Now I’m a little embarrassed to own an iPhone

I was just reading this analysis of costs and profits of the iPhone, and it’s rather dismaying. It’s largely about how the costs are distributed: the iPhone is assembled in China, and contributes to our trade imbalance, but it’s not because China has a technological edge — all the components are made in Japan, Korea, Germany, and the US, and just shipped to China for the final assembly by the cheap labor there.

The total component cost of an iPhone in 2009 was $172.46. Workers in China assemble the iPhone, but because their wages are low the assembly cost per phone (labeled manufacturing costs in the table below) is quite small, only $6.50 a phone. The total production cost per phone is $178.96.

Apple has a 64% profit margin on the iPhone! That’s not a surprise, though — I’m used to tech companies charging a premium price for the fancy toys, and Apple has never had a reputation as a budget brand. This is what surprised me:

For the sake of discussion, they assumed that assembly line wages in the U.S. are ten times higher than in China. Given that Chinese production workers earn roughly $1 an hour, that is not an unreasonable assumption. The higher wages would mean that the total assembly cost per phone would rise to $65 and the total manufacturing cost would approach $238. If Apple continued to sell the iPhone for $500, the company would still earn a very respectable 50% profit margin.

There is admittedly a very large difference between 64% and 50%, and I can understand why a company would balk at cutting profits by 14%, and it would be an irrational business decision to shift assembly to the US for reasons of national altruism. But still…50% seems obscene enough.

I hope Apple is at least paying respectable taxes on that profit. The article doesn’t say; I don’t have expectations that they are.

(Also on Sb)

Not like a worm?

Ann Coulter is back to whining about evolution again, and this week she focuses on fossils. It’s boring predictable stuff: there are no transitional fossils, she says.

We also ought to find a colossal number of transitional organisms in the fossil record – for example, a squirrel on its way to becoming a bat, or a bear becoming a whale. (Those are actual Darwinian claims.)

Darwin postulated that whales could have evolved from bears, but he was wrong…as we now know because we found a lot of transitional fossils in whale evolution. Carl Zimmer has a summary of recent discoveries, and I wrote up a bit about the molecular genetics of whale evolution. Whales have become one of the best examples of macroevolutionary transitions in the fossil record, all in roughly the last 30 years — which gives us a minimal estimate of how out of date Ann Coulter’s sources are.

But then she writes this, which is not only wrong, but self-refuting.

To explain away the explosion of plants and animals during the Cambrian Period more than 500 million years ago, Darwiniacs asserted – without evidence – that there must have been soft-bodied creatures evolving like mad before then, but left no fossil record because of their squishy little microscopic bodies.

Then in 1984, “the dog ate our fossils” excuse collapsed, too. In a discovery the New York Times called “among the most spectacular in this century,” Chinese paleontologists discovered fossils just preceding the Cambrian era.

Despite being soft-bodied microscopic creatures – precisely the sort of animal the evolution cult claimed wouldn’t fossilize and therefore deprived them of crucial evidence – it turned out fossilization was not merely possible in the pre-Cambrian era, but positively ideal.

And yet the only thing paleontologists found there were a few worms. For 3 billion years, nothing but bacteria and worms, and then suddenly nearly all the phyla of animal life appeared within a narrow band of 5 million to 10 million years.

It’s so weird to read that: yes, people have been predicting that the precursors to the Cambrian fauna would have been small and soft-bodied (what else would you expect), and that they would be difficult to fossilize…but not impossible, and further, scientists have been out finding these fossils. Somehow this is a refutation of evolution? What we’re seeing is exactly what evolution predicted!

What we have is a good record of small shelly fossils and trace fossils from the pre-Cambrian — before there were fully armored trilobites, there were arthropod-like creatures with partial armor that decayed into scattered small fragments of shell after death, and before that there were entirely soft-bodied, unarmored creatures that left only trackways and burrows. Even in this period Coulter wants to call abrupt, we find evidence of gradual transitions in animal forms.

And then to claim that there is an absence of transitional forms because all that was found were worms! Um, if you take an animal with an armored exoskeleton or bones, and you catch it before the hard skeleton had evolved, exactly what do you think it would look like? Like a worm.

As evolution predicted. As the evidence shows.

I can’t even guess what Ann Coulter was expecting a pre-Cambrian animal to look like. Not like a worm, apparently…but like what?

(Also on Sb)

Where not to find a date

Would you believe there is an online dating site, run by Randroids? It’s called the Atlasphere, and it’s the most ghastly horrible collection of self-centered narcissists all trying to make themselves attractive by fluffing up their egos even more. Take a look at the excerpts, and cringe. Here’s one example:

I love intelligent, sassy girls, particularly those working in consulting or investment banking (but other fields are great too). Really, nothing is hotter than an accomplished girl in a suit, as long as she is willing to settle down and have my children. I want a girl who will support my ambitions against the naysayers in society.

And that’s not the worst!

Why is it so hard for Expert Communicators to communicate?

Gee, they just get here, and what do they immediately start writing about? Accommodationism. Both Greta Christina and Stephanie Zvan rip into the subject right out of the starting gate. Greta Christina makes the excellent point that there are shades of grey and that diplomacy is not the same as accommodationism, although the accommodationists would like you to think it is. Meanwhile, Zvan tears into the Tribal Scientist, who has a terrible post accusing all those confrontationalists of making a false dichotomy between two polarized extremes…I just want to tell him to go read Greta and be done with it.

But I have a different issue to bring up. Why are the professional communicators who lecture at us on how to communicate so goddamned bad at communicating? We saw it with Matt Nisbet and Chris Mooney, and now here’s the Tribal Scientist amorphously hectoring everyone — I read the whole thing and still don’t have the slightest idea what he wants.

It’s the usual rancid mix: while declaring that there are rational, scientific ways to communicate, all he does is sneer at the New Atheists, calling them unscientific and working through his thesaurus to come up with a nice body of abusive remarks about them. I don’t mind — I’m quite capable of working up a good head of steam myself — but it’s bizarre and hypocritical to see someone berating others for being ranty and insulting while doing his best to be ranty and insulting himself. Obviously this expert on communications finds this a useful approach — either that, or he’s so self-unaware his entire philosophy is suspect.

And then there’s the usual high-horse tactic, where whatever it is he is doing is superior. He acknowledges that many New Atheists argue for a multitude of approaches, he dismisses that, too.

Yet there is an element of intellectual laziness in this view. Of course, no one approach in communication will reach all demographics, or solve all problems. Diverse approaches are indeed necessary. Yet this is not the same as saying all approaches are necessary. Some will conflict. Some will be resource hungry and have no hope of success for one reason or another. Identifying solutions to the problem of how best to communicate science in the face of religion will take more than guessing, hoping and shouting into echo chambers. Like anything in science, it demands research, critical thinking and evaluation. No act of communication should be above criticism or beyond the need for evidence, clarity and precision.

That makes no sense at all.

OK, so there are conflicting approaches. Now what? Does he imagine some utopian state where everyone agrees on everything and there is no dissent anywhere? Are we somehow hampered if we lack uniformity? That isn’t very scientific.

I don’t even know what the basis of his claim that some approaches are “resource hungry” means. For instance, I’m off in my little domain, doing what I do, having a grand time and apparently succeeding in my little niche. How am I a drain on the resources of the atheist movement? What would it even mean to say I have no hope of success, when he doesn’t bother to define success? If I shut up, will that suddenly endow other voices with more resources?

Contrary to the “scientist”, guessing certainly is a good approach — if he’d prefer fancier terms, it’s called making a hypothesis, implementing a test, and assessing the empirical results. Richard Dawkins thought The God Delusion was a good idea, but he couldn’t know for sure until it was published…and then he discovered that it was hugely popular, that it resonated with many minds, and that a strong, vigorous denunciation of religion was actually an extremely effective tool for communication. This is now denounced by the “scientists” who reject the empirical evidence of something in the neighborhood of 10 million copies sold as irrelevant. That’s just “shouting into echo chambers”, apparently.

And if you haven’t noticed, none of the New Atheists have ever argued that their work is above criticism — that’s the tactic of religion, which demands a special privileging of their beliefs.

I’d ask the Tribal Scientist for “evidence, clarity and precision” in support of his views, but if you read his post, or any of his others, you’ll find nothing — I have no clue what his position is, what he’s advocating, or what he’s griping about, other than that he thinks New Atheists are a bunch of big bad meanies. That’s not very compelling.

I also think he’s missed a very important point. Communication is an art. It is not amenable to being condensed to a formula, although it’s fair to say that the outcomes of communication can and should be measured. If one could find a concrete, inarguable result that showed that there was a form of communication that was a hundred times better than what I do, it would make no difference at all to me — I am who I am, I write as I do because I enjoy it, and I cannot artificially wedge myself into another style without destroying what I myself do. It just means that someone else can step up and do their thing and win fame and success and popularity and conquer the world for atheism…and I have no problem with that at all.

I just wish some of these critics had the talent to do it, rather than constantly carping that people like myself shouldn’t be ourselves.

Anti-caturday post

I have been trying to understand the peculiar popularity of these posts about sharp-clawed carnivores called “cats”, and near as I can tell it has something to do with the property of cuteness. “Cute” seems mostly undefinable, however, but usually seems to involve playful juvenile behavior by large-eyed creatures. This seems to qualify: Sepiolid burying behavior. It’s adorable!

It’s cute how it so quickly conceals itself to lurk and wait for prey to swim by.

I’m still trying to grasp the concept of cute, though. Is this cute? It’s a giant Pacific octopus swimming up an Alaskan creek.

Do you live near water? Then you are not safe. The giant tentacled molluscs will find a way to get to you, and I find that charming.

(Also on Sb)

I’m laughing, but it’s not great medicine

Aww, that’s kind of sweet. The creationists are trying to cheer me up while I’m on my sick bed. How else to interpret these wacky assertions from Austin Casey, a 19 year old student?

Science is fundamentally a search for the truth about the universe, and Perry’s acknowledgement of the holes in evolution theory manifests a much better understanding of science than Huntsman’s faith in scientists.

Cute. No, sorry, Perry doesn’t know anything about evolution, and acknowledging “holes” that don’t exist and denying the existence of processes well supported by the evidence is the antithesis of good science.

Scientific observations are classified into three categories: hypotheses, theories or laws. Hypotheses are the weakest interpretations of evidence, while theories garner more support. Laws are said to be the strongest explanations, but even they aren’t facts.

No, Casey is inventing a hierarchy that doesn’t exist. Which is more significant, Ohm’s Law or cell theory? Hawking’s theory of black holes, or the Hardy-Weinberg law? And hypotheses are a preliminary prediction about something; they aren’t in the same ballpark as theories and laws. A theory is “The grandest synthesis of a large and important body of information about some related group of natural phenomena”, according to Moore (from our intro textbook this year!) A law just refers to a body of observations that can be quanitatively summarized by a short mathematical (or in some cases, verbal) statement. I certainly do think that a law and a theory can be a statement of fact!

Moreover, the theory of evolution comes from one interpretation of available evidence. Contrary to Huntsman’s claim, the Republican Party is proving more scientific because of its legitimate recognition of the gaps in evolution.

To point out one weakness, evolution relies on the assumption that beneficial genetic information has been repeatedly added to genomes throughout the history of the universe. But not even Richard Dawkins, a leading evolutionary biologist from Oxford University, could name a single mutation that has added beneficial information.

Oh, piffle. Of course he can: read his books. Every evolutionary biologist can think of examples, and it’s trivial to find lists on the web. Biologists routinely identify traits with selective advantages.

It is not scientific when the Republican party denies reality.

I’m afraid it didn’t really cheer me up. I still feel icky and it’s no reassurance to know that clowns like Casey are lying in the newspapers.

(Also on Sb)

A goal to strive for

The American education system is a mess — thanks to the right wing cranks, we keep trying to apply free market principles to a process to which they don’t apply. Watching America deal with education is a lot like watching the old USSR trying to cope with competitive economies — that there’s a place for everything does not imply that one strategy is the solution for all problems.

What we ought to do is look at other countries around the world that have successful educational systems, and emulate them (isn’t that a good capitalist value? Steal the ideas that work?). I have a suggestion: Let’s steal Finland’s educational system.

The transformation of the Finns’ education system began some 40 years ago as the key propellent of the country’s economic recovery plan. Educators had little idea it was so successful until 2000, when the first results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year-olds in more than 40 global venues, revealed Finnish youth to be the best young readers in the world. Three years later, they led in math. By 2006, Finland was first out of 57 countries (and a few cities) in science. In the 2009 PISA scores released last year, the nation came in second in science, third in reading and sixth in math among nearly half a million students worldwide. “I’m still surprised,” said Arjariita Heikkinen, principal of a Helsinki comprehensive school. “I didn’t realize we were that good.”

In the United States, which has muddled along in the middle for the past decade, government officials have attempted to introduce marketplace competition into public schools. In recent years, a group of Wall Street financiers and philanthropists such as Bill Gates have put money behind private-sector ideas, such as vouchers, data-driven curriculum and charter schools, which have doubled in number in the past decade. President Obama, too, has apparently bet on compe­tition. His Race to the Top initiative invites states to compete for federal dollars using tests and other methods to measure teachers, a philosophy that would not fly in Finland. “I think, in fact, teachers would tear off their shirts,” said Timo Heikkinen, a Helsinki principal with 24 years of teaching experience. “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.”

There’s a brief summary of how they did it. I think the first and most important step was making a decision that education was important.

[Read more…]

As an American Atheist, I am disgusted by the 9/11 coloring book

The Christian Science Monitor has just posted an article titled “As an American Muslim, I am disgusted by the 9/11 coloring book“. It’s hard to believe someone considered this pile of violent jingo to be an appropriate subject for a kid’s coloring book.

“We Shall Never Forget 9/11: The Kids’ Book of Freedom,” was just released by Wayne Bell, publisher of Really Big Coloring Books Inc. in St. Louis. It begins with big graphic black-and-white drawings of bin Laden plotting the 9/11 attacks, then shows the burning towers, the hunt for bin Laden, and ends with a Navy SEAL shooting bin Laden as he hides behind a woman in Islamic garb.

Being the elusive character that he was, and after hiding out with his terrorist buddies in Pakistan and Afghanistan, American soldiers finally locate the terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. Children, the truth is, these terrorist acts were done by freedom-hating radical Islamic Muslim extremists. These crazy people hate the American way of life because we are FREE and our society is FREE.

Remember, kids, if you draw the effect of those bullets hitting the bad man, use your Scarlet crayola if you think there should be arterial spray!

You know, I think I’m disgusted by this as a human being; it doesn’t matter what your beliefs about religion are, this is simply the glorification of bloody violence.