Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Katrina: Two Years On

On the morning of the 29th of August 2005, one year ago today, Hurricane Katrina came ashore along the coast of Louisiana and Mississippi. I have written a great deal here about this storm, in addition to the all too often overlooked Hurricane Rita. On this second anniversary, it is appropriate to take stock of what has happened since the landfall of Katrina.

Perhaps one of the most surprising things is that, even after all this time, new victims of the storms are still being found. Although it is now becoming increasingly rare, every now and again there will be a report of yet another body being found that was missed in previous searches. Fairly recently, a body was discovered in a bath. In the last year though, probably the most high profile victim of the storms of 2005 has been Governor Kathleen Blanco. She has announced that she will not run for re-election. Her unpopularity in the aftermath of the storms made this a political necessity that even the power of her husbands political machine could not overcome.

As for people who were directly impacted by the storm, recently released figures suggest that there are still around 40,000 people living in those notorious FEMA trailers in the State of Louisiana. This number is likely to have to shrink soon, now it has been discovered that the trailers themselves may not be fit form human habitation, due to noxious chemicals. Who knows what indignities FEMA and other agencies will manage to visit upon those who have to be displaced, yet again.

Those displaced by the storms are not just located in Louisiana though. There are an estimated 70,000 people who are living outside the State who still want to return. These figures come from The Louisiana Recovery Corps.. Although these numbers are distressingly large, they also do not convey the full impact of the tragedy the occurred in Louisiana in 2005. They do not include the people who have decided not to return to Louisiana, scared off by the high price of accommodation and the now shocking murder rate in the City of New Orleans. In all likelihood, the full extent of the human tragedy will never really be known. It has been severe though.

In the City of New Orleans, although the Katrina anniversary shows like to emphasise how much better things have got, it is important to realise that such perspectives only appear when the City is viewed from certain angles. Sure, the French Quarter, which never flooded is now hosting groups of drunk tourists as before. However, what these optimistic views miss is the rest of the City. Consider the case of the Lakeview area. Before the storm this was a relatively affluent area. Unfortunately, it flooded badly. Now, only about 25% of residents have returned and are rebuilding. Many more of the buildings remain untouched since August 2005. Things in the much poorer Ninth Ward of the City are, if anything, a little worse. So, do not be fooled by the upbeat affirmations of the news anchors. There is still plenty of suffering and tragedy around and about the City of New Orleans.

This being said, it is also the case that not everyone has done badly in the aftermath of the storms. There has been a great deal of money promised to help rebuild the City of New Orleans. Unfortunately, a good deal less of this money has actually appeared. The rebuilding funds are supposed to be administered by The Louisiana Recovery Authority. Needless to say, although the claims to the Authority have been many, the actual payouts have been few. For the most part, the Authority specialises in issuing upbeat (though implausible) press releases and inventing ever more complex and Kafkaesque procedures that people making claims have to follow. Although the actual storm victims have not seen much benefit from the activities of the Authority, the consultants that have been hired to administer the funds seem to be doing very nicely.

The other two groups who seem to be doing rather well in the aftermath of the storms are developers (often from out of State) and property speculators. When Congress passed The Gulf Opportunity Zone Act, the idea was to encourage rebuilding in the areas of the Gulf Coast that were devastated by the storms of 2005. One provision in this Act created so-called 'Go Zones'. In a Go Zone, the Act provides for a bonus depreciation of 50% on construction projects that started after August 2005 and completed by the end of 2008. What this means in practice for developers is that for every $10 Million Dollars they invest, they will receive a tax credit of approximately $5.3 Million Dollars. Thus, as a result of the storms, there has been a rash of speculative development. This has produced a veritable bonanza for both developers and property speculators.

One unfortunate side effect of all this construction activity is that there are now plenty of big box stores, yuppie condo developments and unnecessary student apartment complexes being built. The presumed goal of this Act, to provide housing for ordinary displaced residents and those in FEMA trailers, has seemed to have been forgotten as people have used the Act to get rich(er) quickly. So, while there is plenty of expensive property for those with large bank rolls, the normal working people are rather less well served.

Another curious feature that has appeared since the storms is the 'pseudo-survivor'. These are people who were never really too badly affected by the Tempests, but had to put up with a few people staying at their house, for a few days. They can now claim to have PTSD and all sorts of other, high improbable afflictions, while garnering support for their 'bravery' from people elsewhere in the US and around the World. When this is done on blogs, this kind of activity is especially distasteful.

So, what has been learned since the time of the storms in 2005? The first lesson is that outside agencies, be they consultants, or the Federal Government cannot be trusted. The people who have really made the recovery efforts as successful as they have been are just regular people. There are the church groups who have volunteered their time and labor. There are the neighbours who have helped one another out. These are not people with mission statements, or fancy web sites. They are just people getting stuck in and getting the job done.

Fairly recently I heard a tale from someone who had wanted to come down and spend some of their holiday time working. They contacted a national organization, who should have shown interest in their skills. To their amazement, this organization required them to make a cash donation, in addition to paying for their own accommodation and food, before their application would even be considered. So instead, they bought a tent, got in their car, and went looking for people who needed some help. It did not take them long to find folks who welcomed the assistance. Thus, it seems that the conclusion after two years must be something like 'trust people, not organizations, when it comes to surviving and recovering from Hurricanes'.

In closing, I want to share an amazing video I found on YouTube, that was taken during Hurricane Katrina by the Vaccarella Family of St. Bernard Parish. The video is quite long (circa 10 mins.), but worth watching. It shows the water level around their house rising to the level of the roof as the storm surge arrived. It is some amazing footage, not least because it shows the efforts of people helping one another out, both during and after the storm.

Finally, let us not forget the many people (how many, we shall probably never know) who lost their lives during the Storms of 2005. Let us hope that the rest of this years Hurricane season remains quiet in the Gulf of Mexico.

The CP

Sunday, August 26, 2007

A Great Net Music Source...

I feel bad. I have not been paying sufficient attention to this blog of late. There are a bunch of reasons for this. The new semester is only part of it. It is not like I have not been thinking about this blog. I have some great ideas and research for a bunch more posts. However, writing posts takes free, or spare time. Time like this is something I have increasingly little of at the moment. This is a good thing in general, but bad for the blog, so stay with me a while.

However, today I ran across something that I really want to share. It seems that there is a new Internet music service available. It is located at I strongly recommend it (N.B. you will need to enable JavaScript). There are many full songs available free at this place. No registration. No bullshit. Just good music for free. It is also totally legal, due to an interesting deal having been stuck in France. Check this place out!

That being said, the interface is a bit clunky. It may take a few screen to find the artist you want. The search function can be a bit hit, or miss, but digging through the menus can usually find most bands a person might want. Some artists have complete albums available (e.g Jethro Tull). Others (e.g. Joy Division and Big Country) only have a few tracks from each album. Any which way, it is a great resource. As I type this, I have Salif Keita playing. Enjoy! More 'normal' postings soon, I promise.

The CP

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Rhythm Of The Semester

The semester has started. All the classes have been met for the first time. Each class has their syllabus. The lost students have been pointed in the correct direction. All those annoying last moment details have been sorted. Things are ready to go for the semester, almost. Yet, there is still something missing -- the rhythm of the semester.

One of the downsides of a long break from teaching is that one gets out of the regular habits which make a semester run smoothly. Although the research time during the Summer is wonderful, it does mean that the internal sense of pace which is essential to a semester goes astray. With everything ready to go for the new school year, this is the one thing that is missing.

Usually, by the second week of the semester, the rhythm reappears. There is a certain periodicity and pulse to the way a semester runs. There is the schedule of the classes. There is the regular round of meetings. When the rhythm of the semester reasserts itself, all these things naturally follow one another. Until it does, it is hard to get used to being back in semester mode again. To paraphrase Peter Gabriel, it is time for 'the rhythm to take control'. Then the semester will be fully up and running again.

The CP

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Once More Unto The Breach...

Before the Battle of Harfleur, King Henry V rallies his troops in Shakespeare's play, with the following lines,

"Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,..."

(Act III, Scene 1).

It is my tradition to utter these lines, below my breath, as I leave my office on the way to my first class on the first day of the new school year. Tomorrow I will utter these lines, in accordance with the tradition.

The Summer break will be over tomorrow. Overall, it has been a good and productive one. As is usually the case, I have not managed to get quite as much accomplished as I had hoped. However, a great deal of research has been done and written up. One paper I have been plugging away at is quite close to completion. It should not take me long to get it finished and submitted.

It is also going to be a busy semester. Just last week, I got the contract from the publishers for a book chapter that needs to be finished and submitted by the end of the year. I have also had a paper, largely composed of entirely new research, accepted at a large and important conference in October. Both these projects and the one that remains from over the Summer will have to be finished during this semester. This should keep me out of trouble.

The last week or so has spun past as a blur. There have been the class materials to get prepared. There has been the arrival of the new truck and the finding of a buyer for the old one. There have been pre-semester get togethers. There was the necessity of getting the laptop fixed. There was also an incident involving my house, a tree branch and the loss of both cable and telephone lines. In addition to all this, there have been some rather special happenings. So, things have been busy, but in a curious way, fun and wonderful.

Thus, I am ready for the battle that will be the new academic year. I feel ready to face it with stiff, yet supple sinews, summoned and hearty blood and with a joyous countenance. Let the games begin!

The CP

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Laptop Down!

Things have been busy of late, with the new semester coming up and some other exciting things going on. However, the main reason for the lack of posts for the next couple of days is that the screen on my laptop has died. This makes doing pretty much anything a might on the tricky side. I have ordered new parts and they should be in in a couple of days. However, until then, things are going to be a bit quiet here. Sorry.

The CP

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Could Dinosaurs Have Had Language?

Philosophers have historically had a reputation for coming up with some pretty outlandish ideas, from time to time. Today, I want to have a go at joining the philosophers with strange ideas. The question which forms the title to this post is not as entirely barmy as it may appear, for reasons I will outline below.

Although not entirely uncontroversial, some theorists are now beginning to accept the idea that dinosaurs are not entirely extinct, in the manner they have traditionally thought to be. The fiction of Jurrassic Park notwithstanding, the notion that dinosaurs gave rise to modern birds is one that is now becoming part of the mainstream. As has been noted here before, one consequence of this is that the question 'Which came first, the chicken or the egg?' will now have to be updated to 'Which came first, the dinosaur or the egg?'. There may be other interesting implications too though. It is one of these that I will explore.

A while ago, I mentioned a recent report that discussed new evidence that children engage in deceptive behaviors when as young as six months of age. This is just one bit of evidence that behaviors and abilities that have traditionally been assumed to be quite sophisticated, actually appear a good deal sooner than was initially thought. Something similar is happening when it comes to abilities and where they are traditionally assumed to show up in the evolutionary hierarchy. Recently, I saw some strong experimental evidence, which is as yet unpublished, demonstrating numerical abilities among reptiles. Such abilities have, until now, only been seen in humans and primates. If this trend continues, then the question in the title of this post may not be quite a preposterous as it may initially sound.

One of the reasons this fact is of interest has to do with the parts of the brain that are shared by so-called 'higher animals' (like primates) and reptiles. There are parts that all species have in common. As Linden argues elegantly in his recent book The Accidental Mind (2007), apparent oddities in human cognition, such as the phenomenon of Blindsight can be easily explained by the brain having multiple systems, some more primitive than others, for performing particular tasks. If the 'language instinct', as Pinker calls it, could be shown to have causes in parts of the brain that reptiles or birds share with humans, then it is at least possible that dinosaurs might have had analogous abilities.

In fact, I think that an even stronger conjecture can be maintained. One of the distinctive features of language is that it has syntax. Yet, it has been clearly established that songbirds have syntactic abilities. Thus, given the relatively close connection between dinosaurs and birds, it is not impossible that they too might have also shared this ability.

Now, I am not suggesting that we could have had a conversation with a dinosaur. After all, even communicating with language trained apes is not entirely straightforward. However, there are two points I want to make here. The first of these is that the question posed at the beginning of this post is not quite as outlandish as it might initially appear. The second point, is that looking for evidence of rudimentary linguistic abilities in lower animals may be more fruitful than initially it may seem. To the best of my knowledge, no serious researcher has looked at the topic of language in dinosaurs. I think, given the evidence briefly discussed here, that it may be an interesting research direction.

The CP

Saturday, August 11, 2007


Most people are aware that Louisiana is located in a rather warm and humid part of the world. However, even by our local standards, the past few days have been hot. Normally at this time of year, the mean temperature us around 83 degrees F (28 degrees C), with highs around 91 degrees F (32 degrees C) and lows around 74 degrees F (23 degrees C). Today though the temperature peaked at 101 degrees F (38 degrees C), equaling the previous maximum recorded today, back in 1925.

Of course, humidity also plays a part. Today the heat index reached 110 degrees F. This is hot enough to be dangerous. We will be under a heat advisory until at least 9pm this evening, meaning that the heat index will be above 105 degrees F until then. The low tonight (without heat index) is forecast to be 81 degrees F. This is too damn hot, if you ask me.

With weather like this, one has to change the way one goes about doing things. I considered attacking my lawn today, but decided against it, as it would be potentially dangerous. Instead, I ran some errands. However, the heat was too much for the rather pathetic A/C in my truck. It just could not keep up. I was glad to get back inside after that little foray. Rather than working in the yard, I elected to do some carpentry work that I have been meaning to get around to for some time. At least this weather makes jobs like that get done at last.

Things are not looking like they will get much better in the next few days either. Perhaps by next weekend, the temperature will drop, if we get some clouds and rain. Of course, this will send the humidity up, but one cannot have everything.

Being forced to stay inside is also conducive to the other great obsession in this part of the world at this time of year, watching the Caribbean and the Atlantic for potential hurricanes. In the near term, things are looking pretty good. However, there is a tropical wave that is coming off the coast of Africa. This looks like it has a fair bit of potential to develop. Looking at the predictions of the various weather models, this could put a storm into the Gulf of Mexico is eleven days, or so. Let us hope the models are wrong. In the meantime, thank goodness for air conditioning...

The CP

Thursday, August 09, 2007

IP And Sleeping Dogs

Before the War of Jenkin's Ear, British politician Horace Walpole recommended to "Let sleeping dogs lie". When war was declared, he also famously remarked "They are ringing the bells now; they will be wringing their hand soon". Something I ran across today made me think of the sleeping dogs remark.

It seems that multi-national Johnson and Johnson has decided to sue The American Red Cross. Initially, this might appear to be a simple case of rampant corporate greed. After all, the Red Cross is supposed to be a charitable organisation. Unfortunately, things are not quite as simple as this initial impression might suggest. It seems that nobody in this fight is going to end up looking good.

Really, this little spat is a symptom of the wider malaise of the world of Intellectual Property (IP) having gone completely mad. The noxious RIAA are trying sue the living daylights out of anonymous college students, and technically challenged grandmothers. And now we have two organizations, that should have better things to do, fighting over the symbol of a red cross.

The basis of the suit is that Johnson and Johnson managed to get a trademark on a red cross back in the Nineteenth Century, before the Red Cross organisation was recognised in the USA. So, in one sense, the makers of K-Y Jelly look bad for the reasons that appear obvious. However, there is a deeper problem.

Anyone who lived through the Hurricanes of 2005 knows that the Red Cross, while doing some good work, is very far from a perfect organisation. Back then I wrote about the excessively officious procedures of the Red Cross. Since then, a great deal of criticism has been leveled at the organisation, for their rather greedy approach to fund raising, particularly after disasters. Thus, this is not an organisation that needs to have more negative publicity. This law suit though provides just this.

The level of annoyance and frustration that people have with the American Red Cross can be seen in the discussion about this story in the comments section of the Slashdot web site. Although commentators initially target the multi-national, eventually some rather unsavory tales about the Red Cross emerge. So, it seems that on this one, both side lose.

This then is the reason why this silly IP issue one is one on which both sides should have left well alone. Had the American Red Cross not decided to cash in on the red cross symbol, then the suit would have never arisen. That being said, Johnson and Johnson also look bad. This is then the reason why all parties in this fight would have been much better off following Horace Walpole's advice and let sleeping dogs lie.

The CP

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Trucks And Luck

I drive a truck. It is really quite old and is pretty nasty. It only cost me $1000 about nine years ago, so it has served me pretty well. However, it is now getting to an age where it cannot really be trusted, especially on the highway. For this reason, with a certain sadness, I have decided that it is time to look for new transportation.

This morning, I stopped in at a car place that has a pretty good reputation. Quite a few faculty members have bought cars and trucks there, with good outcomes. I also know the owner. He is the boyfriend of the mother of a student of mine. One of my odd quirks is that I hate automatic transmissions. He knows this. This also makes finding a second hand truck a little more tricky. The owner was pleased to see me. He had a truck that he wanted to show me.

The truck was a Toyota, a make I like a lot. It was a pleasing color. It was a standard. It even had cruise control and a good sound system. I was pretty impressed. The price was not bad either. However, there were a couple of down sides. First, someone else is interested in it, so I will have to move quickly. Second, it is four wheel drive, which is bad for gas mileage. Third, it was ten years old and had quite a high mileage. So, although I was pleased, I was not entirely happy. I told the guy that I would call him tomorrow. In the meantime, a student of mine is doing a carfax search on the VIN number.

This evening though, I had a monthly meeting of a non-profit, that I sit on the Board of. As is our tradition, after the meeting was over we all went and had a meal together. Over supper, I got talking to a fellow who owns a truck of the same make. I asked him about his and what he thought of it. He told me that he loved his truck, but was having to sell it, as it no longer quite fitted with his family needs. As this is a truck (and a guy) I have known well for years. I asked for more information.

So, as a result of an innocuous question, I have found a new truck. The one I will now buy from my friend is two years younger than the one I looked at this morning. It does not have four wheel drive, it also has half as many miles on it. It is two thousand dollars cheaper and, best of all, it is a truck I know. I an ecstatic!

There is a saying that it is better to be lucky than rich. I am not certain that this is entirely true. However, when it comes to trucks, I am very happy to be lucky. When I checked my e-mail this morning, I learned that I have had a paper accepted at a good conference in October. This should have tipped me off that this would be a good day. Now, I know for certain that it is. Tomorrow, I will have to organise new insurance and the like. However, I should have a new truck very soon and I am very excited. Isn't it amazing how such little things can thrill even the philosophical mind?

The CP

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Towards The End Of Summer...

I especially like the end of the Summer break. Although, this being Louisiana, the temperatures and heat indices are insane, it is a nice time on our campus. It is still too early for students to start appearing, but there are a few faculty around.

The semester is a couple of weeks away, so people are beginning to drift back, to tidy their offices and to begin to get ready. Most people have completed their traveling. A few of the new faculty are beginning to show up. Those of us who have been working on research throughout the Summer are rushing to finish up our papers and talks. We have had the building to ourselves, with just a few office staff and janitors as company. Over the Summer, a relaxed camaraderie between faculty, staff and workers has arisen.

For these reasons then, there are a few more people around. Also, most people are in quite a relaxed frame of mind. There is plenty of time to stop and pass the time, catch up on news. Of course, this is the lull before the storm of the semester, but it is a time to relish.

Today, having dug my way through the usual pile of e-mails, answering some and deleting the many offers for cheap drugs and congratulations for having won lotteries I never play, I was scanning through a book for a reference. Across the hall, the office staff were gossiping and listening to music. Suddenly, two people I know appeared outside my office in the corridor, with a small fridge and a box of books on a dolly. This was a bit of a surprise. I was even more surprised when they announced that they were moving into an office down the hall! I thought that they were all full.

After a bit of confusion, it turned out that they had managed to get out of the elevator on the wrong floor and I was not to have new office neighbours after all. However, I did offer them a hand with their heavy load. One reason for this is that I actually quite like physical labor. The other reason was that this was a chance to socialise a little. One of the individuals has been around, teaching through the penal servitude of the Summer session. The other has been away teaching elsewhere, but has returned to teach with us. Thus, it was nice to catch up.

As it happened, this was a good call. There were a few piles of box that needed to be moved from one office to another. This was easy work, but made all the more fun when done in a group. Once the task was completed, we went and had a tasty and relaxed lunch. This is the kind of lunch that is really enjoyable. Throughout all these activities we chatted. There was a great deal to talk about. There was University gossip and conjectures on various possible future courses of events. There were humorous anecdotes. It was a thoroughly cordial gathering.

It is little chance events like this, that mostly seem to happen at this time of year, when people are not frantically running for classes, or meetings, that make this time of year so enjoyable. I hope there are a few more days like today before the full horror of the semester breaks upon us all. I hope too that other professors reading this are having, or will have, a few nice days like this before it is time to put the shoulder to the proverbial grind stone, when our personal salt mines go back into full scale operation.

The CP

Monday, August 06, 2007

Horoshima Day

Today in the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. The video below illustrates what the bomb looked like from the air, when it went off.

My Mother tells the story of when she heard about it. The World then was apparently pretty jaded after the ravages of the Second World War. Nonetheless, upon hearing the news, many people responded by going to church. If you look at the images in the following video (which may shock some, so caution is advised), it is obvious why some my have felt so inclined.

A device 'Brighter than 10,000 Suns' is such a dreadful thing, that can bring about such horrors. The question is, has the World become any wiser since that time?

J. Robert Oppenheimer summed things up nicely, after the event, with the following comments,

"We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, "Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." I suppose we all thought that one way or another."

The CP

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Power Of Old Documents?

This morning, I got a call from a neighbour. It seemed that they had come across an old document that they thought might be important. They wanted me to have a quick look. This simple request turned into an interesting day of looking at old documents, with some possibly surprising and potentially significant consequences.

Let me begin with a bit of context. Some time ago, the land that adjoins our properties was bought by some developers. They took the previously rural land and have been building upon it. There was a great deal of opposition to this development from the community. However, with the assistance of some crooked and corrupt politicians, the developers were able to get their way.

The document that my neighbours wanted me to look at was an old plat, from 1933. For those who are not familiar with the terminology, a plat is a diagrammatic document that specifies property ownership and usage. On the old plat, there was a annotation that there was a forty foot right of access that ran along the edge of the land that is being developed, immediately adjacent to our properties. This right of access, was news to us all. We resolved to try and find out who had that right of access. This seemed like an interesting historical artifact, but little else.

When I returned home, I recalled that I had copies of a number of documents pertaining to the ownership of my property, from the local court house. I was provided with these when I bought the land. Although I had looked at them then, I could not recall in too much detail whether they might have some relevant information to the right of access, so I dug them out.

Most of the documents were fairly straightforward and of little interest. They concerned the purchase of the land and the passing of it to the wife and son, when the husband of the previous owner died. However, there was also another document that I had not paid too much attention to previously. This was a long and very complicated document specifying the division of land, including the land which I now own, between seven relatives, when another person had died. What immediately got my attention this time was the date. It was dated 1933 and even was signed in the same month as the plat.

As I ploughed through the copy of this old document, I came across something remarkable, that I had never noticed before. The relevance to the question of the right of access suddenly became clear. Let me quote the relevant sections (do not feel compelled to read this - I will paraphrase below):

"The eastern forty feet of this lot, however, is hereby subject to and there is hereby created thereon by the parties hereto a servitude of passage and of way, the whole distance thereof north and south...[there is a long and detailed description of the location here, which matches the plat]...for the use and benefit and in favor of the following described property now belonging to [NAME 1], to-wit;

[Another detailed paragraph long property description]

And the right is hereby conferred unto the said [NAME 1], her heirs and assigns, and [NAME 2] and [NAME 3], or either of them, their heirs and assigns, to dedicate said servitude of passage to public use when any one of the owners of the property on the east or on the west of said right-of-way so desire; but until so dedicated, said servitude of passage and of use to be considered as a private servitude for the benefit of the said property of [NAME 1] and of the property herein described."

The reason that this is of interest is that it provides the basis of the right of way that appeared on the plat. What is perhaps more interesting is that this right of way seems to be triggerable by the 'owners of property on the east or the west'. Both my neighbours and I are the property owners to the west!

Of course, there are many questions that need to be resolved. For instance, does the right of servitude carry over when the property was sold? Has this right ever been dissolved? However, as I know the lawyers of the developers and they are none too sharp, it is just possible that my neighbours and I may have a claim against the developers, based upon this right of servitude. They may have to buy it back from us.

I spent most of this evening digging around in the various legal databases that cover Louisiana law, and the judgements of Louisiana cases, where rights of servitude were at issue. For the most part, this was rather uninformative. Most cases seem to concern fights over access to waterways and tussles between municipalities and property owners. However, what little information I found that was relevant gives some small grounds for optimism.

Tomorrow, I will have a word with some people who know a great deal more about the law than I. Fortunately, I have an ex-student who is an expert in this kind of matter. However, what I believe this does clearly demonstrate is both the importance and intrinsic interest of old documents. At the very least, today I have learned a great deal about the history of my land and the land around it.

The CP

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Bad Statistical Inferences

As a general rule, people are not too good at making statistical inferences. This is obvious from the fact that lottery tickets sell so well. As a matter of fact (and not too many people are aware of this fact), buying a lottery ticket does not statistically significantly increase one's chances of winning. Why is this you might ask. Think about it for a moment.

Suppose the odds of winning on a particular lottery is in the order of one in 32 million. Buying a ticket thus increases one's chance of winning by one thirty-second of a million. This amount is so small that it falls below the level of statistical significance. This is the reason why this fact about lottery tickets is the case.

One can see something similar in games of chance. Consider Roulette. If one observes people playing Roulette, or even hears someone talking about playing, they will say things like "Red has got to come up soon!" Unfortunately, this is not true. For any particular spin of the wheel, the chances of the ball landing on red is just a little below 50% (it is a little below, due to 0 and 00). Even if red has not come up for a number of spins, this fact does not change. The chance is a little below 50% for each spin of the wheel. The wheel has no memory. So, the results of previous spins have no influence upon the next one.

Something similar applies to coin tosses. I just tossed a coin three times. On each occasion, it came up tails. Suppose you were asked to bet on the outcome of the next toss of the coin. Some people would be tempted to guess that the next toss would yield the result heads, as it was 'due to come up'. Of course, this is rubbish. As a matter of fact, when I tossed the coin for a fourth time, the result was another tails. Actually, heads did not come up until the eighth toss of the coin. The coin also came up heads on the ninth and tenth toss.

These facts help to illustrate another salient fact. Out of ten coin tosses, seven came up tails and only three came up heads. However, we know that the chance of one side or the other coming up is 50%. What these results help illustrate is that the chance of a particular side coming up is 50% on average. With a small number of tosses, like just ten, this statistical fact is of little relevance to predicting the actual behavior of the coin.

You might wonder why I am bothering discussing statistical inferences and the problems that they can give rise to, at all. What motivates me here is an especially poor example of statistical inference that has been annoying me in a television commercial.

On certain channels, at certain times, there is a commercial for the medication Valtrex. Apparently, Valtrex helps to suppress genital herpes. Presumably, the goal of the commercial is to persuade sufferers of this affliction to ask their physicians to prescribe Valtrex. However, the way the commercial makers go about achieving this goal involves some especially shoddy and misleading statistical inference.

At one point in the commercial, the voice over reads a caption that is also shown on the screen. The text here informs the viewer that,

"One study found that up to 70% of people who had genital herpes got it from their partners when they had no signs of an outbreak."

This sounds pretty worrying doesn't it? However, look at the claim a little more closely and the dubious slight of hand that is being pull off here becomes obvious.

Consider the following questions: If only 'one study' found this result, what did the other studies find? How large was the sample size of the cited study? Were the people looked at in this study picked at random? Where was this 'study' published? Who conducted this study? Without some answers to these questions, this supposed statistical 'fact' is close to being meaningless. In all likelihood, the manufacturers 'cherry picked' this result to maximise the chances of selling their product. With so little information provided, it is almost always possible to conduct a 'study' to produce whatever results one wishes.

As a matter of fact, this so-called 'fact' does little more than create what is sometime called FUD - "Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt". Notice though that by using the term 'study' and citing a putative statistical value, this claim attempts to convey the authority of science. In reality, witchcraft is about as trustworthy.

To make matters worse, after the presentation of the above quoted claim, an actor offers an interpretation for the viewer that is even more confusing. They say,

"This means that I could pass on herpes at any time."

Once again, this is palpable nonsense, even if one accepts the statistical claims as being reliable. Again, the goal appears to drive home FUD.

It seems to me that this commercial is at the very least irresponsible. It plays upon people's poor skills at statistical inference. To make matters worse, this is a claim that is being promoted by a pharmaceutical company. As this type of corporation has to rely upon statistical evidence when evaluating the safety and effectiveness of their products, the statistical confusion presented in this commercial suggests that they should not be trusted at all.

The CP

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Domestic Affairs And An Invitation

Today is a bit of a mess. I am having to sit at home and wait for my new refrigerator to be delivered. This means that I have to work from home, which makes me less efficient. However, it is a necessary evil.

The thing which I find a little strange is that I am actually quite excited at the prospect of the new fridge. This is a novel sensation for me. Never before in my life have I been excited about a domestic appliance before. I am not sure whether this is a symptom of my beginning to get older, or whether it is a reaction to the horrors of having to live out of an ice chest for a week. It really is amazing how having nothing but an ice chest to keep things cool in, makes life very difficult.

One reason I am excited about the new fridge is that it is much more efficient that the old one. Part of the reason this matters is, strangely enough, because of the potential for hurricanes in this neck of the woods. Some time ago, I bought a generator. Unfortunately, it was not powerful enough to run my old fridge. If a hurricane comes, then the power always goes out. Having food in fridges and freezers rot is one of the (many) unfortunate consequences of this. Now, I should be able to avoid this.

Earlier today, when I was just beginning my vigil waiting for the delivery of my new white goods, I got an unusual phone call. It seems that my University is undertaking an institutional review, that is being conducted by external consultants. For reasons I cannot fathom, our President has selected me to play in role in this process. This is rather outside the usual course of events.

As a rule, I am not too popular with many of the administration types. This is in part because I have a bad habit of asking awkward questions. I also tend to not accept what I am told, when it is completely implausible. This does not endear me to the suits. Now though, it seems they seem to think that I have something useful to offer. I naturally accepted the invitation. It should be interesting. I have never been mixed up in this kind of thing before.

The CP
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