Friday, June 27, 2008

A confession regarding the Second Amendment

When I first read of the 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court to explicitly recognize the right of an individual, not a militia, to bear arms, I was dismayed.

I still am, but not because I disagreed with them. My dismay is that this decision (really, more the decision to decide on this issue) demonstrates how far along the radical right agenda for this country has proceeded. From the packing of the Supreme Court with the likes Thomas of Scalia, to the extreme politicization of the Justice Department, to the privatization of our military, the Bush Administration is hurrying the American people along to a very dark and troubling place.

Having said that, I have come to accept that I agree with the decision of the Supreme Court regarding the Second Amendment. I do think it is reasonable to conclude that the Second Amendment does support the idea of individuals bearing arms, owning a gun.

I think it is reasonable because the Second Amendment is weirdly ambiguous and terribly ungrammatical ("A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."). As a result, there will never be a clear path to banning arms for individual use entirely.

I also believe it is reasonable given its context. The founders of our nation fought a revolution against tyranny and you can't do that with water pistols. If individuals are not allowed to own weapons, then how can we defend ourselves against a government that takes away our freedoms (like the Bush Administration is doing) and is ready to use state violence against us to accomplish their goals (what the Bush Administration is not yet doing on a widespread basis)?

No, I think we should all accept the reality that given our constitution and bill of rights, we must allow individuals to own weapons -- but not all individuals and not any weapon (this is pretty much what Scalia said in his statement as well).

The problem in our country is not the Second Amendment and not the idea that an individual can open a weapon. The problem in the US is that we allow extremist, fundamentalist zealots to set policy.

We should concentrate all efforts on removing NRA influence on our legislators (and more generally end corporate and lobbyist bribing of our politicians) so that we can have sane, reasonable laws passed to enact tight controls on gun ownership in this country.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Without logic we are truly lost...

When I train developers, I like to point out that they (we) are very special people: we use symbolic logic day in and day out to do our jobs. Why does that make us special? Logic forms the foundation not only of software programming, but more generally of "civilization" as we know it. Cell phones, the Internet, cars, medicines -- anything manufactured -- all follow from two wonderful developments in our evolution: an opposable thumb and logic.

Logic is also tightly linked to critical thinking: it is hard to tell when somebody is pulling the wool over your eyes, when you cannot logically identify flaws in their arguments. When, however, your brain is well-trained to move from assumptions to conclusions via clearly defined rules of logic, it is much easier to (a) solve problems, (b) challenge bogus arguments, and (c) avoid voting against your own self-interest.

I ran across a great example of such manipulation through explicit violation of logical thinking in the latest issue of Discover magazine. The title of the article is "Medicine's Magic Bullets?" and it is another in a seemingly endless stream of seriously bad news regarding the way that pharmaceutical companies lie and manipulate "research" data to get FDA approval for their drugs. Before I get to the part about logic, here's one quote to give you a feel for what I am talking about:

"One reason many doctors overlook risks and believe statins to be safe is that most controlled studies of stains wind up excluding people who originally began to participate in a study but stop taking the drug because they experience problems with it; these test participants are then dropped from the study as 'non-compliant.'"

Please do stop for a moment and think about that.

OK, now on to my main point regarding logic: this article talks about how pharmaceutical companies can camouflage unfavorable results through "combination end points."

Hmmm. "Combination end point" - what might that be? Well, a drug can be tested for multiple outcomes, such as heart failure and blood pressure. That surely sounds reasonable.

But then we learn that:

"By combining two or more of these outcomes to create a single category, you can say it helped 'A and B' even if it only helped A and not B. For example, although there was no statistically significant effect from tPA in the NINDS trial on the number of patients who died, there was a small decrease in disability for those who survived. With those two factors combined, there was technically a decrease in the combination end point of 'death and disability.'"

I would like to think that at this point, the mouth of any and every software developer reading the above paragraph will be hanging open in disbelief.

For those who might still have their mouth closed, allow me to explain:

When you say "A AND B", that is only true if both A is true and B is true. If either are false, then "A and B" is also false. If, on the other hand, you assert "A OR B", then only one of the two need to be true to render the whole statement true.

So when the author writes "you can say it helped" and "technically a decrease", I have to ask myself: precisely who can say that the statement "A AND B" is true even if B is false? And what technology is being referred to there? The technology of anti-logic?

I am shocked first of all that Discover's author would not explicitly point out the fundamental logical flaw of this "combination end point" bullshit.

And I am afraid, very afraid, for a nation in which...

* a critical regulatory agency like the FDA can accept such blatantly false thinking as a path to approving drugs which can and do kill people on a regular basis.

* citizens can read such things and not realize that they are being treated with disdain, are beging manipulated and, ultimately, put at risk of illness and death in order to improve the profit margins of corporations like Genentech (the maker of tPA, which is the main subject of the Discover article).

Friday, June 06, 2008

My presentations at Oracle Open World 2008

In case you are interested, I will be presenting three times at OOW in San Fran this September. The dates/times have not yet been set, but here are the IDs and titles:

Session ID: S300183
Session Title: Break Your Addiction to SQL!

Session ID: S300184
Session Title: Weird PL/SQL

Session ID: S300185
Session Title: Why You Should Care about Oracle11g PL/SQL Now!

Hope to see some of you there!