26 December 2009


Advice to live by:
If you’re objecting to a logical argument, try asking yourself exactly which line in that argument you’re objecting to. If you can’t identify the locus of your disagreement, you’re probably just blathering.

— Steven Landsburg, The Big Questions

24 December 2009

Euphorbia pulcherrima

You know what my favorite Christmas decoration is?* The poinsettia. It's so elegant in its simplicity. Just one physical sub-component in two bold colors. It's just so... modern. I'm awed by it's parsimony. I wouldn't mind having them around all year, though I hear it is hard to get them to maintain their coloration when temperatures vary.

Poinsettia Fact of the Day: One family, the Eckes, control about half of worldwide poinsettia production.

(*Besides the Christmas tree, which is so delightfully absurd. Yeah, let's spend 11 months a year trying very hard to keep nature out of our homes, but then decide to drag an entire tree inside and erect it in the living room and then dress is up in shiny bits. My dog would spend the entirety of Advent being utterly confused by the presence of a tree inside the house, sniffing at it with a WTF is this doing here? look on his face. In that respect he was saner than we were.)

23 December 2009

Blog Break

Just a notice that there will be no blogging until next year from these parts owing to travel.

There are a couple of short items scheduled to post in the next couple of days, but other than that things will be quiet on this corner of the internet. There, there now. No need to cry...

In fact, by the time this posts if all goes according to plan I have already dropped Christmas presents off with Special Lady Friend in Philadelphia, proceeded to Livingston NJ, and secured a preposterously sized sandwich at Harold's Deli. As you read this, I should now be in NY enjoying the Chelsea Art Museum and the Bitforms Gallery. After Christmas it's back to Philly to catch a plane to Boston for more food and more art, then back to DC by way of Philly again for New Year's. Boom. Plans.

The Bishop of Norwich

ProfessorBainbridge.com | Modern Port

There are times I think I live in the wrong city during the wrong century. Reading the following BBC article triggered one of those moments:

[Port] conjures up images of huge wooden barrels in cobwebbed cellars; of raising glasses at regimental dinners; of strange table rituals with crystal decanters and grumpy conversations among red faced colonels - when the women have been asked to leave the room.

[Port winemaker Paul Symington] has had to think very hard about his future. "There's marvellous ceremony attached to port," he said. "At state banquets the Queen always makes the toast with port, and we don't want to lose that. "But we all live differently now. We don't have wine cellars. We eat around the kitchen table. We don't dress for dinner every night."

"We have to adapt our markets. We absolutely have to get more young people drinking port."
Fear not, Good Professor, I am one young port drinker ready to do my duty. If necessary, I will selflessly volunteer to drink several times my share of port for the good of tradition.

PS This had me scratching my head a bit:
I must confess to sometimes wishing that I lived back in the days when one dressed for a dinner replete with fine French wines followed by port and cigars. At least, I suppose, as long as I lived upstairs rather then downstairs!
I was under the impression the great Age of Port came about in large part because French wines were unavailable during one of England and France's perennial spats. I shall have to lay my hands on a copy of War, Wine, and Taxes: The Political Economy of Anglo-French Trade, 1689-1900 to find out more.

(Subject line reference)

22 December 2009


Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | A very interesting paragraph

Andrade said more research is obviously needed to find out how doodling helps us maintain our attention. However, her theory is that by using up slightly more mental resources, doodling helps prevent the mind from wandering off the boring primary task into daydream land. This study is part of an emerging recognition in psychology that secondary tasks aren't always a distraction from primary tasks, but can sometimes actually be beneficial.

There is more information here.

Ha ha! My incessant doodling has been vindicated by SCIENCE! Just as I always suspected.

Our own little Caracas-by-the-bay

San Francisco News | The Worst-Run Big City in the U.S.

I don't want to leave town without linking to this story about the gross incompetence of the San Francisco government that was floating around last week. It's really too astounding to excerpt.

I will pull out this quote though:
"San Francisco is like the really good-looking coed who can get away with being a jerk, while a less good-looking one couldn't," Kotkin says.
That's pretty cheeky, but also pretty true. If San Francisco, and California generally, were mediocre looking places to live they could never get away with their shenanigans.

Go read the whole article for yourself. Billions of dollars blatantly pissed away, thousands of employees unaccountable, "waste, fraud & abuse" beyond belief, borderline criminal mismanagement, the worst sorts of populism, governmental short-sightedness, petty bureaucratic in-fighting, defrauding voters, dereliction of duty: it's all in there. If Gavin Newsom started making it a habit to go about in public wearing fanciful military uniforms then we'd have a perfect little Banana Republic on our hands.

One theme I kept coming back to -- besides Throw the bums out! and Fetch the tar and feathers! And stout ropes! of course -- is Outcomes Matter. That seems self-evidently true, unless you happen to run a non-profit in SF. At one point non-profits were actually agitating to penalize any organization that could quantify their effectiveness because it would be "unfair"!

21 December 2009

"Don't bring a gun to a snowball fight"

Reason.tv: DC Cop vs. Snowball Throwers

Around 2.30PM on Saturday, December 19, residents at the intersection of 14th and U Streets NW started throwing snowballs at passing Hummers; they had gathered there as part of Twitter-organized happening.

One of the cars pelted was driven by a plainclothes police officer identified only as Det. Baylor. Baylor got out of his car and brandished his gun at the crowd.
Stay classy, MPD.

"Is a Beloved Dog 'Property' or 'Family'?"

Monday morning thought question:
Vermont Court: Is a Beloved Dog 'Property' or 'Family'? - ABC News

That's the question before the Vermont Supreme Court today in a case that could create a new legal doctrine for animal lovers who sue when their beloved pets die from acts of malicious intent.

Sarah and Denis Scheele of Annapolis, Md., who brought the case, lost their mixed-breed dog "Shadow" in 2003 when a man fatally shot him after the pet wandering into his yard.

Lewis Dustin, 76, of Northfield, Vt., pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of animal cruelty and was given a year probation. He also was ordered to perform 100 hours of community service and pay $4,000 to the Scheeles for the costs of adoption, medical bills and cremation.

But the Scheeles say that doesn't come close to covering the emotional cost inflicted by the traumatic incident and loss of companionship, equating the death of Shadow to the death of a child.

Rules giving special treatment to, for instance, dogs and horses that are not enjoyed by cows and chickens have always seemed intrinsically right to me, but I've never been able to justify why. I will never be able to shake the impression that killing and eating dogs is barbaric, but I can't honestly tell you why it's worse than eating pigs. I'd put this matter of killing pets in a similar category. Killing a pet seems self-evidently worse than killing livestock or other chattel, but I'm not sure what metaphysics you need to support that or what the other implications would be.

20 December 2009

"The Physics of Space Battles"

Gizmodo | The Physics of Space Battles:

Joseph Shoer is a Ph.D. candidate in aerospace engineering, studying how modular spacecraft could be assembled, and hoping that they will be the telescopes and human exploration vehicles of the future, and not for crushing the dreams of Martian colonists.

I had a discussion recently with friends about the various depictions of space combat in science fiction movies, TV shows, and books. We have the fighter-plane engagements of Star Wars, the subdued, two-dimensional naval combat in Star Trek, the Newtonian planes of Battlestar Galactica, the staggeringly furious energy exchanges of the combat wasps in Peter Hamilton's books, and the use of antimatter rocket engines themselves as weapons in other sci-fi. But suppose we get out there, go terraform Mars, and the Martian colonists actually revolt. Or suppose we encounter hostile aliens. How would space combat actually go?
A very fine piece of geekery. I think the only thing I would have added is the possibility of reflective coatings to defeat some laser weapons. Gauss guns also would be worth discussing. I also would add that if there are either relativistic speeds involved in a space battle, they're bound to be over very, very quickly, especially if Strong AIs are also in the mix.

19 December 2009

Statistical Education, part 2

Some further thoughts on the previous post about education and statistical quality assurance:
  • I am very willing to embrace better statistical models than we currently use. I just don't think QA is the best paradigm with which to build those models.

  • Are school administrators, union bosses and politicians capable of grokking the results of those models? If you're going to end up dumbing the results of the studies right back down to "X% of the students meet expectations," then why bother? As I wrote earlier this week, most people aren't very good at considering different types of failure modes or probabilistic thinking.

  • I'd like to see some evidence that even if the results of these statistical studies are understood they'll actually be acted upon. There's solid non-numerical evidence that some teachers are screw-ups, but there's never action taken on that knowledge. It's pretty well established that the marginal dollar of education spending doesn't boost performance at all, but the only solution that ever gets political traction is "throw more money at the problem." Why invest in a big new testing paradigm if the results of the tests are going to be ignored whenever they threaten the status quo?

Saturday Morning Video: Villareal's "Multiverse"

Special Lady Friend and I went to see Villareal's installation a couple of months ago. She kindly indulged me as I geeked out over his computer-driven masterpiece. Rhizome posted a video clip of it yesterday that I thought I'd pass along:

Villareal "Multiverse" National Gallery of Art, Washington DC from Walter Patrick Smith, AIA LEED-A on Vimeo.

18 December 2009

"Edwards Deming meets No Child Left Behind"

The Reality-Based Community | Mark Kleiman | Edwards Deming meets No Child Left Behind:

One of the striking features about NCLB is the primitive evaluation mechanism it employs. It’s pure defect-finding: measuring the percentages of kids of different types who fail to achieve some standard, as measured by standardized tests. Henry Ford would recognize it. W. Edwards Deming would be appalled by it. [...]

One of the reason Honda and Toyota ate General Motors’s lunch is that the Japanese car companies adopted statistical quality assurance while Detroit was still inspecting every part coming off the assembly line to see whether it was within tolerance. Why are we using those same outdated principles to manage the much more complicated problem of teaching children to read, write, and reckon?

Applying statistical QA to education would involve:
  • Selecting a sample of students for high-quality, expensive testing rather than settling for the level of observation we can afford to do on every student.
  • Using information about the whole range of performance rather than fixating on an arbitrary cutoff.
  • Taking measurements all through the school year, not just at the end, and getting the results back to the teachers promptly.
I think this is too clever by half.

The kind of statistical methods used in manufacturing rely assumptions you just can't make about students. You put n widgets through a mechanical process and it's safe to assume they're all going in more or less the same, they're all coming out more or less the same, deviations will be according to a known probability distribution (typically Gaussian), and you can measure that distribution accurately with sample much smaller than n. Widgets don't have any say in the outcome of the process they're being subjected to: they don't refuse to do their homework, or cut class, or get mono. Students don't go into the school year roughly interchangeable, and since students themselves and their families are such an important part of education, they're not all undergoing the same process. Most importantly, the goal of statistical QA is to turn out lots of items that are all the same. The goal of education is not uniformity, the goal is improvement. Or it had damn well better be.

Schools already try hard enough to juke the stats when every kid has to get tested. I'm loathe to give them the opportunity to fiddle with a sampling process too.

Yeah, the testing regime used for NCLB is bullshit. Wait, check that. The testing regimes I suffered through in school predate NCLB and they were still bullshit. We especially need to focus on the entire range of student aptitude, and not just meeting minimum standards. But I don't see how this sampling program is the answer. Especially this matter of testing continuously through the year. For one thing, we already use way too many school hours giving tests (both system-wide tests and the old-fashioned ones for class). Secondly, it sounds great to have rapid, standardized feedback for teachers, but shouldn't they be the one group of people who already have their fingers on the pulse of their classes? Don't students' grades and class behavior give them continuous feedback as it is?

(Via Megan McArdle)

Dead Presidents

MintLife Blog | Dissecting the Dollar Re-Design Project:

With faith in the US dollar hitting new lows, some believe the solution lies not in politics, but in design. Meet Richard Smith, architect of the ambitious and infectiously popular “dollar rede$ign project.” Smith is a creative strategy consultant who feels, “…our great rival, the Euro, looks so spanky in comparison,” to US currency that, “…it seems the only clear way to revive this global recession is to re-brand and re-design.” But rather than merely arguing for a new-look dollar, Smith drummed up an impressive wave of support for a redesign by allowing people to submit their own ideas to a web-based contest.
I want to credit the winning design, by 25 year old Kyle Thompson, for eschewing portraits of dead presidents. Instead, his bills feature political philosophers. I'm all for less honors being heaped on politicians.

It reminds me of the pound sterling notes printed in Scotland, especially those produced by the Clydesdale Bank. (Notes in Scotland are printed by three different banks, the other two being the Bank of Scotland and the Royal Bank of Scotland. Each uses their own designs.) Rather than statesmen, their notes tend to feature cultural and scientific luminaries: Rabbie Burns, Walter Scott, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, William Thompson (Lord Kelvin), Alexander Fleming and Adam Smith all appear. (Smith is also on the twenty dollar note Thompson designed.)

I'd like to see a similar shift for naming schools. If I were in charge I would make it illegal to name schools after politicians. Schools are buildings dedicated to intellectual pursuit; they should be named for those with intellectual achievements.

I don't particularly care for the reverse of Thompson's notes, which has designs of different orders of columns. I'd take a page from the most recent Scottish notes and use landmarks. Maybe the Grand Canyon, Half Dome, the Alamo, Independence Hall, the Gateway Arch, and the Chrysler Building. I'd probably also keep the reverse green. Why mess with something so iconic?


Britain bounces checks after 300 years - Yahoo! News: "LONDON (Reuters Life!) – After more than three centuries, the humble check is set to become a historic relic after British banks voted to phase it out in favor of more modern payment methods.

The board of the UK Payments Council, the body for setting payment strategy in Britain, agreed on Wednesday to set a target date of October 31, 2018 for winding up the check clearing system. The board is largely made up of Britain's leading banks.

'There are many more efficient ways of making payments than by paper in the 21st century, and the time is ripe for the economy as a whole to reap the benefits of its replacement,' Paul Smee, the council chief executive, said in a statement."

I'm a geek. I'd love to see people operating with some form of digital cryptobucks. I honestly don't see society being ready to abandon paper checks though.

The Reuters article focuses on the difficulty elderly people will have with this, which is fair, but I think it goes beyond that. Sure, you can replace point-of-sale transactions with card and pay your bills online, but what do you do when you want to send you nephew some money for his graduation? Or you need to send the kids to school with some money for the field trip? If you buy a used car from someone are you going to have to pay in cash? If you work a day or two for a company are they going to have to set up a direct deposit account for you?* Your friend books a vacation and you need to pay him back for your share of the hotel room -- what then? What happens when you need to renew your car registration? I don't know about you, but my DMV website is buggier than a dead goat in a swamp. I trust a check in an envelope more than I trust them to get the online billing right.

(* Do you really want every company you've ever work for to have your bank account number? I don't, especially since I got a letter in the mail last week from Notre Dame informing me that their HR department had accidentally put a database of former employee information on the web. If they could do that to several thousand people's social security numbers they could do it to their bank information too.)

Yes, it is technically possible to set up an online system to moderate all of these transactions. One day we will have such a system. But it doesn't exist yet. I'm not optimistic it's going to catch on soon. (And don't say "PayPal!" as if I haven't thought of that. PayPal is decent enough in it's way, but they have annoyingly byzantine fraud-prevention policies, I've never found their system particularly usable, I don't think they have the trust they would need, etc.)

Reuters says that "Checks have all but disappeared in high-tech countries like Sweden and Norway," but what does that mean? Is it possible to get a check cashed in those countries or not? If not, how do they deal with the situations I listed?

The Royal Mail is on shaky footing and is looking for new markets to get into. I think if banks are no longer interested in mediating check transactions they would be a natural to fill that void.

17 December 2009

Rebel Sausages!


Self-organizing markets, sticking it to the man, exotic hobbies, AND delicious, small-batch cured meats?! This story has it all:
Chicago Reader | The Charcuterie Underground

Erik and Ehran, also a stay-at-home dad, are the principals of E & P Meats, a budding underground charcuterie business with an e-mail list of more than 200 customers. Once a month they drive into the city and surrounding suburbs to drop off vacuum-sealed packages ordered from a rotating menu of about 15 meats they've stuffed, cured, and smoked entirely on the premises of Erik's handsome home. The deliveries are about half of the 40-60 orders they fill—the other half are collected by customers who show up at the door.

When I visited last month they were rubbing down a few pork bellies with rosemary sprigs and a salt cure and experimenting with a new Italian sausage recipe. On the back porch, alongside the potted rosemary, three smokers issued thin white plumes that filled the neighborhood with a sweet, meaty perfume. Two contained slabs of bacon and the third—a ceramic tile Big Green Egg—held half a dozen of the paprika-and-mustard-rubbed chickens that Erik periodically smokes for favored mothers of his daughter's classmates. [...]

Because they sell meats that aren't prepared in a licensed commercial facility, Erik and Ehran are operating outside the law. But some laws, they fervently believe, were made to be broken. "It's one of those things that's kind of overregulated," says Erik. "People have been canning and curing forever. It was invented to preserve food and keep things healthy."

The charcuterie resistance is growing. Professional restaurant chefs without legal licensing or dedicated facilities cure their own meats out of view of the health inspectors all the time. And Erik and Ehran aren't the only ones making and selling outside of those professional kitchens: A former restaurant chef is currently curing two dozen duck breasts in a south-side warehouse; they'll end up on restaurant menus sometime around the holidays. Personal chef Helge Pedersen cures and ages lamb legs for the Norwegian salted meat fennelar, along with guanciale, soppressata, and pancetta, in a dedicated refrigerator in his Humboldt Park apartment and another in a garage space on Western Avenue. He sells them to friends as he hones his craft in anticipation of the day he opens his own retail space.

Laurence Mate is an amateur charcuterie maker downstate who documents his projects on the blog This Little Piggy. To make an end run around the government regulations governing the production and sale of charcuterie, Mate—another furniture maker—had a law student help him figure out how to set up a private club for members, who must register on his Web site in order to make "donations" by the pound for his terrines, sausage, pulled pork, and the spicy Calabrian salami paté nduja. He hasn't been challenged so far.
God bless America and sausage and bacon. Amen.

I needed an uplifting story after reading about the second grader who was forced to undergo a psychiatric evaluation by his school after drawing a stick figure Jesus on a cross, or the food bank that threw out a donation of chicken because it violates New York law to serve food cooked with transfatty acids, or Baltimore trying to pin their blight on Wells Fargo, or this corruption I can't even begin to describe in the Philadelphia PD.

Yes, the world is run by people doing their level best to convince me they're insane. But then I remember the most beautiful smell I have ever experienced: a small butcher's shop in Siena... hams hanging in the window... salumi stacked up like kindling... cheeses suspended from the rafters. It was like living inside of the most delicious Italian cold cut sub you could ever imagine. I felt like I should pay the shop keeper for the privilege of breathing his air. So yes, the world is insane, but the human race, despite its madness, manages to take dead pigs and turn them into something sublime and transcendent. All is well.

(Via Tyler Cowen)

16 December 2009


Too many interesting things on the internet today to blog about.

Math Test

I wanted to follow up on that John Allen Paulos column I linked to in my last post. He makes an important point about people being bad at understanding probabilities. I like this line in particular:
For many, the only probability values they know are “50-50” and “one in a million.”
(As this classic Popehat post shows though, a lot of people don't even understand 50-50.)

Besides not understanding probability, a lot of people don't grok the difference between false positives and false negatives.* To many people, a test is either right or wrong, accurate or inaccurate.

(* Side note: I really don't like the terms which seem to prevail in the statistics community, Type I and Type II errors. You can kind of figure out from "false positive" and "false negative" what they describe, but "Type I" and "Type II" tell you nothing. Things should be named with a little more significance than which one happened to be listed first in an old paper.)

Try this little quiz Paulos has in his column:
Assume there is a screening test for a certain cancer that is 95 percent accurate; that is, if someone has the cancer, the test will be positive 95 percent of the time. Let’s also assume that if someone doesn’t have the cancer, the test will be positive just 1 percent of the time. Assume further that 0.5 percent — one out of 200 people — actually have this type of cancer. Now imagine that you’ve taken the test and that your doctor somberly intones that you’ve tested positive.
What is the chance you actually have that cancer? Click through to Paulos' column for the answer and an explanation.

This is another reason why we should teach more statistics in high school and less ... most other stuff.

More Chaff, Less Wheat

Julian Sanchez makes a very clever point about the potential counter-productivity of more surveillance:
Julian Sanchez | Anonymity Loves Company

It’s something of a cliche among privacy researchers that "anonymity loves company." Anonymizing mix networks (e.g. Tor) are more secure and more anonymous the more people are using them. [...]

Adoption of these technologies is likely to be substantially correlated with the general perception that ordinary Internet communications, and perhaps even ordinary encrypted Internet communications, are insecure. [...]

Now suppose that both innocent privacy-conscious citizens and ordinary (i.e. non-terrorist) criminals come to believe that governments are able to easily acquire routing information or intercept communications, and that even when such acquisition occurs for intelligence or counterterrorism purposes, that information may routinely be handed over to criminal prosecutors. That is, I think it’s fair to say, increasingly true of U.S. law. One possible result, as people become more cognizant of this, is that you get a lot of innocent or low-priority criminal traffic providing cover for the Serious Bad Guys that intel investigators are primarily worried about.
He goes on to generalize:
The point can, I think, be generalized from the specific case of mix networks to any type of surveillance that becomes less effective as the number of diverse types of people engaging in patterns of surveillance-evading behavior increases. (And in fact, one place where I have heard a similar argument made is with respect to border control—where the expansion of markets in smuggling people or relatively benign recreational drugs provides both resources and cover for more seriously dangerous contraband.) The counterintuitive result is that if you’re concerned about our ability to spy on a very tiny number of incredibly dangerous people, it may be in your interest to (publicly—but in a democracy that has to mean actually over the long run) adopt more restrictive surveillance policies in order to reassure both innocents and “ordinary” criminals that they need not employ security measures that provide positive externalities to the highest-priority targets.
I agree. I think a lot of the intelligence and police and defense community has become very excited over the last decade about the potential to shovel more and more data into digital systems. To a degree, they're right to be. As someone who started his academic career in Data Mining I'm disposed towards sympathy for the notion that more data is bound to be helpful. But that's only true if you've got the right kind of more data. If you're not careful you just end up pitching more hay on top of the needle.

I think a related effect occurs when you redefine things like "sex offender" to cover really minor crimes. Every time you add a high school kid to a sex offender registry for having consensual sex with a contemporary you're just putting out more smoke for the Real Bad Guys to hide behind. Ditto every time you hand out a zero-tolerance drug punishment for a kid sneaking a smoke behind the cafeteria, or hassle someone at a tailgate for giving a beer to their own kid.

To take it back to Sanchez's original point, I think a lot of people use Tor for file-sharing applications. They're scared of RIAA and MPAA lawsuits, not the CIA or FBI. Someone who's got a bigger chip on their shoulder than I do about such lawsuits could make the argument that every music and movie pirating lawsuit drives more people onto Tor, strengthening the anonymity network, and therefore "Big Content" is helping the terrorists win. (Personally I think that line of reasoning is a big stretch, but I've seen much crazier shit written about file-sharing before.)

PS The more data != better predictions issue is also taken up by John Allan Poulos in the NY Times Magazine regarding breast cancer screening. This is an application where the cost of acquiring data becomes pertinent. That's an often-overlooked area in Data Mining research, though a pretty active and growing area of work. Incidentally, Poulos also makes the point that as pro-Science as Obama comports himself, neither party is committed to Science. They both embrace it when they can and attack it when it suits them.

More Lego Stop-Motion

LegoAgentJones created a frame-by-frame remake of a scene from The Matrix using Legos. Wow.

It really is frame-by-frame, down to the lighting and shadows. Check out a comparison of the original and Lego version. Here it is in full speed and slow motion:

(Via 3 Quarks Daily)

15 December 2009


Threat Quality Press | John Holland | Tiger Woods and the Ironic Punishment Division

The reason I am not at all outraged – in fact, if there’s any emotion, I suppose it would be “basic, non-committal sympathy” – that Tiger Woods cheated on his wife is that I don’t ever recall Tiger Woods being a huge, outspoken proponent of monogamy. I understand that in theory he would be, hence the getting married, but I’ve never seen a PSA, or heard a speech, or seen Tiger AND HIS WIFE on a box of cereal.

A scandal must have some kind of ironic twist for it to be interesting. Is that too much to ask?

If someone is famous, my outrage is dependent on them getting in trouble for something that’s in some way related to the reason for their fame. This is why politicians who get caught behaving badly actually do piss me off – because their jobs generally revolve around regulating human behavior in some way (this is also why “secretly gay” is that most delicious of outrage-snacks).

So being that Tiger Woods cheating on his wife doesn’t really break the vague, unspoken social contract he has with me – it has not hindered his ability to do the thing that he needs to do to maintain his public image: hit a tiny ball into a hole in the ground with a club on a sunny day.
I take the point, but I dispute it applies well to Woods.

True, he hasn't made a big deal previously about being pro-monogamy specifically, but he's made hay out of having a squeeky clean image generally, and likes to talk a lot about "family values" in the more abstract. I can't even remember how many times I've heard some variation on "That Tiger Woods, he's such a class act." He's got a notoriously bad reputation for acting up on the course, but that's always been brushed under the rug because he kept his nose so clean off the course.* That whole persona comes crashing down now that the serial infidelity is in the open.

(* I refer you to this previous post about Tiger from July about this issue. It's pretty ironic now that the womanizing is flapping in the breeze.)

I guess I just don't think that Tiger's image was exclusively dependent on hitting a tiny ball into a hole in the ground like Holland does. I think it was also dependent on being a top notch sportsman and a gentleman in an era of spoiled, prima donna athletes. There's nothing gentlemanly about chasing skirt when you're married, which leaves Tiger in the weeds, so to speak.

Health Care Efficiency Post Script

The Big Questions | Steven Landsburg | Making Health Care Work:

Duke University Hospital, for example—one of the finest hospitals in the nation—has 900 beds and 1300 billing clerks. We have to give them an incentive to do better, [David Cutler] said. When I asked why they don’t already have all the incentive they need to save money, his first response was that “hospitals are mostly non-profits”. That’s of course an economist’s answer, but I found it deeply unsatisfying—even at a non-profit, there’s always some alternative use for funds, and usually someone with an incentive to economize in favor of that alternative use. So more than Professor Cutler, I am inclined to suspect that those 1300 billing clerks might actually be doing something useful. (My boon companion Lisa Talpey points out, for example, that they are almost surely handling the billing for hundreds of doctors’ private practices, not just for 900 hospital beds.)
I just want to pass this along as a small bit of context for the figures from the NHS I posted yesterday.

(That abundance of billing clerks is making the programmer in me is scream that this is what amounts to a huge API problem. I'm inclined to take a page out of Patri Friedman's playbook and see if we can't redefine our human behavior and politics problem into a technological problem.)

30 whole pages of contracts. What an evil empire.

AJC.com | AP Ivestigation: Monsanto seed biz role revealed

Monsanto's methods are spelled out in a series of confidential commercial licensing agreements obtained by the AP. The contracts, as long as 30 pages, include basic terms for the selling of engineered crops resistant to Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, along with shorter supplementary agreements that address new Monsanto traits or other contract amendments.
As long as 30 pages! O noz! How onerous!

The lease on my apartment is longer than that. Grow up.

Digression: Roundup gets some bad press but it's actually a big boon for the environment. Unlike the herbicides in use before Roundup came on the market, Roundup breaks down at the soil barrier. This significantly minimizes the build-up of herbicides in the soil and nearby waterways. It's not as perfect as Monsanto has claimed in the past, and it needs to be used correctly (which really just boils down to not spraying it into shallow water or applying too much to non-pourous surfaces like sidewalks), but compared to pre-glyphosate herbicides, it's good stuff. I used to work at a garden and landscape supply company, and they were very environmentally conscious. The only non-natural chemical they sold was Roundup. Everything else was dried blood and bone meal and infusions of beneficial micro-organisms and such.
For example, one contract provision bans independent companies from breeding plants that contain both Monsanto's genes and the genes of any of its competitors, unless Monsanto gives prior written permission — giving Monsanto the ability to effectively lock out competitors from inserting their patented traits into the vast share of U.S. crops that already contain Monsanto's genes.
I don't see how that provision is unreasonable. It's no different than a software company prohibiting a user from taking some of the source code from one of their products, combining it with other code and redistributing it. In a similar vein, but perhaps more sympathetically, is it any different from requiring code you release under a Creative Commons NC license to be used non-commercially? In either case you're putting conditions on the propagation of IP you've released into the world.

(* A variation on that is also in the news today.)

I'm no botanist, but does it really matter in this context if a vast majority of US crops contain Monsanto genes? How much non-Monsanto breeding stock does there need to be in order for people to breed their own genes into new lines? Isn't this complaint a little bit like me saying "Oh no, I can't write an extension to bash because most computers in the US are Windows."? As long as there are some non-Windows machines and non-Monsanto crops, aren't we okay for this purpose?

IP law in America (and everywhere I'm aware of, frankly) is terribly suited for dealing with biotech and software. That's a given. But people get all in a tizzy about Monsanto playing the game by the rules as they now stand. Doesn't it make more sense to get some better rules rather than freaking out about the guy who's winning? And shouldn't the blame be falling on the people who create the rules?

I don't have the patience for the rest of this article. Goodnight.

PS Every time I support genetic engineering wackos come out of the woodwork and post comments about how evil Monsanto is, even when I haven't mention Monsanto in the post at all. I wonder what will happen this time.

14 December 2009

Newlyweds "on the job"

Tasty Booze | The Newlyweds’ Bed That Tweets During Business Time

A best man made a promise to the groom that there would be no pranks before the wedding. Well the honeymoon technically takes place after the wedding and this best man happened to volunteer to watch the newlywed’s house while they were away. He installed a pressure sensitive pad in their bed and rigged it up to automatically tweet any time “they get on the job.”
Wow. Just ... just, wow. Nothing but wow.

You can find the conjugal bed's twitter feed here. A sample:
They’re on the job! #5 – Action commenced at 09.33GMT. Weight: 152KG.

They’re off the job! #5 – Action concluded at 09.55GMT. Duration: 22 m.41 s. Frenzy Index: 4 (easy listening). Judge’s Comment: "Morning!"


Last Thursday The Economist posted a podcast interview with David Nicholson, Chief Executive of England's National Health Service. (Here's a downloadable mp3, here's a link to a streaming version.) I want to draw your attention to this bit about a minute in, in which Nicholson is trying to impress upon the interviewer the complexity of the NHS:
"We treat over a million people every 36 hours. There are 1.4 million people working in the system."
First of all, who reports rates over a denominator of 36 hours? Alarm bell.

Secondly, I really hoped I misinterpreted him about the 1.4 million employees, but I'm finding figures online with 1.3 million in 2005 so I'm guessing that's accurate. There are only 50 million people in England, so that's almost 3% of them working for the NHS.

There are apparently a little over a million full-time equivalent employees, so there are more people working at the NHS on a given day than there are patients. It takes more than three people to treat two patients per day. I don't know how that stacks up to other health care systems, but there's no way anyone is convincing me that's an efficient way to do things.

I really, really hope I'm doing some math wrong, because this is atrocious. (Yes, I know not all of the 1.4 million are doctors, but it's still a useful estimate of the manpower needed in the aggregate.)

PS I'm reminded of an anecdote from Coyote Blog about the French railway system. They have 125,000 freight car mechanics on staff, and 100,000 freight cars. They could assign each mechanic to his own car and have plenty of men left over.

The insufferable self-righteousness of "socially responsible" consumption

Washington Post | Jane Black | Think you're dining 'green'? Menus won't always tell you

'Sustainable' and 'green' have no objective semantic content in the restaurant industry. Do not be mislead by such labels.

(Though it doesn't fit the theme of this post, I'd like to throw 'artisanal' out there as the most over-used word in food, edging out 'green' and 'sustainable.' I love the concept, but it's used now to describe anything made with more individuality than cheezy poofs. It tells me nothing.)

SmartMoney | Ryan Sager | Buying Green Makes You Do Bad Things

Moral self-regulation leads people who view themselves as virtuous to think they deserve to indulge in less beneficial activities. The net outcome is a wash. See also: the 1200 limos and 140 private jets crowded in Copenhagen right now.

Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | Facts about FairTrade

"In other words, it's mostly a marketing gimmick."

Bourgeois bohemians, please tone it down with smug self-satisfaction from your FairTrade this and sustainable that. You're heart's probably in the right place. Good for you. But your probably don't begin fully understand the consequences of your decisions. No one can. Outcomes matter more than intentions. Be a little humble about how much you're really helping the world, please.

PS I have several friends who are highly enamored of the "sustainable" restaurant profiled in the Post article, Founding Farmers. I must say that they make an incredible bread pudding. I don't even like bread pudding, but that stuff is great. I don't care if it's ingredients are sourced from a charming family farm who grow everything using 17th century hand tools or if its secret ingredient is baby seal lard. It's delicious.

Guess I'm not the only one confused about that

American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Ed. | banal

Usage Note: The pronunciation of banal is not settled among educated speakers of American English. Sixty years ago, H.W. Fowler recommended the pronunciation (băn'əl, rhyming with panel), but this pronunciation is now regarded as recondite by most Americans: no member of the Usage Panel prefers this pronunciation. In our 2001 survey, (bənăl') is preferred by 58 percent of the Usage Panel, (bā'nəl) by 28 percent, and (bə-näl') by 13 percent (this pronunciation is more common in British English). Some Panelists admit to being so vexed by the problem that they tend to avoid the word in conversation. Speakers can perhaps take comfort in knowing that these three pronunciations each have the support of at least some of the Usage Panel and that none of them is incorrect. When several pronunciations of a word are widely used, there is really no right or wrong one.
[Emph. mine.] I've also avoided banal in conversation because I was unsure about the pronunciation. Oddly I never hesitate about how to pronounce banality.

A tip for dispelling awkwardness after mispronouncing a word: make a gentle reference to mispronunciation being an unfortunate consequence of reading more good books than you get to have intelligent conversations. It's complementary to the person you're speaking with, which disarms them, and it also redirects your failure of pronunciation into the virtue of being well-read. Verbal judo!

That's inspired by advice from my fifth grade humanities teacher. The word in questions at the time was either despotism or scenario, I can't remember which. I wish I could say I learned them from reading interesting books, but it was actually from playing Civilization. Lovely lady, that Mrs. Seletti. She also had a great poster on her wall tracking the rise and fall of empires over all of recorded history. It was very Tuftean. I've had my eye open for a copy of that ever since.

13 December 2009

Death comes in thirties

AlterNet | Megan Carpentier | Why Do Airstrikes in Afghanistan Keep Killing Exactly 30 People?

On Monday, the anonymous blogger Security Crank noticed something interesting: all the U.S. and NATO airstrikes in Afghanistan seemingly kill exactly 30 people every time. How can that be?

Security Crank documented no less than 12 occasions in which news reports, relying on field commanders' estimates, noted that exactly 30 suspected Taliban were killed in airstrikes and, occasionally, artillery attacks.
I'd like some context for this. I'm not contending that reports of 30 casualties aren't implausibly common, just that it would be good to see a histogram of the distribution in order to know how implausible they are.
[Blogger Joshua] Foust then linked to an LA Times article from last July by Nicholas Goldberg that documented what field commanders were told.
In a grisly calculus known as the "collateral damage estimate," U.S. military commanders and lawyers often work together in advance of a military strike, using very specific, Pentagon-imposed protocols to determine whether the good that will come of it outweighs the cost.

We don't know much about how it works, but in 2007, Marc Garlasco, the Pentagon's former chief of high-value targeting, offered a glimpse when he told Salon magazine that in 2003, "the magic number was 30." That meant that if an attack was anticipated to kill more than 30 civilians, it needed the explicit approval of then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld or President George W. Bush. If the expected civilian death toll was less than 30, the strike could be OKd by the legal and military commanders on the ground.
In other words, the Pentagon determined that 30 casualties, even if they were civilian, were too few to matter politically or to attract the attention of the press for more than a few words. If commanders expected more civilian casualties than that, political leaders had to sign off on the attack in advance to make sure they were prepared for the PR fall-out.

That PR calculus of how many deaths matter to the average American has apparently carried over from the Bush Administration to the Obama Adminstration, at least insofar as ground commanders are concerned. But the American people deserve the truth about how many Afghans--civilian and otherwise--are being killed by our forces. Just because senior officials at the Pentagon think that killing 30 people doesn't warrant their attention doesn't mean they're right.
I'm definitely not one to spare the cynicism when it comes to government or military policy, but this strikes me as jumping to the most sinister explanation.

Just War Theory, which Obama embraces to judge by his recent Nobel [cough] Peace Prize speech, leads to some hairy utilitarian calculus on these sorts of things. There's no getting around the fact that some civilians are going to die in a war zone. All the more so if your explicit goal is to unseat a civilian quasi-government the Taliban, or to fight an enemy without an explicit chain of command, uniforms, or much in the way of regard for their own civilians.

If you're going to pursue jus in bello then you need to make uncomfortable decisions about how many civilian casualties you'll accept in the furtherance of your strategic goals. Carpentier says that the White House needed to approve operations with more than 30 casualties "to make sure they were prepared for the PR fall-out." That's sort of begging the question. I could just as easily say they needed to approve such operations to make sure the strategic goals were significant enough to justify the body count. In all likelihood it's probably some combination of the two.

So 30 has been adopted as the threshold here. Okay...? Is Carpentier saying it should be lower? What would be the morally justifiable number to require White House approval? 20? 10? Zero? How many more lives do you then put at risk by delaying action until you can phone home and get the thumbs up for the potential death of a single civilian? Wasn't one of the complaints in Vietnam that operations were being micromanaged by Robert McNamara? Do we really need to make Afghanistan any more like Vietnam?

That last sentence is also pretty bizarre. "Just because senior officials at the Pentagon think that killing 30 people doesn't warrant [Americans'] attention doesn't mean they're right." The fact that there are numerous press reports of 30 deaths shows pretty conclusively that there isn't a cover-up of those deaths. Americans just aren't paying attention to them. It's not the Pentagon's fault that the American public doesn't care, no matter how hard Carpentier wants to make them the villain here.

It's good to know there's an incentive for commanders to lie and fudge the estimated casualties of any one operation down to 30. I just don't feel that scandalized. Is there some actual evidence that many more people are being killed in the numbers are being underreported? Are commanders fudging the numbers up to 30 just to be on the safe side? I already knew that lots of people were being killed in a war of dubious strategic importance. How does this change things?

This just feels like a non-story to me. People fudge the numbers to make their lives easier. Politicians demand some oversight of large military actions. Presidents and generals conduct wars with one ear cocked towards public opinion. We don't know what's going on in a war zone with as much precision as we'd like. These are always good things to keep in mind, but pardon me if my socks aren't blown off by these revelations.

(Via Tyler Cowen)


I woke up at about 7:00 and decided I deserved a bit more sleep before getting to work today. I fell back asleep and proceeded to dream that I woke up about 7:00 and decided I deserved a bit more sleep before getting to work. In the dream, I overslept my next alarm and woke at 4pm, and I was freaking out about missing the whole day. In this 9 hour block, I had a dream that I was both in Sons of Anarchy and watching it on DVD. (We/they were trying to work out a deal with a Taiwanese Triad. It was going well until the FBI showed up looking for a WikiLeaks server of all things.) Then I dreamed I fell asleep while watching the SofA DVDs and had a dream about moving into a new apartment and having to pack all my stuff this weekend, and also playing some game involving magnets and the positions of tables in a library. There was also a trip to a very rocky beach, some sandals I had made out of duct tape, and a hockey rink which had wheels on big stilt-like legs so it could stand up and reposition itself.

If I'm counting correctly, I think I had a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream. My previous best for nested dreams is four, but those were the same dream at each level while all of these were different.

PS I hesitate to mention this, but at some point in my dream I discovered that in the space of an hour I had grown eyebrows at least three times larger than Thuffir Hawat's in David Lynch's 1985 Dune adaptation. One minute they were normal, and then all of a sudden they were the sizes of small squirrels.

11 December 2009

"Sexting Hysteria Drives Teen to Suicide. Media Blames Sexting, Fuels More Hysteria"

Reason | Hit & Run | Radley Balko | Sexting Hysteria Drives Teen to Suicide. Media Blames Sexting, Fuels More Hysteria.

Yet more evidence for teens that 'sexting' really can ruin your life. Not because of the dirty pictures, but because of the horrible things adults will do to you when they discover them. For your own good, of course.

Today's heartbreaking example is Hope Witsell, a 13-year-old Florida girl driven to suicide after she was caught sending a topless cell phone photo of herself to a crush. When her school administrators learned of the photo, they suspended her, even though her sending it had nothing to do with the school. Witsell's classmates harassed her, calling her 'whore' and 'slut' in the hallways, apparently with little notice, interest, or intervention from school officials. Witsell's parents also administered some tough love, grounding her for the summer and banishing her from the Internet and her cell phone. The poor kid showed her boobs to a boy, and she was banished from her school, her friends, and the outside world.

With all due respect to Witsell's parents, who are obviously grieving, it's the adults in Sylvia's life who need the tough love here. These overblown reactions to what's really little more than a technologically enhanced version of the age-old game of "I'll show you mine if you show me yours" really do ruin kids' lives, be it by saddling them with a criminal record, securing them a spot on a sex offender list, instilling in their heads that they're some sort of outcast pervert, or in Hope Witsell's case—Jesus—driving them to kill themselves."
I couldn't agree more. Yet another case whether the solution does more damage than the deviancy it's supposed to guard against.

I've never understood the wisdom of punishing someone for behavior in which they are themselves supposed to be the aggrieved party. Would you spank a kid for touching a hot stove? There's obviously no need; the burns they have on their hand are disincentive enough already.

You see this a lot with marijuana. The worst outcome from smoking weed is by far the punishments that are doled out by the state in order to discourage people from smoking weed. The cure isn't only worse than the disease, it is the disease. The punishment itself has become justification for continued punishment.


(From I Has A Hotdog)

Okay, I actually have a reason for posting this LOLdog.

Question: Is there a word for color photography that has very little color in it, but isn't actually black & white? Something with very low color saturation? We need that word. May I suggest hypochromatic, perhaps? I see such a word in medical dictionaries, but is it or an equivalent used to describe artwork?

Well, two reasons to post this actually. I also feel compelled to counterbalance the grumpiness of the last post with something cuddly.

PS Yeah, I realize the picture above isn't actually an example of what I'm talking about. It appears to be fully B&W. Whatever. It still made me think of this almost-black-and-white issue. I saw a photo this morning which would be a better example of this but it may have a surplus of bosom in it for people reading from work. In deference to those of you with bosses or IT managers who are scandalized by boobs I went with this non-objectionable puppy instead.

10 December 2009

Curmudgeon of the Year Award

Curmudgeon of the Year goes to Stingray for this doozy of a rant at Atomic Nerds. Just a fine piece of cranky craftsmanship.

Christmas is a fine thing. I just don't like being slapped in the face with all the sugary syntactic trappings for six solid weeks prior to it.

My three favorite passages of Stingray's:

Regarding Christmas carols —
The little boy with the drum can just go sit on those drumsticks- aside from the saccharine message of the whole thing, what sort of retarded jackass starts banging away on a drum like Keith Moon in front of a f***ing newborn?
Regarding the the beggars-with-bells outside stores —
Eleven months out of the year the hard up and downtrodden can go piss up a rope, but then magically after the fourth Thursday in November it’s CARE O’CLOCK, BITCHES! Look, let me actually make a helpful suggestion. You want to separate me from my loose change so Ray-Ray the System Gamer can have an extra target to score dope money from for a month? Then give me some incentive do do anything other than leave the area as quickly as possible. Instead of standing there acting as the f***ing Headache Fairy, hire some girl with big tits to stand in the cold topless and demonstrate just how awful things are if you can’t afford a coat.
Regarding holiday clothing —
Parading around in that stupid polyester Santa-cap doesn’t make you look festive and jolly, it makes it look like there’s a f***ing epidemic of brain-eating parasites parading around disguised as haberdashery.
As to the music specifically, I'll post my two favorite Christmas songs as I did last year. I use them to scourge the sonic assaults on peace which masquerade as "seasonal music" out of my consciousness.

Jackson Browne and the Chieftains, "The Rebel Jesus"

The Pogues and Christy MacColl, "Fairytale of New York"


Unqualified Offerings | Thoreau | All the world is a rick roll

Since our world is currently under the iron grip of a consortium that includes 4chan and The Onion’s editorial board, the Nobel Peace Prize was just accepted by a man currently escalating a land war in Asia.
(Via Will Wilkinson.)

(Addendum: Dissection of the larger whoppers of Obama's acceptance speech here. The lede:
Obama got his Nobel. He gave a speech. Possibly the most war-mongering Peace Prize speech ever. At one point he got carried away and declared war on Norway.

(Addendum B: Ezra at Popehat thinks the exact same speech could have been delivered, though not as well obviously, by Bush in 2005. I'm inclined to agree. For him this is the final straw in the disconnect between Candidate Obama and President Obama. (Such is the unavoidable peril of nominating someone after 12 days in office. The decision was unarguably made based on the performance of Candidate Obama, not President Obama.) Ezra longer feels like he trusts him enough to vote for him. I wonder how many other anti-war leftists will come to the same conclusion in 2010 or 2012 and stay home? Enough to take some serious wind out of the Dems' sails, in all likelihood.)

Who needs a constitution when you have the personal preferences of Peter DeFazio?

Reason | Hit & Run | Jacob Sullum | Must Everything That Bothers Peter DeFazio Be Banned?

[Safety] is not the rationale offered by supporters of the new legislation, which also would ban voice-over-Internet communication on flights that offer WiFi access. Although in-flight phone use is legal in 72 countries, USA Today reports, "advocates of the ban, such as Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., say they want to protect fliers from the intrusion of phone calls in one of the last phone-free zones."

In other words, DeFazio imagines he would be annoyed by fellow passengers talking on their cell phones and/or by the calls he currently avoids while flying, so he wants to impose the rule he prefers on the entire country.
Repeat after me: "I think it's annoying/yucky/offensive/un-American/prohibited by may chosen deity" is NOT A REASON TO PASS A LAW.*

I despise listening to one half of a phone call, even when both people on the call are close personal friends of mine.** I can't stand it. Hell, I don't even like most phone conversations when I'm one of the participants. Having to be an unwitting spectator on a stranger's phone calls is abhorrent to me. I can not stress enough how much I would hate being trapped on a plane with people jabbering away on their phones. BUT IT'S NONE OF MY DAMN BUSINESS WHAT AIRLINES ALLOW.

The whole point of establishing a republic is so that our laws aren't subject to the personal whims of one man. We're no better off if they just become subject to the capricious fancies of several hundred congressmen.

* To the dozens of my normally level-headed and rational acquaintances who have at one point or another told me that you support smoking bans in bars because you personally don't smoke and find it gross: Repeat the aforementioned admonition one hundred times while meditating on the fact that however icky you personally find smoking to be, that does not give you the right to tell a publican what they can or can not allow on their premises. Come up with a better justification for your meddlesome nannying or back off.

** I think I can trace this back to my childhood. My father, who worked from home, would spend many afternoons in the living room (the sonic epicenter of our house) conversing with his colleagues on the phone. Dad, I love you, but when you're on the phone you turn your voice up to eleven.

Amateur Hour Rolls On

Guardian.co.uk | Nobel peace prize: Norwegians incensed over Barack Obama's snubs

Barack Obama's trip to Oslo to pick up his Nobel peace award is in danger of being overshadowed by a row over the cancellation of a series of events normally attended by the prizewinner.

Norwegians are incensed over what they view as his shabby response to the prize by cutting short his visit.

The White House has cancelled many of the events peace prize laureates traditionally submit to, including a dinner with the Norwegian Nobel committee, a press conference, a television interview, appearances at a children's event promoting peace and a music concert, as well as a visit to an exhibition in his honour at the Nobel peace centre.

He has also turned down a lunch invitation from the King of Norway.

According to a poll published by the daily tabloid VG, 44% of Norwegians believe it was rude of Obama to cancel his scheduled lunch with King Harald, with only 34% saying they believe it was acceptable.

'Of all the things he is cancelling, I think the worst is cancelling the lunch with the king,' said Siv Jensen, the leader of the largest party in opposition, the populist Progress party. 'This is a central part of our government system. He should respect the monarchy,' she told VG."
What especially amuses me about this chapter in the Obama White House Amateur Hour Show and Blues Revue is the way all of the obeisances to the Saudis and Japanese were defended with when-in-Rome, gotta-respect-your-host, local-culture-first excuses.* Now that respecting your hosts is inconvenient it's right out the window.

(* Even though that is emphatically not the local culture in Japan.)

I understand that presidents are busy people, but if a foreign head of state came to DC to accept one of the most famous prizes in the world and rejected the American press and a luncheon with Obama, the administration would be fuming. (Extrapolate out from how mad they got at Edmunds.com for contradicting them on used car sales figures in the aftermath of the car scrapping debacle.)

Maybe if the Norwegians had waited more than 12 days into Obama's presidency before nominating him they wouldn't be so surprised by this bush league diplomatic stuff.

Pope Art

Edward Goldman's latest Art Talk is about what he sees as a resurgence of the Vatican's interest in art. This line caught my attention particularly:
Pope Benedict XVI greeted more than 250 artists, musicians, directors, and writers in the Sistine Chapel...pointing out their "great responsibility to communicate beauty."
That's exactly what I like to hear when it comes to the social responsibility of an artist. All of the social causes that artists take up are trivial compared to the creation of Beauty.

I don't mean some kind of Hallmark card, Thomas Kinkadesque feel-goodery either. I mean the Platonic Ideal of Beauty. I'm also not trying to say that Art shouldn't also have a message. Guernica has a message, but it also has Beauty.

I'm just tired of art that looks terrible — or worse, boring — getting a pass because it is about some Big Social Issue.

(Slight digression: "Confronting social issues" is also no excuse not to learn some skills. To paraphrase Banksy, if you're willing to suffer for your art, you should also be willing to learn to draw.

Digression from the original digression: I have mixed feelings about Banksy's ideas. Best I can tell, he's an anarchosocialist, which is a philosophy I find to be incoherent and typically half-baked. (Here's Bryan Caplan on anarchosocialism in practice. Executive summary: you can have anarchism or socialism, but not both.) Contrasted with his unfortunate politics, I think some of his ideas about art and life are pretty right on, and the guy has balls to beat the band, and his work is both clever and good, so on net I'm pro-Banksy.)

In other Papal art news:
CNN | Joe Piazza | Tupac song selected for Vatican playlist

Music from late rapper Tupac Shakur has been included as part of the Vatican's official MySpace Music playlist.

The seat of the Catholic Church released a list of 12 songs onto the social networking Web site's streaming music service this week when the site launched in the United Kingdom.

Among selections from Mozart, Muse and Dame Shirley Bassey is the slain rapper's song "Changes," which was released two years after his shooting death on a greatest hits album in 1998.
I have absolutely nothing to add to that. It's perfect the way it is.

(Thanks to Skipper for bringing that to my attention.)

09 December 2009

Playoffs 2: The Playoffs go to Congress

ESPN | Lester Munson | U.S. House of Representatives readies for hearing on football playoff bill

Federal legislation that could lead to a college football playoff tournament will move a step closer to reality on Wednesday in a hearing before a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection will consider a bill that would allow the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to prohibit any bowl game from calling itself a 'national championship' unless the game is 'the final game of a single elimination post-season playoff system.' The subcommittee is expected to vote on the proposal on Wednesday after a line-by-line consideration of the bill.
Jesus wept.

Are you kidding me? Can anybody honestly say this is relevant business for the United States Congress? What's next, committee hearings on roughing the passer?

As if this was any of Congress' business, establishing a playoff wouldn't make the situation any better.

The article goes on to quote Matthew Sanderson, "a founder of Playoff PAC, a political action committee aimed at electing members of Congress who favor a playoff system." This is a joke, right? This guy actually believes opinions about choosing the nominal champion of an amateur sports league is the relevant criteria for selecting congressmen. I love college football, but GROW UP.

You want to get lobbyists out of Washington? Then have Washington meddle in less shit. Boom. Done.

(Via Curunir @ Distributed Republic)

PS Inspired by that insipient bullshit from Alan Kaufman earlier today, I'm now keeping a list of public figures I do not trust. My general guideline is that if I ever see these people running away from something I will immediately make haste in the opposite direction. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL), the sponsor of this asinine foolishness about the BCS, is the next addition to the list. When I have some more people on there — which shouldn't take long — I'll assemble a running master list. In the meantime, the People Never to Trust tag will do.

Alan Kaufman, San Francisco Poet, I detest you

I agree with Radley Balko that this word vomit from Alan Kaufman deserves to be in the running for Worst Blog Post.

According to Kaufman, the Kindle is the moral equivalent of genocide. No, I'm not exaggerating. Hitler liked technology, therefore all technology is the same thing as a gas chamber. Also, Hitler burned some books, therefore books are sacred and any threat to the physical object called "book" is the same as killing millions of people.

I've seriously heard more coherent arguments from a deranged man outside an vegetarian restaurant, screaming about Hitler not eating meat either. There was also something about our animal shelters being run by crypto-Nazis, but I didn't quite get that part of the rant.

Oh yeah, Kaufman also says the Allies should have set up a "UN of technology" after the war to decide whether inventions passed ethical muster. Because if there's one thing that's certainly not Fascist, it's an unelected, world-spanning bureaucracy with the power to tell people what they can and can't do with the fruits of their intellectual labor. Nothing could go wrong with that.


The most recent RadioLab podcast has a very interesting segment on numerosity. It focuses on neuroscientist Stanislaw Dehaene's work on the innate number sense of infants.

According to Dehaene and others, our natural number sense works on a logarithmic scale. So a six-month old child can tell the different between 8 and 16 or between 10 and 20, but not between 10 and 15. At that age you can only discriminate between quantities that are double (or half) of others. By ten months, infants can discriminate a 3:2 ratio.

Dehaene also did some field work in the Amazon amongst tribes that don't have verbal counting systems. He presented them with a number line and told them 1 was on the left, and 9 was on the right. When asked what number was halfway between them, they answered 3, which is exactly what it would be if you were using a logarithmic scale. It sounds bizarre, but it's just a system based on multiplication rather than addition.

A colleague told me he recently saw a talk (he can't remember who gave it) who did the same sort of number-line experiment with children of varying ages. He said they start at a logarithmic scale, and it shifts to a linear scale as they age (and are educated) over a few year long period. You can apparently watch where a child puts 10 on a line between 1 and 100 move from roughly the center down to about one tenth of the way from the end.

I'm fascinated by the innateness of this logarithmic scale because one of my bottom elephants is that people do a terrible job of understanding non-linear patterns. This deficit is why people consistently under estimate compound interest: they don't understand exponential growth, which is the flip side of a logarithmic system.

(Side note: It really grinds my gears when people use exponentially as a synonym for rapidly.)

I've always thought the difficulty people have in understanding exponential and logarithmic processes is just innumeracy resulting from poor math education, but if log counting is in some ways more natural, it may be the reverse. What I thought was a lack of education may actually be a form of excess. We've trained the intuition for logs right out of people's minds.

(Side note 2: Understanding non-linear processes is another reason I'd like to see some theoretical computer science in high school curricula. It doesn't even need to be that theoretical. The first time you search for a value in an ordered array you understand logarithmic growth.)

08 December 2009

ND Coach

From the Special Lady Friend:
The Onion | Christ Turns Down 3-Year, Multimillion Dollar Deal To Coach Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, IN—Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Savior of All Mankind, and current defensive coordinator at Middle Tennessee State, said Monday that He would not accept Notre Dame's 3-year, $5.6 million offer to coach the Fighting Irish. 'I love Notre Dame and respect their football legacy, but no matter what you've accomplished before coaching there, once you're a Golden Domer, the expectations, frankly, are unrealistic,' said Christ, whose family has been involved with the university since its founding. 'I've had people turn on Me before, and it really put Me through hell. But even more importantly, I've made a commitment to stay with the Blue Raiders through 2015.' Christ denied asking Notre Dame to remove His likeness from the building overlooking their stadium, saying He liked a good joke as much as anybody"

"...whose family has been involved with the university since its founding." Ha!

Seriously though, looks like it's going to be Kelly from Cincy. I'd be pretty pleased with that.

Addendum (10 Dec): I knew it. It's nice having sources on the ground.

Do what you will. Accept the consequences.

Last winter LabRat wrote an excellent manifesto of sorts which included the following:
Atomic Nerds | LabRat | These Things I Believe

There is only one natural right: to do as you will. There is only one natural duty: to accept the consequences. The rest of society is a negotiation from this starting point, from contract law right on up to the death penalty.
This is obviously a lesson which Mr. Terrance Watanabe of Omaha, NE needs to learn. Watanabe is coming off what is believed to be the biggest loosing streak in Las Vegas history, having lost $127 million. He personally accounted for 5.6% of Harrah's annual revenue in 2007. Watanabe is now suing Harrah's for allowing him to continue gambling, including allowing him to bet while drunk.

It is against NGC rules for casinos to allow patrons to gamble while visibly intoxicated, but this is a year-long bender we're talking about. At no point did he come down to earth and realize he should walk away? At one point he was banned from the Wynn because it's CEO determined he was compulsive. Shouldn't that be a wake-up call? This isn't a series of bad decisions one night, this is a whole year. It's bad enough passing the buck on this one, but trying to do it for an entire year is ridiculous.

Do what you will. Accept the consequences.

(Thanks to JAH for bringing Mr Watanabe's shameful cop out to my attention.)

Anyway, that's just a lead-up to this post from Porch Dog, in which Jim considers whether Chevron is investing in safer oil tankers because they care about the environmental impact of oil spills or because they want to avoid the government-imposed costs of a clean-up.
But Chevron, in the example Walt discusses, isn’t responding to the scarcity of oil or to rising energy costs when it hypes it’s spill-prevention policies. Chevron adopted those policies as a means of responding to laws that holds them accountable for their spills and forces them to clean them up. Since cleaning up a spill after the fact is more costly than additional precautions preventing the spills to start with, Chevron works very hard to not spill this precious world-turning commodity. The market demand to hype those preventative methods is a more clear cut example of greenwashing than the other two, since, I think that Chevron would go back to cheaper shipping methods in a heartbeat if the law were relaxed. Coke and Walmart however have adopted policies out of a much more real necessity. Water is becoming more scarce regardless of the regulatory environment. Energy costs are going to continue rising until some economical alternative energy is developed.

It’s superficial analysis, admitted. However, for me it highlights one of the things I say often enough. The government is not some alien force that acts on the supposedly free market from the outside. It is an economic actor. It is a customer and it is also the voice of all customers. This is a situation where oil was artificially cheap because oil producers like Chevron previously were able to ignore the true cost of their product and then transfer that savings to their customers. The people of Prince William Sound suffer directly from oil spills but the rest of the country/world has cheap oil. As a result the voice of the majority allows Exxon et al to carelessly dump oil all over the damned place and costs being what they are, it’s cheaper to dump a few million gallons than to implement more careful shipping methods. Economics! But we don’t want a world where that happens, so we pass a law that says, you want to be in the oil business, you need to clean up your mess. Pass the costs to your customers. They will either keep buying or they won’t. We did and now Chevron is “going green” out of economic necessity.

I have a hard time being against this policy, which of course means I’m a socialist or something.
I actually have a hard time being against these sorts of policies as well, so I sure hope that doesn't make one a socialist. The way I see it, this is a situation where there is not a natural or private mechanism to make people accept the consequences of their actions, so society must create one. Government stepping in to see that people accept the consequences of their actions shouldn't be that controversial.

Two provisos though:

(1) Jim mentions government as acting as the "voice of all customers." The process of using government to make people pay the appropriate cost for their actions gets skewed when it becomes the "voice of customers who bitch the loudest to their congressmen." There's a thin line to walk between the legitimate protection of a minority's rights, such as the property rights of residents of Prince William Sound, and imposing costs on a faceless majority in order to protect the narrow interests of a vocal few. I have no recommendations for how to walk that line, I just think we need to remain aware of it.

(2) Allowing the government to impose costs that the market fails to do only works when the government gets closer to the "true" cost of an action than does the marketplace. In the case of an oil spill this is a fairly straightforward procedure: you know how much money it costs to do the clean-up operation, and then fudge it upwards to account for the damage that can't be undone. Many situations are much more ambiguous. We have no earthly idea how much damage would be done by a marginal ton of CO2 emission, and we probably never will. In many situations the government-imposed cost is arguable more wrong than the market-imposed cost. For instance, a pack of cigarettes costs society about $0.50 in extra medical care, but taxes on a pack are over ten times higher than that in many jurisdictions. Are we better off with a cost which is $5 too high or $0.50 too low?

(The external cost of cigarettes are estimated all over the map, so maybe you think 50 cents is too low. (This brings us to another point: how can the government correctly set the price if no one can agree on what the "right" price is? That's why Pigovian taxes are great in theory but I oppose them in practice. I have no faith we will succeed in setting a correct price by legislation.) Never mind that, it's just an example. Accept that there is some commodity for which the government has done a terrible job of correcting a price mis-set by the market. Transfats come to mind. And unpasteurized milk. And milk generally. And water. And Pima cotton. And mohair. And cardboard. And ethanol...)

I don't object in principle to government making people pay the cost for the actions when other means fail to do so. In practice however, it can be as difficult for the government to arrive at a good price as it is for a market.