of the classroom. So it would be a bit rich of me to get paternal now...

On the other hand, LLLL will have to be pretty smart to find newer and cleverer ways of skyving, since her dad is a bit of an old hand...

How would I know? I haven't been back in 12 years.