Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

March 8, 2005

Coyote Blog disproves Giuliana Sgrena

Filed under: — Different River @ 11:00 pm

Giuliana Sgrena is an journalist who writes for a communist newspaper in Italy. She was kidnapped in Iraq, then freed somehow, then the car that was carrying her to safety (apparently) attempted to run a U.S. checkpoint. Soldiers (apparently) fired on the car, and the driver was killed. One version of the story is here.

Sgrena has claimed that U.S. forces deliberately targeted her, a claim which White House press secretary Scott McClellan called “just absurd.”

I don’t know how you prove something like that either way, but the same does not hold of one of Sgrena’s other claims: that U.S. troops fired 300-400 shots into her car at the checkpoint.

Coyote Blog has pictures of the car and a brief analysis. The car is in pristine shape, with no front-end or side damage, and only one bullet hole. There’s no way any human shooter could shoot 300-400 bullets through a single bullet hole. It’s likewise inconceivable that they could have completely missed the car with 299-399 bullets, at the short distance they’d be from the car as it attempted to run through to checkpoint. (Trust me on this one — I have very limited shooting experience, and I can hit targets a lot smaller than a car. Surely even minimally-trained soldiers would do even better.)

As Coyote points out:

Look, here is some advice. Take it from the CBS memo forgers. If you are going to make something up, know your subject. If you are going to forge a memo from a typewriter, make sure you know how typewriters worked. And if you are going to exaggerate a story about military weapons, make sure you understand weapons. Rounds entering the car would not build up in a pile on the floor so that she could scoop them up – they would have embedded in things. And, if enough rounds were fired that they started building up on the floor, then no one would be alive to scoop them up.

Jane Galt on Medical Malpractice Reform

Filed under: — Different River @ 8:07 pm

Jane Galt has an excellent response to one of the arguments claiming that medical malpractice reform is unnecessary:

People who oppose reforming the medical malpractice laws often like to point out that most medmal cases are resolved in favour of the defendant. “See!” they cry triumphantly. “No crisis!”

But this is hardly a good sign. If the overwhelming majority are resolved in favour of the defendant, that means that a lot of weak cases are being brough to trial. Such cases are no less expensive to defend than cases in which the doctor is at fault. This represents an enormous cost to the system.

Assuming that attorneys are rational actors, and that on net the expected value of all verdicts in malpractice cases in a given year should not be less than zero (or a lot of medmal attorneys would go out of business), then this means that medmal attorneys are in effect playing the lottery: buying a lot of “tickets” that are unlikely to hit, in the hopes of a big payout.

She then points out in passing:

(This presumes, of course, that whether a case pays off is directly related to doctor culpability, rather than essentially random. But if the latter is true, then we need medmal reform more than ever).

But as I’ve pointed out before, whether a case pays off is essentially random (and consequently, as Jane says, we do need medmal reform more than ever).

If malpractice claims were the result of bad doctoring, then bad doctors would have higher claims (on average) than good doctors, and therefore would pay higher rates for their malpractice insurance — just as “bad drivers” (those with lots of accidents) pay more for auto insurance. This is called “experience rating” — your claims experience affects the rate you pay. But medical malpractice insurance is not generally experience-rateda given doctor’s premium depends only on his/her specialty and ZIP code.

There is no law or regulation that prohibits experience-rating in medical malpractice insurance. The lack of experience rating is an outcome of a market process. Surely, if past malpractice claims were a good statistical predictor of future claims, insurance companies could increase their profits by offering discounts to doctors with fewer claims, thus attracting more “good risks” into their pool (that is, more customers from whom they’d collect premiums but for whom they’d not have to pay claims). This would, in turn, force premiums up for “bad doctors” and encourage doctors to practice better medicine to avoid insurance rate increases.

However, this doesn’t happen — insurance companies have not found it profitable to take case histories (as they do for drivers) to determine which doctors are likely to be sued. This means that, essentially, malpractice claims are a random event, statistically unrelated to bad medical care. Sure, some claims are due to incompetent or negligent doctors or hospitals — but not enough, percentage-wise, to make it possible to identify bad doctors or hospitals through their malpractice claims, or to use that information to set insurance rates. This shows that the malpractice problem is systemic, and is the due to a faulty legal system rather than bad doctors.

Hans Bethe and the Decline of the Media

Filed under: — Different River @ 7:40 pm

Much has been said over the past few years about how, allegedly, you can’t rely on news from the Internet (e.g., blogs) because it doesn’t have professional journalists vetting stories for accuracy and importance. (I first heard this report in connection with Matt Drudge’s reporting of the “Lewinsky blue dress” story, which “everyone knew” wasn’t true until … it turned out to be true.)

The mainstream media, we are told, have editors — professionally trained journalists who serve as valuable filters ensuring that only stories that are both accurate, relevant, and balanced reach the untrained eyes and ears of the general public. Matt Drudge and the bloggers can publish whatever they want without oversight or accountability; therefore what they publish is rumor and innuendo, not news, and certainly not to be accorded the same level of reliability as what one would hear, say, on CBS News. (Excellent straw-man summary here.)

You might think this theory was put to rest when the dress turned out to exist, but no. It was still in vogue in September 2004 when CBS News broadcast a false story that turned out to be based on documents that were not only forged, but amateurly forged. Within hours of the broadcast, bloggers had convincingly established that the documents were forgeries, but CBS continued to stick by the discredited story.

So, now we know that CBS — and perhaps other media organizations held in the same high regard — engage in precisely the same sort of unsubstantiated rumor-mongering of which they accused Matt Drudge and the bloggers. They are no more reliable than the bloggers, which means (remember your symbolic logic from 8th grade math?) that the bloggers are at least as reliable as the traditional media.

But still, even if true, the bloggers can post anything, including all sorts of irrelevant stuff, so we still need the media with their professional-journalist editorial filter to determine what’s not important, right?

Wrong. If the traditional media have little idea of what’s true, they have even less of an idea of what’s important. And this has nothing to do with liberal bias, if any. Consider this:

Hans Bethe, the last of the great European physicists to flee Hitler and help develop atomic power in the U.S, died yesterday at age 98. He won the Nobel prize for showing how, in a step by step process, the sun fuses hydrogen into helium.

And what makes the front page of today’s Boston Globe instead? An angry family demanding $740,000 from NStar because their dog got accidentally electrocuted at one of NStar’s lamppost sites.

Hans Bethe: page D14. Dead dog: p. 1.

An Instapundit reader has more:

Glenn, I live in the Boston area.

You wouldn’t believe how much news coverage this electrocuted dog story has gotten. It’s not just the globe. The local TV stations have had it as one of their top stories several days now. No disrespect to the family that lost their dog but there ARE other thing going on in the world.

When I first saw that story (around 3:45 pm EST today), I checked Google news, and found that only two “mainstream media” sources had picked up the Hans Bethe story, and they were not the “major” sources like the New York Times or the Washington Post (let alone CBS), but the Knoxville News Sentinel and the Indianapolis Star. Since then, some of the “bigger” papers have started to pick it up, but they’re all way behind SpaceRef.com.

It’s a different world. If you are relying on newspapers and TV for your news, you’re not getting the full story. I’ve been saying that for 20 years (since I was in high school), but it’s absolutely undeniable now.

In Memoriam, Hans Bethe

Filed under: — Different River @ 6:30 pm

Hans Bethe, one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, passed away yesterday at his home in Ithaca, NY. He was 98. From the Cornell University press release via SpaceRef.com:

At his death, Bethe was emeritus professor of physics at Cornell University, the institution he joined in 1935 after fleeing Nazi Germany because his mother was Jewish. He was one of the most honored members of the faculty in the university’s 140-year history for his work in revolutionizing our perception of the real world. But he was equally admired for his reputation for integrity, humility and concern that made him the conscience of science.

Bethe’s fellow Nobel laureate, physicist Robert C. Richardson, who is Cornell’s vice provost for research, said; “Hans Bethe was a giant of 20th century science. He has been revered by his Cornell colleagues. He left profound and enduring marks of his intellectual leadership on Cornell, the United States, and the entire world. Bethe had an important influence upon me as a young faculty member when I arrived at Cornell in 1966. He demonstrated a clarity of thought that I could only hope to emulate some day.”

“Science is always more unsolved questions, and its great advantage is that you can prove something is true or something is false. You can’t do that about human affairs — most human things can be right from one point of view and wrong from another,” he once said.

Despite the turmoil of history, Bethe remained committed to the idea of physics as a thing of beauty leading to discovery and understanding, a quest that he called “the spirit of physics.” It was a spirit enunciated by his famously optimistic phrase “I can do that,” always said in the face of opposition or adversity. Salpeter noted that Bethe’s optimism sprang from knowing how to use the minimum mathematical complexity compatible with each problem he faced. “In his hands, approximations were not a loss of elegance but a device to bring out the basic simplicity and beauty of each field,” he said.

During World War II Bethe was a key figure in the building of the first atomic bomb as head of the theoretical physics division at Los Alamos. Bethe would later recall how “two elder statesmen” told J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project, ” ‘Look here, you can’t run the theoretical division if you run the laboratory at the same time, and there has to be a theoretical division. It has to be organized. And so the obvious person to put in charge of the theoretical division is Bethe.’ ”

Bethe was truly indefatigable. In his 90s, with his left arm and shoulder wasted by a degenerative muscle disease, he continued to arrive regularly at his office at the Newman Laboratory on the Cornell campus although, he admitted, “not every day do I find anything interesting.” Every day began with a 45-minute hot bath, because, he said, “You sleep, and things get somewhat unscrambled in your mind; then in the bath, I can become conscious of that.” And he always carried with him his old slide rule on which he could with ease perform calculations to the sixth power.

Bethe’s father, a professor of physiology, was a Protestant, but his mother was Jewish. This brought him into conflict with Nazi race laws after Hitler came to power, and Bethe was dismissed from his post at the University of Tubingen. He left Germany, going first to England, then to the United States and Cornell in 1935.

It was Bethe who propelled Cornell’s physics department into the top rank. And it was at Cornell during the late 1930s that he wrote his famous reviews of nuclear physics and, in 1938, published his seminal paper on the theory of energy production in stars that explained how the sun shines. The work was to win him the Nobel Prize in 1967.

During his years as a physicist he published papers in every decade from the 1920s through the 2000s. In 1995 Bethe’s colleagues, students and friends marked his 60 years at Cornell with a two-day tribute to his life and work. “If you know his work,” said John Bahcall of the Institute for Advanced Study, delivering his own appreciation, “you might be inclined to think he is really several people, all of whom are engaged in a conspiracy to sign their work with the same name.”

Hans Bethe is yet another example of how Hitler’s antisemitic zeal killed not only Jews, but the Germany’s status as a leader in science research.

Dan Rather quotes

Filed under: — Different River @ 9:00 am

In honor of Dan Rather’s retirement (which he insists is not “retirment” but “changing jobs”) from the CBS anchor chair this evening, we present the following retrospective of Dan Rather’s career, courtesy of the Media Research Center.

(Hat tip: PowerLine.)

Rebuilding Civilization From A Garbage Dump

Filed under: — Different River @ 2:30 am

Clayton Cramer reflects on the possibility of rebuilding civilization after a catastrophic population loss — including, particularly, loss of people who make the technologies we rely on. He seems to have solved one of the major problems.

As usual, Clayton is so far ahead I had not even identified that as one of the key problems — nor would I be likely to do so if I had to rebuild civilization.

In the event of a civilization-destroying catastrophe — which I actually think is so unlikely as to be unworthy of consideration except as an intellectual exercise — the ability to rebuild would depend critically on the knowledge base of the people left, and their ability (or not) to communicate with each other. For example, if the Internet failed, I don’t know how I’d get in touch with Clayton — and even if I could work all the gas pumps between here and Idaho, I’m not sure I could find him. For one thing, he might have left to go looking for someone or something else by the time I got there.

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