Sunday, September 30, 2007

Confessions of an Arachnophobe

I admit it: I'm not fond of arachnids (or indeed, "bugs" in general). And the degree of my aversion is roughly proportional to the size of the bug. However, that doesn't keep me from appreciating these animals scientifically, for their role in the ecosystem, and even for their occasional bizarre beauty -- like this gal(?) we found hanging from the vent on the side of our trailer, in central Iowa a few weeks ago.

Dorsal view:

Lateral View:

I apologize for the fuzziness of the photos. I don't own a macro lens, so these were taken with a telephoto, then cropped and blown up in GIMP (the real size of the body is maybe 10mm). For much better images, see the BugGuide site, which (along with hints from Spiderzrule) allowed me to identify this as Micrathena sagittata.

Genus Micrathena belongs to the orb-weaving spiders, which are ubiquitous. The bite is not considered dangerous.

When I first saw this critter I was quite startled -- it's easily the most bizarre spider I've ever seen outside of a zoo. I thought bugs like this only existed in the tropics. Turns out, no: it's fairly widely distributed in the central and eastern US.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Vote for MMP -- with spreadsheets!

There's two new widgets in the sidebar, which will stay there until after the Ontario election and referendum. One links to the advocacy site for the Mixed Member Proportional site, the other to the government information site on the MMP referendum.

Notwithstanding my advocacy for MMP, I do have a couple of reservations about it:
  • That the minority or coalition governments which will inevitably result will give too much power to tiny parties with loony views (ie. as the governing party panders to them to retain power).
  • Governments need to be stable, and able to act without always being overthrown by non-confidence motions.
  • I question what seems to be a popular (if tacit) assumption, that having the proportions of the legislature reflect the popular vote is somehow magically "democratic", in a way that other relationships between electoral choice and parliamentary seats are not.
However, what I've read of the The Ontario Citizen's Assembly on Electoral Reform (PDF here) persuades me that they Assembly did its homework, and took into account concerns such as the above.

So: I am voting for Mixed Member Proportional Representation. I don't want to belabour points made elsewhere, but briefly, I support it because:
  • I think it has been, and is, bad for democracy in this country when parties can obtain large legislative majorities based on a low percentage of the total vote.
  • Even if my preferred candidate has no hope of getting elected locally, I can still have some influence by voting for my preferred party. In other words, my franchise still counts for something.
  • It allows minority views a voice in the legislature. One specific upside of this for me is that the Green Party might get some seats. OTOH, the downside is that so might the Family Coalition Party. I'm willing to take that risk.
However, I think the official promotion and education on the MMP system has been poor. For one thing, the video on the official government website really doesn't explain the system very well. I could only find one example of how the system would work, and it's both vague and confusing. Also, it's not hard to think of pathological cases that would "break" the seat-allocation system as described. Perhaps it's just because I'm a numbers geek, but I really wanted to understand how the list seat allocation works, and see some examples using made-up (but reasonable) numbers.

How MMP works

I finally found what I was looking for, buried on page 144&ff of the report of The Ontario Citizen's Assembly on Electoral Reform. To save y'all the trouble, I'll do my best to summarize the scheme here, by way of presenting the spreadsheet I cobbled up to play with scenarios (for anyone who really wants to understand the proposed system, I recommend reading that whole chapter of the report).

Example 1: "Typical" election

Ridings Won Party Vote Quota Calculation Quota Seats Final Legislature Disproportion
Party # % % Included Weight Seats Avail # %
A 47 36.43% 39.14% TRUE 3.91E-001 47 51.77 52 40.31% 1.17%
B 31 24.03% 29.26% TRUE 2.93E-001 31 38.7 39 30.23% 0.97%
C 12 9.30% 17.96% TRUE 1.80E-001 12 23.76 24 18.60% 0.64%
D 0 0.00% 7.14% TRUE 7.14E-002 0 9.44 9 6.98% -0.16%
E 0 0.00% 4.03% TRUE 4.03E-002 0 5.33 5 3.88% -0.15%
Other 0 0.00% 2.47% FALSE 0.00E+000 0 0 0 0.00% -2.47%
Check totals: 90 69.77% 100.00% Quota= 7.56E-003 129 129 129 100.00% 5.57%

Example #1 is taken from page 157 of the Report, and is intended to reflect a fairly typical Ontario election. There are five parties designated A through E, plus "other" representing any additional parties. The inputs to the spreadsheet are in red; everything else is a calculated result.

First, there are 90 seats for local ridings (the "# Ridings Won" column), elected in a First-Past-The-Post manner, just as they are today. The second input column is "% Party Vote", and reflects the new addition to the ballot, where the voter selects her/his preferred party. Note: the "% Ridings Won" column only totals to 69.77%, as this represents % of the entire legislature (139 seats), not just the 90 riding seats. The "Check Totals" line is so I can check that I assigned exactly 90 seats, and 100% of the party vote (and also verifies the sanity of calculations made in other columns).

The fun part comes when you start allocating the 39 list seats to bring the final proportionality of the legislature closer to the proportions of the Party Vote. The proposed Ontario MMP system uses something called the Hare Formula, which begins by calculating a quantity called the "Quota". The formula says:

Quota = (# Included Party Votes Cast) / (# Included Riding Seats + # List Seats)

The "Included" qualifier requires some explanation, as some Party Votes and Riding Seats are excluded from the Hare calculation. A party is excluded if its Party Vote is less than 3% of the total votes cast (see the "Other" line in Example #1). IMHO, this is a good thing: it means that the truly loony fringe can't gum up the works. It also means that the minimum number of seats any party can have based on Party Vote alone is three. (I'll deal with exclusion of Riding Seats in Example #2, below). In the table, which parties are included in the calculation is shown by TRUE or FALSE in the "Included" column. Parties which are included have their Party Votes carried over into the "Weight" column (since the readers of this blog -- all four of them -- are math/sci geeks, the use of scientific notation won't confuse anyone). The Report uses some made-up vote numbers for the Party Votes; for the spreadsheet I've just used the percentage (arithmetically, it works out to the same result). Similarly, the included Riding Seats are carried to the "Seats Avail" column. The "Quota" (given at bottom center) is then calculated by the Hare formula.

The number of seats each party should receive is then calculated as:

QuotaSeats = Quota * (Party Vote) / (Total Seats in Legislature)

Obviously, this usually yields some fractional seats. The official procedure for rounding these up or down to whole numbers is a bit complicated, and in the spreadsheet I've just used a simple a arithmetic rounding, which usually gets the same result (though in some cases it may magically create or abolish a seat). The 39 list seats are then distributed among the parties in order to bring their total representation up to the number given in the "# Final Legislature" column.

The result to pay attention to is the difference between the "% Party Vote" and "% Final Legislature" columns (calculated in the "Disproportion" column). The goal of MMP is to minimize the disproportion, and for many realistic election scenarios, it succeeds. In this example, the total disproportion (obtained by summing the absolute values of the per-party disproportions) is 5.57%.

Example #2: Overhanging Seats

Ridings Won Party Vote Quota Calculation Quota Seats Final Legislature Disproportion
Party # % % Included Weight Seats Avail # %
A 55 42.64% 39.14% FALSE 0.00E+000 0 55 55 42.64% 3.50%
B 24 18.60% 29.26% TRUE 2.93E-001 24 37.08 37 28.68% -0.58%
C 11 8.53% 17.96% TRUE 1.80E-001 11 22.76 23 17.83% -0.13%
D 0 0.00% 7.14% TRUE 7.14E-002 0 9.05 9 6.98% -0.16%
E 0 0.00% 4.03% TRUE 4.03E-002 0 5.11 5 3.88% -0.15%
Other 0 0.00% 2.47% FALSE 0.00E+000 0 0 0 0.00% -2.47%
Check totals: 90 69.77% 100.00% Quota= 7.89E-003 74 129 129 100.00% 6.

"Overhang" occurs when a party wins enough riding races to get a higher percentage of the legislature than the Party Vote would entitle them too. This is the other criterion by which a party will be excluded from the Hare Formula calculation, and receive no list seats. This is shown in the table above (taken from the second example in the Report). Here, Party A has won almost 43% of the seats in the legislature in the riding races alone, and 3.5% more than their share of the Party Vote. Thus, their seats are not included in the Quota Calculation (note that the total "Seats Avail" is thus only 74, ie. 129 minus 55). The final result is that A is slightly over-represented in Parliament, but not badly so.

Obviously, MMP means that majority government is the exception rather than the rule. The fun part here is to look at the results of these scenarios and speculate on likely alignments and coalitions (the magic number for legislative control being 65). Assume, say, that parties A, B, C and D are respectively Conservative, Liberal, NDP and Green (with E being possibly a religious or ethnic party) -- who gets to govern? Which parties are similar enough in philosophy to cooperate for three or four years?

Example 3: List Upset

Ridings Won Party Vote Final Legislature Disproportion
Party # % % # %
A 50 38.76% 33.00% 50 38.76% 5.76%
B 30 23.26% 44.00% 53 41.09% -2.91%
C 10 7.75% 19.00% 23 17.83% -1.17%
D 0 0.00% 3.00% 3 2.33% -0.67%
E 0 0.00% 1.00% 0 0.00% -1.00%
Other 0 0.00% 0.00% 0 0.00% 0.00%
Check totals: 90 69.77% 100.00% 129 100.00% 11.52%

I played with a few more scenarios, just to see what happened. Example 3 shows a situation I call List Upset, in which party A wins a majority of the riding races, but B picks up enough list seats to achieve a plurality (and thus become the presumptive government). If this seems "wrong" to you, I suggest you are thinking about the MMP system the wrong way. You are stuck on the idea that the FPTP riding race is the "real" election, while the party vote is an illegitimate pretender which can be allowed only a secondary effect. In fact, this is exactly backwards: for good or ill, MMP is primarily a proportional representation system, but one that retains the concept of having a local representative.

And finally, an oddball example election I call Asymmetrical Landslide, in which A gets a legislative majority on riding seats alone, but B gets a majority of the Party Vote:

Example 4: Asymmetrical Landslide

Ridings Won Party Vote Final Legislature Disproportion
Party # % % # %
A 70 54.26% 30.00% 70 54.26% 24.26%
B 13 10.08% 60.00% 50 38.76% -21.24%
C 7 5.43% 5.00% 7 5.43% 0.43%
D 0 0.00% 3.00% 2 1.55% -1.45%
E 0 0.00% 2.00% 0 0.00% -2.00%
Other 0 0.00% 0.00% 0 0.00% 0.00%
Check totals: 90 69.77% 100.00% 129 100.00% 49.38%

The total disproportionality here is huge. However, I submit this is very unlikely to occur in a real election. It would require either that A won most of those ridings with only small pluralities, or that most voters decided to split their ballot, choosing the local candidate from A, but choosing B on the party vote.

So, the proposed MMP system is not my favorite alternative to FPTP, but I think it's a significant improvement. Should the referendum pass and MMP become law, we are in for interesting times in Ontario politics -- but hopefully in a good way.

Note: If I could figure out how to use Google Docs, I would post the spreadsheet there. However, being too lazy to do that, I'm willing to send a copy to anyone who asks. Just drop me a line (Open Office and Excel formats available).

Friday, September 28, 2007

You know it's woo when....

....even the naturopaths agree that it's useless (more or less).

The CBC reports on a British study that confirms what we pretty much already knew: that strapping little magnets to your wrist (or sticking them in your shoes) doesn't relieve pain. They don't improve blood flow, or align your cells, or anything like that. They just sit there nothing. Apparently, a lot of these "therapeutic" magnets aren't even as strong as the ones that stick witty sayings and kids' artwork to your fridge door.

But really, this should be old news -- and in fact it is old news. Almost five years ago, the CBC reported on a study by the Mayo clinic which concluded -- guess what? -- magnetic bracelets don't relieve pain. Unfortunately, both these articles fall too much into the journalistic fallacy of binary objectivity -- reporting "both sides" as if there were a legitimate controversy. It falls to the CBC's Marketplace -- almost eight years back -- to give something approaching an unequivocal debunking of the quackery. So why are we still seeing reports on studies that take this sort of thing seriously?

But I have to love the language it is reported in (emphasis mine):
"There is no definite grounds of being absolutely sure that a magnet works or not," lead author Dr. Max Pittler, a complementary medicine specialist, said Monday....Pittler acknowledged, however, that the findings also mean that magnets could work — but the clinical trials weren't able to prove that.
That's a mighty slim straw Dr. Pittler is grasping at there: "There's no evidence it works, but we can't prove beyond a shadow of a smidgen of a whisper of a doubt that they don't". Well of course not, lunkhead -- go read up on the difficulty of proving a negative. I don't know what the title "complementary medicine specialist" signifies in his case, but I can't help wondering if it has something to do with the good doctor's odd reluctance to say forthrightly what this study merely confirms: magnet therapy is a load of bollocks.

C'mon Dr. Max, you can do it.

The article gives the last word to Toronto naturopath Kieran Cooley, who recommends acupuncture and mild exercise over magnets. But even he can't just come out and say a definitive "bollocks":
"There are clearly some people [in the British analysis] who are benefiting from the therapy. There are other people who are not benefiting very much and a few people who seem to be getting worse."
Um, as someone who has suffered from sporadic bouts of back pain for decades, I know that getting better, getting worse or staying the same is exactly what the condition does even if you do nothing. Which is exactly what the magnets are doing, right?

However, Cooley's mention of acupuncture is interesting, because another recent study reports that acupuncture works better than conventional therapies, such as analgesics, physiotherapy and exercise. One significant aspect of that study is that the acupuncture group was divided in two: one received real acupuncture, according to the traditional method of sticking needles into specific points held to control the flow of qi while the other patients got sham acupunture, in which the needle pokes specifically avoided all the "correct" acupuncture points. The result: there was no significant difference between the real and sham acupuncture cohorts, though both did better than the conventional therapy group.

This would seem to mean that:
  1. The whole theory of qi is wrong -- there are no "meridians" of the stuff running up and down the body, influencing our health.
  2. Sticking needles in the skin may nonetheless have some effect -- maybe stimulating the release of hormones? -- that is as good or better than the usual therapies.
Or maybe not. Orac takes apart the study, and points out a number of methodological problems that compromise that second conclusion (but go read it for yourself).

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Would you like a little woo in your tea?

Stooging around Superior, Wisconsin on a cloudy rain-spittin' day, we stop in at a little book/coffee shop for our afternoon cuppa. The tea was good -- hot, in a little personal pot -- and we even stocked up on a favorite brand not available in Ottawa.

Having finished my tea, I began my mandatory perusal of the bookshelves (hey, there are way worse OCDs to have). As usual, I looked for the Science and/or Philosophy sections.

The closest they had was a "Spirituality" shelf, hawking among other authors and titles: newage guru Deepak Chopra, demonstrated psychic fraud Sylvia Browne, and The Secret. On the plus side (albeit bizarrely classified) was Forty Days And Forty Nights, Matthew Chapman's account of the Kitzmiller Intelligent Design trial. But altogether, a wee bit disappointing.

Also on the plus side, they had an anti-censorship display of books which have been banned, somewhere, sometime; appropriately wrapped in chains or enclosed in little jail cells.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

God has a horrible plan for your life

My last 10-15 years as a Christian were increasingly liberal (I would probably have been best described as universalist Christian agnostic), and even in my more evangelical days, I was never big on the idea of damnation, hellfire and brimstone, preferring the seemingly more benevolent idea of Hell as separation from god for those who would rather not be with god anyway.

But, on my recent travels across the northern midwest US, I had a couple of encounters that reminded me of the enormity of the horrors that fundagelicals believe are in store for those who live without Jesus (not to mention the glee with which many of them consider and recount said horrors).

My first encounter was with a religious radio station that I came across while searching for a weather report. The news got progressively more Christian-slanted as we listened. Alas, it was not followed by any weather forecasts, but next came a sermon, titled: "God has a Horrible Plan for your Life". In spite of myself, I decided to listen for a bit. OK, so God has a horrible plan for my life, *UNLESS* I have decided to devote myself to God, so I can be saved and then God will plan good things for me. BUT, how do I know if I have, in fact, been saved? Well, of course, I am not saved by anything that I do, but by my faith, but I only know if I really am properly faithful by checking what I do against various proclamations in the bible. OK, been there, done that. I apparently don't have the right kind of faith, so I guess I get the horrible plan - time to turn off the radio and go off in search of a laundromat in town anyway.

So there we were at the laundromat in L'Anse, Michigan. And on the bulletin board at the front was the second encounter - a large poster inviting one and all to "A Dramatized Real Life Presentation You'll Never Forget": Heaven's Gates and Hell's Flames". This appears to be a production syndicated to local churches, which is designed to put the fear of eternal damnation into the audience by dramatizing cases of individuals getting sent to hell because their names were not "written in the book of life". (For an example, see, though I recommend extreme caution for anyone with casein allergies.)

All of which makes me think about cognitive dissonance, which we recently discussed at our local godless book club meeting. Surely the idea of a loving God sending people to hell must be one of the prime sources of cognitive dissonance for Christians (right up there with the existence of so many non-Christian religions, or even not-the-right-kind-of-Christian religions). But apparently, a little (or even a lot of) cognitive dissonance doesn't dissuade anyone from anything. On the contrary, from what I have been reading, a *little* cognitive dissonance can actually encourage people to more firmly internalize ideas and principles. Hmm - maybe if we rationalists find a way to be a bit less rational, it would make rationalism more believable?!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A Tourist's Guide to Deepest Darkest Morris

Morris, Minnesota: a sleepy (and seemingly typical) little prairie town -- a row of grain elevators by the train tracks, a one-screen cinema that has seen better days, a brick-front main street featuring a coffee shop, hardware and farm implement dealer, the town hall, etc. But reliable intelligence told us that this little town is harboring a secret, that it is the source of a baneful emanation that spreads far beyond its borders. It was to search out the source of this influence that we journeyed across fifteen hundred miles of blazingly hot asphalt, enduring moderate (by Canadian standards) gas prices, polite American customs agents, occasional mosquitoes, and filthy toilets in cheap campgrounds.

Our initial survey of the territory raised more questions than it answered: What is the meaning of "Biomass Conversion Facility"? This structure on the hill -- is it just a wind turbine? Or a cover for some more sinister purpose? What is the bone-chilling, teeth-gritting sound that emanates from the local cemetery at hourly intervals?

Why are there train tracks -- but never any trains? And why is the name of local "Potato Park" given in French?

The first stop on our quest was this little coffee shop -- ostensibly run by a church, yet we had heard rumours of less holy goings-on. While we sipped our afternoon tea (BTW: what is it with American coffee shops and tea? Coffee may only require 180 degrees Funnyheit, but good tea requires boiling water. But I digress.) Theo found our first positive lead -- the signs of a shadowy local cabal known as the Pharyngulista.

Indications were that the conspiracy centered on the science building at the local university. A search of the building led us to this locked door. There was (apparently) no one inside, but the posted pictures tell a tale -- in each one, the same man appears, in company with certain other individuals already known to us. We set out again to search the area for the mysterious individual known only by the code letters "PZ" -- the leader of the Pharyngulists!

A few minutes later, we spotted our quarry: the man in the pictures! Cautiously we approached, bearing what we hoped was a suitable tribute -- a libation prepared in an exotic land (Quebec), where they speak a language known only to the natives, bearing symbols indicating our sympathy with his cause. The cold, haughty eye (ie. the one not covered by the eye-patch) regarded us for a moment, then softened as he examined the bottles. "Your offering is acceptable. Come, you will dine with me".

Dinner conversation ranged from the weather to the quickest path to world domination. "Pinker gives too much credence to evolutionary psychology", PZ intoned, pulling a mewing kitten from a basket and biting its head off. "Oh don't worry", he said, noting my expression "These are rejects from the Biomass Project -- the fur clogged the piping, so we had to switch to a less hairy mammal". "You mean like naked mole rats, or porpoises?" I asked, wondering a bit anxiously which non-hairy mammal they were using. "No", replied PZ, "Porpoises have too much body fat, and the process works best with something around 60 kilograms. Frosh, for example, have proven quite suitable....By the way, is there something wrong with your dinner? You've barely touched it. This restaurant is usually excellent, but if the kitchen is slipping I shall have to order the chef".

"Um, order the chef to do what?" I inquired nervously.
"No, not to *do* anything" he said "I'll just order the chef. In a light wine sauce, I think"
I quickly assured him that the pasta was excellent, but pleaded a mild stomach upset brought on by enduring too many Culver's frozen custards along our journey through the Midwest (It was research, OK? I had to test all the flavours.)

After dinner, we were conducted into PZ's inner sanctum, where he permitted his likeness to be recorded, seated on the Octopus Throne.
There we were introduced to the famed Trophy Wife, and served a lovely cup of tea at just the right temperature. Somewhat later, we took our leave - it would be an evening we would not soon forget.