30 April 2009

Never concede the terms of the debate.

Tyler Cowen, responding to Does the U.S. need an auto industry?
There are some very efficient Toyota plants in the United States. That too is part of our domestic automobile industry and those plants employ a large number of American workers.

You might think that Toyota is different because it is a Japanese company rather than an American one. But in fact Toyota is a publicly traded company, as are most of the other major automobile makers. That means any American can, any time he or she wants, buy some Toyota shares and make Toyota more of an “American company” and less of a “Japanese company.”
Well said.

I haven't seen numbers for this, but I'd wager that a higher percentage of the cost of a new Honda "stays" in America than does the cost of a new iPod.

I think my answer to the car industry question would be that we build cars because we want more cars, not because we want the people who know how to build cars to have something to do. We don't need an auto industry, we need autos.

Oh noez! The intertubes is almost full!

Beware surfers: cyberspace is filling up

Internet users face regular 'brownouts' that will freeze their computers as capacity runs out in cyberspace, according to research to be published later this year.

Experts predict that consumer demand, already growing at 60 percent a year, will start to exceed supply as early as 2010 because of more people working online and the soaring popularity of bandwidth-hungry Web sites such as YouTube and services such as the BBC's iPlayer.

It will initially lead to computers being disrupted and going offline for several minutes at a time. Beginning in 2012, however, PCs and laptops are likely to operate at a much reduced speed, rendering the Internet an 'unreliable toy.'

When Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the British scientist, wrote the code that transformed a private computer network into the World Wide Web in 1991, the Internet appeared to be a limitless resource.

However, a report being compiled by Nemertes Research, a respected American think-tank, will warn that the Web has reached a critical point and that even the recession has failed to stave off impending problems.
I admit that networking is one of those electives I never chose, but I'm still calling bullshit on this. First of all, if bandwidth capacity got that scarce you don' think someone would, you know, build more capacity? Or maybe ISPs would start to throttle capacity rather than facing network "brownouts?" Or maybe higher latencies will cause people to stream less video or engage in less file sharing, dampening the demand? People's usage habits have responded to a decade of increasing bandwidth, why would we assume that habits would not also respond to stagnating bandwidth?

Second of all, an internet brownout will not "freeze computers." An internet connection is not the same thing as a computer. That's like saying your car stops running when you lose radio reception.

Finally, and this always grinds my gears, the World Wide Web and the Internet are NOT THE SAME THING. You are looking at a website right now; connect many websites together and you get "the Web." The Web is a digital abstraction, pages of which are transmitted over the physical infrastructure of the Internet, along with a great many other things, such as email, FTP, remote shell connections, and BitTorrent transfers. Yes, the Web and the Internet are intimately related, but it's the difference between a series of letters and the actual mail trucks which carry them.

Attention John Harlow of the Times of London: you are a science writer for a major daily newspaper. It behooves you to know these things if you expect me to take the contents of your article seriously.

(Via Balko)

PS This Harlow character gets a lot of other stuff wrong too, but I don't have the patience for this.

PPS I don't know much about journalistic ethics or standards, but shouldn't you quote more than one source for something like this? This thing stinks of a poorly re-edited press release from his sole source's employer.

PPPS From several other articles on this from other (less bewildered) sources it seems like this and similar studies are being pushed by the lobbying arms of infrastructure providers to scare politicians into giving them rewards to build out capacity further and faster.

"It takes a revolution to make a solution"

Hit & Run | TARP Banks Get Headhunted:

Anthony Randazzo, of the Reason Foundation (the nonprofit that publishes this magazine), notes that this is just the begining of the exodus of talent from bailed out companies:
The House has already passed, and the Senate may consider, a bill that would give Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner the power to set salaries of all employees at any bank that has received bailout cash. And not just the CEO’s salary, any employee: tellers, janitors, everybody.
No wonder banks are trying to give back the money and run.
Cue up track 5 from the B side of Natty Dread:
Never make a politician grant you a favour,
They will always want to ... control you forever, eh!
(Forever! Forever!)

— Bob Marley, "Revolution"

File under: So Crazy I Believe It

The Agitator | What. The Hell?

Fresh from a proposal to charge residents extra fees for street lights, D.C.’s latest effort to generate revenue is to ticket residents for parking in their own driveways.

No, that isn’t an exaggeration:

Beverly Anderson is mad as hell. She just started to get tickets for parking in her own driveway.

That’s right. The District of Columbia is ticketing people who park their cars in their own driveways.

“This is clearly an attempt by the city to extort money out of property owners,” Anderson tells WTOP.

Anderson has received two of the $20 tickets in the past month. Anderson has owned the Capitol Hill house (and the driveway, so she thought) for more than ten years and has never gotten a ticket. And she’s not alone.

It turns out that D.C. has an odd, obscure law stating that the land between the front of your house and the street, otherwise known as your driveway and front yard, falls under a bizarre classification known as “private property set aside for public use.” Essentially, though owners have to pay for its maintenance and upkeep (they can be fined if they don’t), it’s considered public property. Which apparently means that, technically, you can’t park your car on it. The city recently dusted off the law, and began writing parking tickets if any part of a resident’s car is parked between the front facade of their house and the street, even if it’s parked in the driveway.

Words fail me.

29 April 2009

The Definitive Commentary on Dear Leader's 1st 100 Days

It comes from The Onion, of course. Some highlights:
  • DAY 22: President Obama asks aides to alert him immediately if the Mutant Registration Act is introduced in Congress.

  • DAY 18: In one of many historic firsts, Barack Obama becomes the first black president to TiVo MythBusters.

  • DAY 17: Hillary Clinton meets with Haitian president René Préval, who demands U.S. provide Haiti a sandwich by 2010.

  • DAY 14: Taco Tuesday.

  • DAY 41: Sixteen hours and 25 cups of coffee into a Treasury Dept. strategy session, Tim Geithner proposes nationalizing CitiGroup, Bank of America, all nine seasons of Seinfeld, toast, Albania, and the third law of thermodynamics.

  • DAY 28: Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's wife has taken to calling him the Trillion Dollar Man during sex.

If you're looking for actual commentary rather than jokes about Timmy G's marital relations (which I for one wouldn't mind some more of) then I recommend Gillespie & Welch, who wax both poetic and caustic:
So here we are, 100 days into the great eight-year triumph of Hope over Change, a new Era of Really Good Feelings in which only one thing has become increasingly, even irrefutably, clear: President Barack Obama is about as visionary as the guy who invented Dippin' Dots, Ice Cream of the Future. Far from sketching out a truly forward-looking set of policies for the 21st century, as his supporters had hoped, Obama is instead serving up cryogenically tasteless and headache-inducing morsels from years gone by.

Do-Goodery and Walking the Walk

Letters - WSJ.com - Payday Loan Bill Cuts Choices for Poor

Michael Calhoun, the head of the Center for Responsible Lending, asserts (Letters, April 18) that payday loans should be capped at 36% APR and endorses H.R. 1214, The Payday Loan Reform Act of 2009, for imposing limits.

At that rate, a loan of $200 for one month would generate $6 in interest. If Mr. Calhoun and the bill's sponsors really think one can run a payday business by charging such a rate, they should set up shop. It is not hard to do. Clients will flock to their outlets instead of the 'predatory' lenders they criticize.

The payday loan market is highly competitive and provides a needed service primarily for low-income people. Just let those folks try getting an instant loan from Citibank for $200 for one month. If H.R. 1214 is enacted, it will be back to thugs serving the low-income borrower market. That's a 'reform'?

Prof. Roger Meiners
University of Texas-Arlington
Arlington, Texas"
Actually some people have tried that. Here's a story about a Goodwill-operated non-profit payday lender. They need to charge 252% APR ($9.90 for a two-week, $100 loan) just to break even. That's ~7 times higher than HR 1214 would allow, so congratulations to the bill's sponsors on a move that would put a charity out of business. About half of GoodMoney's fees are used just to cover defaults, so even if every single customer paid you back on time and you didn't try to run a profit you still couldn't operate this business at 36%.

It's always bothered me that so many anti-poverty campaigns run along these lines: "I don't like poor people choosing (or more generously: having to choose) option Foo, so we must make option Foo illegal." Their heart's in the right place, but the move to close off options rather than open up new, more preferable ones doesn't add up for me. You can see this most obviously in minimum wage laws and various anti-sweat shop and fair trade movements.

My hat's off to Goodwill and their partner, Prospera Credit Union, for creating new options rather than trying to shut down existing ones. People who spend their time bitching to newspapers and congresscritters about payday lending should really be embarrassed that they're not also out there putting their own skin in the game to try and improve the alternatives for poor people.

The same goes for everyone pitching a fit about credit card fees. If they're so certain that fees of $X and rates of Y% are unnecessarily high then they ought to issue their own damn credit cards. If they're right they'll have to beat customers off with brooms, and if they're wrong then they'll lose their money. (Scratch that: if they're wrong they'll get a bailout and I'll lose more of my money, so disregard what I just said. Do-gooders: please do not set up a bank and issue credit cards.)

I'm receptive to the idea that some societal problems do require coordinated action, but that doesn't mean that every solution must be mediated through the government. So once again, cheers to Goodwill and Prospera for doing this themselves rather than lobbying Congress to get some new HUD fund set up to pay for non-profit, tax-subsidized payday lending.

(Via Don Boudreaux)

PS How about this conclusion from the letter that Prof Meiners was responding to: "More than 70% of Americans support an interest-rate cap of 36%, a generous rate by any calculation." (a) It's 100% not Americans' business what people charge for their services in private, voluntary transactions, and even if it was the justice of such a cap policy is entirely orthogonal to its popularity, and (b) 36% is generous by any calculations if by "calculations" you mean "numbers I pull out of the æther and sprinkle liberally with pixie dust and leprechaun farts before concluding whatever I want."

PPS I write this as one of my best friends is in town this week to lobby for what is, by his own admission, some pretty toothless anti-poverty legislation. Skip, this isn't directed at you — I know you walk the walk too. Which reminds me, some colleagues of his had just settled into their chairs in Arlen Specter's office yesterday to discuss this legislation when in walk some press. Specter turns to my buddy's associates and says "Hold on, this will only take a minute," then turns to the journos, swiftly tells them he's bailing out of the GOP, gives a no-big-deal shrug, and goes back to the topic of the original meeting. Surreal.

28 April 2009

Munger goes to Germany and some thoughts on Sandwiches

Mungowitz in Deutschland — Day 1:

Anyway, I had a steamer trunk. (A 35' x 22' x 17' steel beauty. It looked like the Millenium Falcon, if the MF were shaped like a steamer trunk.)

[...] I have to admit the train ride was good. The ICEs go fast enough it's actually disconcerting to look out the window. They are BUSTIN' through some German territory. I consider suggesting they rename the ICE trains "Pattons."
I'm always a sucker for a Patton joke.

I will be eagerly following the travels of the Mungwitz, especially since I read his Day 2 entry and found this gem of gastronomical wisdom:
There are several kinds of breads [at the hotel breakfast buffet], including some wonderful dark brown bread. Cereal. Fruit. Yogurt. And huge trays of stuff to put on bread, including large tins of potted leberwurst. And....a big tray of cold cuts and cheese. Salami, olive loaf.

I am pretty excited about this. Because this is traditional Munger food. Not at breakfast, but when you are in heaven who looks at the clock? My dad, Herbert Elmer Munger, had two rules: 1. Everything is better when it is put into a sam'ich.
(1) In my household pieces of salami and torn off bits of crusty bread are a round the clock food. One of the nice things about traveling in Italy is that the hotels put out nice spreads like this with an eye towards the battalions of German tourists, except with Italian (read: better) cold cuts and cheeses. This is one of two nice things about frequenting places with high concentrations of Teutonic travelers, the other being that they are ruthlessly good at queuing in an orderly way, and thus counteract the lazier queuing of my fellow Americans and the more anarchic queuing styles of the East Asians. (Mmmm... stereotypes... yummy.)

(2) Of course everything* is better when sandwichized. Of course it is. Why don't more people understand this?! Thank you, Herbet Elmer, thank you.

An illustrative example from tonight's dinner. Option 1: leftover herb-rubbed chicken from the weekend. Solid, but not particularly motivating. Option 2: slice chicken off bone, sautée some thinly sliced red onion and a couple of mushrooms, add a few cherry tomatoes at the last minute, dress with a drop or two of Caesar dressing and some black pepper and wrap in flat bread of your choosing. That's a sandwich with lifts the spirits and inspires the soul.

(Admittedly I am not convinced about the wisdom of the dressing. It wasn't perfect, but it was good enough for the first time making this particular sandwich. A spot of yoghurt sauce might have worked well, but this is not something I am provisioned with, and needs must when the Devil drives.)

* Solitary exception: pasta. I think we can make exceptions to the goodness(sandwich(food item)) > goodness(food item) theorem for values of food item that consist largely of cooked dough themselves.

Before someone says "What about soup?" — because whenever I am evangelizing sandwiches someone always says "What about soup?" and yes, I do evangelize sandwiches — I preemptively counter with soup in a bread bowl. Is it technically a sandwich? It is food surrounded on most sides by bread or similar baked good, so I say yes. Apparently this is not the legal definition in Boston, which mandates that a sandwich must have two slices of bread. Like most legal rulings originating in Boston, this is bullshit, as it would preclude not only sandwiches made by stuffing pita pockets, but also subs and hoagies formed by cutting a loaf of bread less than all the way through. Note that under my definition of sandwich, tacos, burritos, etc. are subsets of the sandwich genus.

$100M budget cut in perspective



The narrator sounds eerily like my friend Rob, the sole other libertarian (AFAIK) in my department, although that may have more to do with Rob liking to joke about monetary conspiracies like the narrator did than his actual voice.

(Via R Balko)

27 April 2009

From the Annals of Höpenchange

Obama Whiffs on Transparency | Reason Magazine:

So remember Obama’s promise to post bills to the Internet, and wait five days for public review before signing them?

So far, he’s one for 11.

And the one is questionable.
What a shock, business as usual.

24 April 2009

I think someone is lacking perspective

3quarksdaily: "At a moment in history when God is said to participate in world politics..."

Has there ever been a moment in history when God has not been said to participate in politics?

23 April 2009

More Zombie Fascists

I want to clarify a bit on my zombies != fascists post. (For the ease of discussion let's say we're talking about Nazis although any ideologically-driven mass movement will do, be it political, nationalist, religious, left, right, ethnic, whatever.)

Obviously Nazism is evil. Equally obviously there is a subset of Nazis that is irredeemably, psychopathically evil. But I throw my hat in with Hoffer and Arendt: what makes movements like Nazism so powerful and so frightening is that the majority of the adherents doing evil things aren't particularly bad people (at least initially). Frighteningly, they aren't that different from you and I. They don't really give a shit about the tenets of National Socialism, they just want to belong to something larger and more powerful than themselves, they want to follow the path of least resistance. That path happens to lead to some monstrous shit, but few people join up thinking "Hey, I want to do monstrous shit, where do I sign?!" They sign up because their brother is doing it, or because they need a job, or because they think it will help get them laid. Their motivations and goals are not that different from our own.

I want to be plain that this in no way excuses their actions. "I was just following orders" and "Everyone else was doing it" carry absolutely no weight in my book. I'm not trying to make the point that "regular" or seemingly normal people who do evil things are very much like us because I want to forgive and forget. I'm trying to make this point because as soon as you write your enemies off as being uniquely monstrous or inhuman you make it harder to understand them, and this in turn makes it harder to defeat them. It also makes it more likely that you'll fall into evil behavior yourself, either directed at the enemy because you think he's subhuman and unworthy of your decency, or because you let your guard down by thinking that barbaric behavior is the exclusive domain of your supposedly inhuman enemy, and surely your friends and neighbors would never do that.

Forgive me for repeating myself, but I need to make it very clear that I am not trying to downplay the evils of Nazism, Stalinism, et al. My only point is that Nazis, Stalinists, etc. are still human, and most of them aren't even particularly psychopathic humans. They chose to become Nazis, they chose to keep being Nazis. Once they were done being Nazis you would never have known what they once were. The sine qua non of zombies is that they aren't human anymore. All this says to me that zombies are a pretty poor metaphor: you don't chose to be a zombie, you don't get to opt out of being a zombie, and you will never be mistaken for not-a-zombie later. The brain-munching undead will never capture the banality inherent in something like Nazism.

So where does this leave you if you want to write some genre fiction about the rise of evil ideologies? (Assuming you don't take the TJIC-endorsed approach and just write your story with actual bad guys instead of walking metaphors for bad guys.*) In a comment to the previous post, JimPanzee recommends something more akin to Borg, or Replicants, which I think is a great idea. The mind-control "caps" from John Christopher's The Tripods series might be a good place to start as well.


* Then there's the Atomic Robo/BPRD approach: Nazis who are also zombies!

"Marriage-Go-Round"

The Marriage-Go-Round by Andrew J. Cherlin | Author Interview:

Q: One of the main trends THE MARRIAGE-GO-ROUND discusses is that Americans have more long-term partners than the rest of the western world. Why do you think this is?

A: I think the reason is the nature of American culture, which is unlike the culture of any other country when it comes to marriage and personal life. Americans believe in two contradictory ideals. The first is the importance of marriage: we are more marriage-oriented than most other Western countries. The second is the importance of living a personally fulfilling life that allows us to grow and develop as individuals—call it individualism. Now, you can find other countries that place a high value on marriage, such as Italy where most children are born to married couples and there are fewer cohabiting relationships. And you can find countries that place a high value on individualism, such as Sweden. But only in the United States do you find both. So we marry in large numbers—we have a higher marriage rate than most countries. But we evaluate our marriages according to how personally fulfilling we find them. And if we find them lacking, we are more likely to end them. [...] It’s not as though some Americans value marriage and others value individualism. Rather, we carry both ideals in our heads and switch between them without even realizing it.
I don't want to air dirty laundry here, so I'll limit my comments to: yeah, that sounds pretty much right.

On a related matter, we need another word for individualism. I've gotten mired in a dozen or so discussions when one party is using it to mean "putting your own needs first" and the other is using it to mean "relying on yourself for your own needs." This leads us to two apparently contradictory theses, one which sees all the "I'm a beautiful snowflake who bowls alone" behavior and calls it a surplus of individualism, and one which sees all the "I want my private costs socialized with a bailout" behavior and calls it a poverty of individualism, and they're both sort of right.

(Via Jacob Grier)

Fascist Zombies

Braak at Threat Quality Press asks the hard questions: What exactly ARE zombies for? I'm always a sucker for cracking the syntactic chocolate shell of a genre and getting into it's semantic nougat center, so I'd recommend this.
This yields two basic kinds of horror from the zombie story–one makes it kin to Rhinoceros: it’s about the rise of fascism/nazism/&c. Formerly intelligent, independent, real human beings lose their self by becoming infected with [zombieness], and become part of a mindless horde that regularly engages in activities that individuals would before have found horrific. It is a metaphor for the mass, irreedemable loss of the minds of those one loves. (And this is the nature of horror: losses must be irredeemable. If you are in for a penny, you need to be in for a pound.)

The second is less about the psychological contagion and more about individual alienation: that the world is full of things that look human but behave atrociously drives home the idea that the individual is lost in a completely hostile world. Here the point is to set the hero, or heroes, at odds with a universe that is both familiar-looking and also completely alien. (Interestingly: the death of the main character in Night of the Living Dead, despite not being a zombie-related death, actually supports this theme; why? Because the movie is not about ZOMBIES, it’s about what zombies mean.)
I've never much liked the wave of zombie infection = rise of wicked ideology theme. I'm not disputing he's right about zombies being used that way, but it's always seemed to miss the point to me. Part of what makes it so scary when previously normal people do horrific things in the name of a cause is that they don't become irredeemable inhuman. When Zimbardo and Milgram's subjects finish up they go back to being normal undergrads; when Colonel Saito wasn't running POW camps in Indochina he was probably playing with his kids and taking walks with his wife and worrying about going bald, just like the rest of us.

It's exactly the ability of normal people to do monstrous things without becoming monsters that is so scary to me. It's easy to justify a world in which Bad Things are done by Bad People, it's much more difficult to accept that Bad Things are done by the guy who sings in the choir and calls his mother every Sunday and brings donuts into the office to share all the time. ((1) Yes, that's a reference to Dexter, which relies on this phenomenon and the fact that we're still undecided about vigilantism, and (2) No, I'm not saying there are no truly Bad People, just that I don't think they're frightening in the same way or as good of an referent for zombies as "normal" folk who behave badly.)

In zombie fiction you're always hearing things like "No, he's not your brother anymore. Your brother is dead, that's just his body, let it go." I don't think that's a good analog to someone who's joined up with the blackshirts or what have you, because one day that guy won't be a blackshirt anymore, and he'll probably go back to being normal in most respects. But as we know, you can't go back from being a zombie. The fact that people can compartmentalize so well that they can go and do evil things and then come home when the war or revolution or whatnot is over and go back about their lives is what makes evil in the service of a cause (as opposed to evil in the service of psychopathy or ego) so frightening.

21 April 2009

The circus is coming to town!

No, not literally the circus — the Westboro Baptist Church Protest Squad! They're coming to Walt Whitman High School, my alma mater, to protest it being named after a deceased homosexual. These people hate, well... just about everybody. Yet somehow there just aren't enough contemporary things to for them to get their knickers in a twist over and so they're digging back into the history books a couple centuries to find more people to hate.

I'm seriously considering walking over there this Friday just to soak in the absurdity of these asshats' free freak show. It would be like seeing some oddity of natural history in motion. "What's that, you once saw a two-headed snake eating a marmot from both ends? And the coming-of-age rituals of the Kandakandero tribe from the deep jungles of far Peru? Well back in aught nine I saw a live Westboro protest. Truly a bizarre spectacle, my friend..."

An unrelated thought about naming a high school after Walt Whitman: I've always thought it was weird that the guy was worth naming a school after, but not worth teaching any of those students in the school about. The English curriculum was more or less set county-wide, so I can understand why we didn't get all of Leaves of Grass or anything. But there wasn't so much as a plaque with a excerpt of Song of Myself or a mention of him in an assembly or anything. That being as it is, I have a bit of a gap in my Whitman-related knowledge. Nonetheless, here are some favorite Whitman quotations:

All faults may be forgiven of him who has perfect candor.

Behold I do not give lectures or a little charity. When I give, I give myself.

Have you learned the lessons only of those who admired you, and were tender with you, and stood aside for you? Have you not learned great lessons from those who braced themselves against you, and disputed passage with you?

20 April 2009

Stop-loss for Bankers

No Parting from TARP - Megan McArdle

I've been expecting this for a while: Treasury isn't going to let the banks pay back TARP money unless it damn well feels like it.

I'm not clear what the point is. At this point, everyone knows which of the systemically important institutions can probably repay the money, and which of them can't. Perhaps the idea is to keep Goldman from carrying out its purported plan to bust the compensation caps and thereby poach top talent from the other firms.

On the other hand, this seems certain to discourage financial institutions from participating in any future Treasury programs. Once you take the King's Shilling, apparently you've enlisted for life--and your Congressional drill sergeants reserve the right to change the rules of your employment at will.
That's it, it's settled, there is no coherent rational behind what has become of TARP. "We wish we didn't have to give you a bunch of money, but we're going to anyway, even though we blame you for this mess, and you have to take it even if you don't want it, but we're not giving it to you for what we originally claimed, and we want you to recapitalize, but also to lend out more capital, but not to risky people but also not exclusively to un-risky people, and we need you to turn profits, but not big ones, and not if you have to raise fees, and we think you're wicked for getting all that money, but you can't give it back."
But where are the clowns?
Quick, send in the clowns.
Don't bother, they're here.
— "Send in the Clowns," Stephen Sondheim

WaPo & Obama: Eschew Obfuscation

Greg Mankiw observes:
The Washington Post reports:
President Obama plans to convene his Cabinet for the first time today, and he will order its members to identify a combined $100 million in budget cuts over the next 90 days, according to a senior administration official....Earlier this month, both chambers of Congress passed Obama's $3.5 trillion budget outline for 2010, which includes unprecedented new investments in health care, education and energy. But the huge budget, which contemplates a $1.2 trillion deficit, has drawn the ire of small-government conservatives, who say that such high deficits jeopardize the nation's economic future.
Just to be clear: $100 million represents .003 percent of $3.5 trillion.

To put those numbers in perspective, imagine that the head of a household with annual spending of $100,000 called everyone in the family together to deal with a $35,000 budget shortfall. How much would he or she announce that spending had be cut? By $3 over the course of the year--approximately the cost of one latte at Starbucks. The other $34,997? We can put that on the family credit card and worry about it next year.
This is political smoke-and-mirrors hand-waving theatrical bullshit. "Oooh, look at us, we're so serious about the problem that we're going to try to fix .003% of it."

I like Mankiw's family budget example but to de-obfuscate* this more explicitly, we got to a table:
(* And yes, that's a word amongst my people.)

spending:$ 3,500,000,000,000
deficit:$ 1,200,000,000,000
requested cuts:$ 100,000,000

What a Herculean task Obama has set for himself and the 15 top executives in the country.

If you're going to argue that deficits are necessary for stimulus purposes, fine, but stick to your guns. If deficits were good back in February don't turn around and try to placate all the teabaggers and deficit hawks in April with a spectacle of mock belt-tightening.

Prediciton: all $100,000,000 of spending cuts will be from items which were either not present in the 2009 budget, that is, they are forgoing increases rather than making cuts, or if they were present in 2009 and will be cut for 2010, will be restored at higher levels in 2011 because there is good press to be gained by cutting them now and no one will notice that they're reinstated and doubled 12 months from now.

Oh, and let's not leave the Washington Post off the hook here. Let's just let Randall Munroe set them straight for us:

The Tuesday before Homecoming, Some Decades Hence

The American Scene | Dara Lind | At Least Three Reasons to Care about Hipsters

I’d add that, for better or for worse, “hipster” seems to be the dominant archetype/stereotype for this generation. It’s not mainstream, but neither was “hippie” or “punk” or “greaser” or “grunge,” all of which enjoy outsized significance in our collective memory. Years from now, when high school student councils declare the Tuesday before Homecoming “00’s Day” and tell everyone to dress up accordingly, the boys will wear skinny ties and skinny jeans and the girls will wear tunics, leggings and Uggs. They will have gotten mixed up about the Uggs, but the only teacher with the chutzpah to make a comment to this effect will be greeted with a class-wide hush and the wide-eyed question: “Miz Gould, were you a…hipster…back then?” The answer will not matter then either, but the question will endure, only the verb tense changing.
I shudder at the thought, but she is exactly right. Another thought: soon enough "hipster" will be a valid Halloween costume. One day kids will be wearing ironic costumes mimicing a subculture most identified with the wearing of ironic costume.

Now whenever I see hipsters I will remember these things, and I will recognize that I am witnessing what will become the future's poorly conceived nostalgia right now.

(Lind has more thoughts on the value of cultural criticism itself at the link above, if you're interested.)

19 April 2009

Koyaanisqatsi

I just realized that the entirety of Koyaanisqatsi is available on Hulu. That's even better than finding out the cashier at Popeye'sgave you some extra, unsolicited free biscuits. (Mmmmm...biscuits.)

I spent a large fraction of nights of the summer of '03 mellowed out on shisha watching movies like Koyaanisqatsi and The Seventh Seal (in Swedish, without subtitles) and 2001 - movies that i didn't have to listen to or think about, movies that I could just float in. Not that they don't deserve thinking about, because they definitely do, but you don't have to be actively interpreting these narratives while you watch. You can just observe.

16 April 2009

The latest dire threat: Large Televisions

http://blog.wired.com/gadgets/2009/03/california-tv.html

The California Energy Commission is proceeding with a proposal this summer to ban the sale of TV sets that do not meet new efficiency standards when they are turned on and displaying a picture — a measure of power consumption that is not currently regulated at all.

But the market and technological advances may already be advancing this goal, as large-screen plasma sets fall out of favor and LCDs become more energy efficient.

The CEC proposal is set up as a two-tiered system. The first enforces efficiency standards beginning in 2011 and would save 3,831 gigawatt hours (and bring down overall TV energy consumption by 33%) by placing a cap on the active mode power usage (in watts) of individual TVs. Current standards in California only regulate TVs in standby mode, at a cap of 3.0 watts.

Micromanaging BS. Why should they care that I save ~166 kWh by buying a more efficient telly or by turning up the thermostat a smidge in the summer or by switching the setting on my refrigerator or by doing any of the millions of other things I could conceivably do voluntarily to save energy? For that mater what business is it of theirs if I decide not to increase the efficiency of my television or do anything else and just continue paying the $24 necessary to run the less efficient model? If my 166 kWh are imposing some negative externality on Californians then raise the price of electricity instead of meddling around in exactly how and where I reduce my energy usage.

(I'm taking liberties with the first person here since I neither live in California nor want a television large enough to be affected.)
Link

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised since the California Air Resource Board is considering legislation to ban black cars since they use a bit more air conditioning to cool down when it's sunny. Where you decide to set the thermostat in your car, to say nothing of how you drive or when you just roll down the windows instead of using the AC absolutely swamps any effect that paint color may have on energy consumption. There is no conceivable way this is a reasonable measure, but it does give the busybodies an opportunity to Do Something!

From the state's FAQ on the new TV rules:
Consumers overwhelmingly want efficient TVs, retailers now will be able to market their products to a desirable demographic.
Nothing is stopping retailers from marketing efficient TVs to a "desirable demographic"— by this I can only conclude they mean "everybody in California" — currently. In fact sales of efficient televisions already out-pace less efficient models. If consumers so overwhelming want efficient televisions why would you even need to ban less efficient ones?

How about this non sequitur: "Despite increased population ... energy efficiency standards have helped keep per capita electricity consumption in California flat for the past 30 years." Somebody doesn't understand what per capita means. Oh, and California has driven a big chunk of it's heavy industry out of state in the last three decades, so I'd like to see this limited to residential usage statistics. Also, California has some of the highest energy prices in the country, that just might have something to do with it. As a matter of fact, the eight states with the lowest per capita energy usage are the eight states with the highest electricity prices. It's almost as if there's some sort of talon or paw or hand, yes a hand, one that we can't see, that is leading people to use less of something when the price is high. (See Coyote Blog for details and methodology.)

Here's another 'answer' from the CEC: "Energy efficiency is the cleanest and cheapest form of 'renewable' energy." Efficiency is the ratio of outputs to inputs; it isn't a form of energy at all. As such it can't be said to be renewable, whether with or without inexplicable quote marks.

"In most cases, adding efficiency technologies in televisions do not result in increased cost of the television because other components can be reduced, offsetting any increased cost." Industrial design does not work that way. If making more efficient appliances were costless in the short run then only more efficient units would be manufactured since it would give producers a costless way to add a valuable feature.

"After the existing stock of televisions is replaced, these proposed standards will save 3,831 gigawatt hours (GWh) in 2011; 2,684 GWh in 2013." The proposal wouldn't go into effect until 1/1/2011, so are they saying that the 3831 GWh figure that the press is throwing around is assuming complete turnover of all large televisions in under 12 months? That's how it reads to me.

PS What a surprise, there's a Baptists-and-Bootleggers angle to this:

Those who'd benefit from the new law don't share the same belief [that the new law would harm manufacturers]. The LCD Manufacturers Association, including up-and coming TV makers like Vizio, are supporting the proposal.

Epicaricacy

Harvard: the Inside Story of Its Finance Meltdown - Forbes.com

I confess to harboring no small amount of schadenfreude about the cratering of Harvard's endowment. That was before I knew that the late Bill Strauss, who I respect a great deal, was the perennial antagonist of their endowment management operation. Forbes has details about what is shaping up to be a 30-50% loss for the boys from Cambridge. The only thing I have to say is "mwuhahahahaha!"

15 April 2009

This hasn't worked since the First Council of Nicea

This is excerpted from an email that just went out to members of the Graduate Student Senate here at UMD:
In the past week the University has had an opportunity to discuss the inclusion of prayer at the institution’s commencement exercises. As we seek to find a manner that is responsive to the diverse populations of students, faculty, staff, and visitors, we need your help. We are working on guidelines and principles for prayer at commencement and we could use your assistance in helping us to think of the words and phrases and other guidelines that might help us to make this celebrative, centering, and meaningful.
I don't really care either way whether there's a prayer at commencement, but I will lay dollars to donuts that writing a prayer by committee is going to end up as a travesty of both theology and the English language.

Handkerchief Cartography


A new set of MUJI Handkerchiefs has printed maps of London, Tokyo, Paris and New York. I have a huge jones for the London one, but the shipping is as much as the kerchief itself. That makes it a no go.

(Via Kempt)

Doritos 'Late Night Tacos at Midnight' Flavor

http://threatquality.com/2009/04/15/current-obsession-sexy-midnight-snack-chips/

Doritos is targeting that other sure-fire snack-food demographic: Hungry Drunk People.

Because that’s the not-so-subtle message in this new line of chips. They’re not just taco-flavored. Doritos has already done taco-flavored. These are tacos…after midnight. The “Silk Stalkings” of tortilla chips, if you will - dangerous and sexy (but on a limited budget). Of course, the only people eating tacos after midnight may be dangerous and sexy, but most likely are people who are A) awake after midnight, and B) think tacos is just about the best idea they’ve ever had. So: drunk people.

And I have to admit, it does feel a bit like a betrayal to be eating them around lunchtime. But I will tell you this: the Frito-Lay people have somehow successfully captured a mood in flavoring, and that’s no small feat. Tacos After Midnight tastes very much like tacos from a Taco Bell that’s been open for 16 hours and whose employees are apathetic (at best!) to your flavor concerns; this blends on the palate with a hint of disorientation, skewed self-image, and stale smoke. And cumin. Lotta cumin.
Wow. These could have saved me more than a few gallons of gas for wee hours trip to Taco Bell back in undergrad.

14 April 2009

Title IX: From the Locker Room to the Lab

Let me just say that I'm all for more women in science and engineering. I figure the more brains we can throw at our technical problems the better, and to hell with what kind of genitals they're attached to. The brightest future does not lie in hope and hugs and unicorns, but through lab benches and journal articles and silicon. I want us solving technical problems as fast as our squishy little neurons can fire, and yes, that certainly includes neurons with two X chromosomes.

That said, this idea coming out of the White House to apply Title IX to science education is flatly absurd. (Washington Post article here requires free registration, free repost available here.)

Title IX only worked for college sports (to the extent that it did) because there are more people who want to be athletes, both men and women, than can be athletes. Eliminate a bunch of the athlete slots available for men, add some more slots for women, and you can get a decent numerical parity.

To apply Title IX to science and engineering majors you would have to assume that there are tons of women who would really like to study those things but are being shut out. The problem is that it's not like that at all. Women aren't lining up to study science and engineering. Hell, men aren't either. Every department I know of bends over backwards to get people to enroll in their programs. They go out and market themselves to get more students because (a) it boosts their egos and (b) it boosts their funding. Why would they do this if they were already turning women away at the door?

Maybe women don't want to study technical subjects because they grew up being told that girls aren't good at math or some other bullshit and they're dissuaded by society's pernicious expectations, I don't know. If that's the case, then address that problem. Don't come in when women are 18 or 19 years old with some ham-fisted approach and start dictating how many ovary-possessing nerds we need per testicled nerd.

It's like these people can't conceive of the notion that different people have different preferences. Maybe society isn't going to split every task 50/50. Maybe the world does not exist in a way that suits the simplistic outlook of meddling societal architects. They should address any actual problems of discrimination instead of just trying to shoehorn people into the roles they want them to have so that the statistics fit their idealized conception of the way the world ought to be.

David Friedman's Latest

I can't find anything in this David Friedman post to excise because it's packed with ideastuff. Read up for his thoughts on car safety, condoms and Catholics.

Just to focus on one thing, I think he's on to something with the relative benefits of the rhythm method for people who are aiming for four kids instead of eight compared to those who are hoping for zero instead of one. I've never thought of it from that perspective, but now that I hear it I don't think I'll ever be able to consider it in another light.

13 April 2009

Baseball Bleg

Does anybody know a good source for RSS feeds of box scores? I've found plenty that supply Red Sox scores, and others that supply Red Sox news stories, but nothing with the box score, or even a link to the box score.

Please leave a comment if you have any tips for me.

The Return of the Uncomfortable Truths Well

Panel 2 of today's xkcd provides another reason high school students ought to learn to program: it forces you to confront the burden of clarifying your ideas. There is no hiding behind sloppy logic or unspoken assumptions or the vagaries of English.

(This comic is also a great example of how Munroe manages to work romance into his "webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math and language.")



[Click to enlarge]

12 April 2009

Blogiversary

Today was a very special holiday at Palazzo Sud Curva Sette. No, not Easter, but the one year anniversary of the glorious re-establishment of this blog. I celebrated in high style and with great pomp by doing ... pretty much what I would have done anyway, namely sleeping in, a bit of a light work out, watching some golf, and eating too much dinner inexplicably early in the day.

Anyway, thanks for coming and reading my rambling and rantings and assorted mental ephermera. Here's to another year.

11 April 2009

Article One, Section Eight

Atomic Nerds | To The Shores of…. the Somali?

Dear Senator,

I am writing today to formally request issuance of a Letter of Marque and Reprisal against pirates operating in and around the waters of the African continent. Article one, section eight of the US Constitution enumerates this among the powers of congress, so while Constitutional authority has not thus far been a subject of concern for the current administration, this would actually within the bounds of what the government is allowed to do. While such letters were banned by the Declaration of Paris in 1856, the United States did not actually sign that treaty, and honors it only as far as a gentleman’s agreement. Clearly, this is not binding, and in the face of having US shipping interests captured and held for ransom by pirates, some response above “tut-tut” is in order. Remember, the last time this situation arose, the US Marine Corps added a rather memorable line to their official hymn- one which kept would-be riff-raff at bay for over 200 years.
That's one letter off to a fine start. Click through to read the rest, which is even more snarky and entertaining.

I know the Corps is a little busy right now, and I know that no one in the Pentagon is eager for Somalia II: Avast Ye Mateys, especially with the wife of the guy who directed Somalia: Lost in the Market helping to call the shots, but isn't this exactly what we have a Marine Corps for? I don't mean "Isn't this what we had a Marine Corps for in the First Barbary War?" I mean now, today, where are you going to find a situation more suited for the USMC? Project American power and might halfway around the world on short notice to crack some skulls on and in the vicinity of large bodies of water. That's what we're looking for, right? If not this, what is the purpose of the United States Marines? To balance out the perceived nancy-ishness of the modern Navy with leatherneck bad-assery?


PS Fact of the Day, Barbary War Edition: "The U.S. paid Algiers the ransom, and continued to pay up to $1 million per year over the next 15 years for the safe passage of American ships or the return of American hostages. Payments in ransom and tribute to the privateering states amounted to 20 percent of United States government annual revenues in 1800." Danegeld indeed. (Wikipedia)

10 April 2009

Ick

Will Wilkinson on the Ick-factor
John Holbo knows what’s up:
What do the [National Review] editors, and Gallagher, really think? The ick argument, I’ll wager. They want to stop same-sex marriage as a way of sending a message of ‘ick’ to gays, and about gays. But they also don’t want to be labeled homophobes. That is, although saying ‘gay marriage shouldn’t be allowed because I believe gay sex is icky’ is actually a less terrible argument than anything they’ve got – hey, it’s not flagrantly internally incoherent, it’s basically honest (I’ll wager), and who doesn’t believe that on some level people steer, morally, by emotional attraction-repulsion drive? – it’s considered embarrassing. (Homophobia: the yuck that dare not speak its name.) [...]

What makes these arguments so weird is the mildness of the underlying opposition to homosexuals and homosexuality – the implicit inclination to be basically tolerant. ‘C’mon, gays, you know you’re ok, and we know you’re ok, and you even know that we know you’re ok, but we don’t like it, so can’t there be some way that we can insist on us being a little better than you? It can be a small thing. Symbolic, but slightly inconvenient for you, so people know it’s also serious?’
I agree that many people's objections to gay marriages amount to "Ewww, icky," but I'll go one further and say that many people's objections to many issues amount to the same.

I've had people — smart people, reasonable people — tell me things like "Of course we should ban smoking in bars; smoking is gross," or more specifically "We should ban smoking in bars so that my hair and clothes don't smell gross after I go out." They say these things not as observations but as if they were actual arguments.

You can wrack up most of the support for bans of fast food or soft drinks or transfats or salt to "Ewwww... fat people!"

Most of the populist current in economic policy boils down to "Ick, profits." (Yeah remember all the way back in summer 2008 when people had time to complain about "windfall profits?" Those were the days.) Could there be an argument more based on superficial aesthetic revulsion than yammering about "McMansions?"

(To be fair I think there's more than a bit of "Ewww, poor people" going on as well, but that's mostly kept under tighter wrap and isn't trotted out as obviously by the stuffed shirts and talking heads as if it were an actual argument.)



PS Tyler Cowen has a testable hypothesis about the ick-factor (or a subset of it) regarding gay marriages. I don't think the correlation would be as strong as he seems to, but it's an interesting thought nonetheless.

07 April 2009

Recent Posts Revisited

I have addenda to four recent posts so I thought I'd just put them all in the same place. Here goes...

On the topic of Wolfram's new "Platonic Truth Search Engine" check out this piece in Wired about a team of Cornell researchers who built a system which derived laws of motion, including Newton's Second, from datasets of of things like pendula in motion. This is without any inbuilt knowledge of geometry or physics, mind you, just observations. Genetic Algorithms: Wow.

(Via 3 Quarks Daily)



On the matter of Oakton High School in Fairfax County, VA being run by timorous, puritanical legalists, I regretfully report that Fairfax is set to begin mandating volunteerism. As I wrote back in June, even if we put aside the obviously oxymoronic nature of compulsory volunteer work and the moral implications of government mandated labor, we must face the problem that school administrators are not qualified to be the arbiters of what benefits and what does not benefit the community. I could hardly ask for a clearer example of this than the mandarins of Fairfax county so manifestly demonstrating their lack of judgment by suspending a girl for taking the Pill just days before taking on the responsibility of determining the merits of various forms of unpaid labor.



Regarding the suck that is voice mail, it was just announced that Google Voice will be made available for iPhones and iPod Touches. As an owner of the latter I'm excited. It may actually make voice mail not terrible by doing things like transcribing it for you then sending a copy to your email. It has lots of other innovative features, see this LifeHacker post for video demos.

This is a good example of one of the underlying assumptions of most of what Google does: everything can be described by numerical data. In this case we don't have separate things called "phone calls" and "voice mail" and "text messages" we just have data streams, and they can be combined and edited and merged and redirected and copied and so on. I think Claude Shannon would be happy with this.



On the matter of UMD's blue movie, it looks like the canceled screening was uncanceled and held last night in the guise of an academic event. If the organizers had started out this way I'd have way more sympathy for them. The film they chose to run is actually a pretty interesting cultural artifact, in that it's a multi-million dollar production, with special effects and large set pieces and all the things you'd expect from a Hollywood pirate movie, except it also has explicit sex scenes. It's a pretty big break from previous hard core movies, and as such may warrant discussion. I'd just wish they'd started with that rather than cloaking themselves in the mantle of education once they ran aground.

There are a lot of complaints to the effect of "this is financed with student activity fees, not tax funds, so the State Senate should but out."

(1) The facility they're using was built and renovated and is maintained by state funds. They may have used student fees to pay for the reel but they aren't paying close to market rent to use and maintain the theater.

(2) The University is very much a government entity. For instance, I'm a University employee and my paychecks are signed by the Comptroller of Maryland. It's disingenuous to argue that the State Government shouldn't be involved because this is a campus matter.

(3) The fees in question are a mandatory charge placed on all students' accounts. The amount of that charge is controlled by the University with input from the state government, and the allocation of funds are largely controlled and overseen by the University. Maybe I'm not being forced to fund this directly as a taxpayer, but insofar as I'm a UMD student I am still being forced to fund it. The organizers didn't pass the hat around to raise money for their skin flick, they took a portion of my paycheck against my will. I'm all for porn if that's what tingles your fiddly bits, but do it on your own time with your own money.

Also, to quote the Dude, this is not a first amendment issue, Walter. There's a big difference between having the government prohibit expression and the government being required to let you use it's facilities for expression. A lot of the faux-outraged students don't seem to be making that decision.

Furthermore a lot of professors were saying things like Martha Neil Smith of our English department: "I don't believe [sexual content] should be censored in my classroom." I couldn't agree more, but this wasn't a classroom. It was an event put on (I believe - facts are hard to come by in this coverage) by the Student Power Party, a political party of sorts for student government. Out of curiosity, we should also ask ourselves where the 1st Amendment folks would be if this was a fraternity trying to put on a public event with XXX films and strippers and such. My best guess is that they wouldn't be talking about free speech at all, rather objectification and exploitation and hostile learning environment would be the words of the day.

"Get Excited And Make Things"

20x200 : Get Excited And Make Things, by Matt Jones

Unfortunately my office decorating budget is $0, but if it weren't this would make a fine addition to the lab.

Your very own artificial researcher

Rudy Rucker interviews Stephen Wolfram for h+ Magazine about Wolfram's newest invention/product/system.
“Wolfram|Alpha isn’t really a search engine, because we compute the answers, and we discover new truths. If anything, you might call it a platonic search engine, unearthing eternal truths that may never have been written down before.”

Despite his disclaimer, Wolfram|Alpha looks like a search engine, in that there’s a one-line box where you type in a question. The output appears a second or two later, as a page of text and graphics below the box. What's happening behind the scenes? Rather than looking up the answer to your question, Wolfram|Alpha figures out what your question means, looks up the necessary data to answer your question, computes an answer, designs a page to present the answer in a pleasing way, and sends the page back to your computer.

Let me give three random examples. If you enter the query, “3/26/2009 + 90 days” you’ll get a page that gives a date ninety days later than the first date. If you enter “mt. everest height length of golden gate” you’ll get a page expressing the height of Mount Everest as a multiple of the length of the Golden Gate Bridge. If you enter “temperature in los gatos,” you’ll get something like the current temperature, a graph of the temperatures over the last week with projections for the next few days, and a graph of the temperatures over the last year.

Wolfram|Alpha can pop out an answer to pretty much any kind of factual question that you might pose to a scientist, economist, banker, or other kind of expert. The exciting part is that you’re not just looking up pages on the web, you’re getting new information that’s generated by computations working from the known data.
(1) I have great respect for Stephen Wolfram. He's one of those guys who not only has been churning out ideas his entire life, but they've had an impressive degree of novelty. Furthermore he's actually instantiated his ideas in workable systems. He's got the spirit of a modern Isambard Kingdom Brunel. (Don't get me wrong, I mostly stick to theory myself. But there's something impressive about ginning up good theory and good artifacts as well.)

(2) A lot of Rucker's questions understandable relate to Google. The difference seems to be that while Google will point you to an already extant page which hopefully contains the answer to your query, Wolfram|Alpha will answer your question itself. I have no idea how well it will answer your questions, or how much better it will get, but it's an interesting context switch. If we're every going to piggyback our intelligence on artificial computing power then it's necessary that we be able to ask a computer a question and get an answer, rather than just being pointed to where we might find the answer.

Note also that Google already does some of this. It already answers one of Wolfram's example queries "temperature in los gatos" by giving the current and predicted weather. A query like "monsters vs aliens showtimes" will give you local showtimes for the movie in question. Airlines are similarly handled. Arithmetic, unit conversion and currency conversion is also all covered already. The difference seems to be that Google, despite these features, is still very much about document retrieval and not answering questions. Without knowing anything about the architecture behind the scenes I can't speculate about whether Google could be made to do what Wolfram|Alpha purports to do.

(3) Rucker also asks about the Semantic Web, another good comparison. I'm with him in thinking that the Semantic Web will never really take off. I have a feeling our natural language processing systems will get good enough fast enough that the Semantic Web will be obsolete before it's formed, if for no other reason than that NLP has so many applications to spur it on. (Of course I tend not to be too optimistic about NLP progress either, I'm just even less optimistic about Semantic Web progress. This isn't a knock on the Semantic Web people -- I know a few of them and they're good, smart folks.)

(4) Wolfram's comment about "the issue is not to emulate humans, but rather to bulldoze a shortest path to an answer" reminds me of a great quote by another CS lumniary Edsger Dijkstra:
The question of whether machines can think is about as relevant as the question of whether submarines can swim.
I've always thought of that as the "Quacks Like a Duck" theory of artificial intelligence.

I've seen that misquoted more than a few times as "about as interesting" which I think is quite wrong. It's a very interesting question since it's intimately related to all of cognitive science, and by extension epistemology, metaphysics, psychology, linguistics, AI, moral philosophy, .... Admittedly it's not terribly relevant when we're trying to build the machines that will hopefully be doing our cognitive heavy (or even light) lifting for us. I have no idea if this Wolfram|Alpha system will even qualify as light lifting, but it's an interesting development nonetheless. I'll certainly be tuned in this May to give it a try.



PS Another favorite Djikstra quote: "Computer Science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes." In my pricklier moods I remind people of this when they hear I'm a CS student and immediately ask me what's wrong with their computers. I'd like to see Computer Science renamed Computing Science or Computation Science to better make this decision. I'm not sure it would keep people from bugging me about their out of whack Windows boxes, but it would still be much more accurate.

06 April 2009

Foiled



Grrrr.

My opening day plans of eating hot dogs, drinking High Life and watching the Sox home opener have been foiled by rain. Now I am left with no choice but to go back to work, which I'm sure we can all agree is a poor substitute indeed.

"Merely Firm," or, "Oakton HS is run by Cowardly Reactionaries"

DCist | Fairfax Co. Student Suspended For Taking Birth Control At School

A Fairfax County girl was given a two-week suspension and a recommendation for expulsion because she was "caught" taking her birth control pill during lunch last month. Of course, the school's side of the matter is that there is a zero-tolerance policy in the school for any kind of pill.
ZT is an abysmal excuse for spineless school administrators to pass the buck and refrain from having to display any actual judgement or conviction of their own. This kind of bureaucratic bullshit doesn't mean they're "tough on drugs" it just means they're incapable of exercising the slightest degree of discernment or perspective.

From the Washington Post story on the matter:
For two decades, many schools have set zero-tolerance policies on drugs. That means no over-the-counter drugs, no prescription drugs, no pretend drugs in student lockers or pockets. When many teens have ready access to medicine cabinets filled with prescription medications such as Xanax and Vicodin, any capsule or tablet is suspect.

Still, some parents and civil rights advocates say enforcement has been overzealous. Stringent rules have ensnared not only drug dealers and abusers, but a host of sniffling and headachy students seeking quick medical relief. The Supreme Court will consider this month the case of a 13-year-old Arizona student who was strip-searched in 2003 by an administrator who suspected that she was carrying ibuprofen pills.
The problem is that that case, Redding v. Safford Unified School District, isn't really about medication in schools at all. It's about whether students should have at least enough privacy to keep their underwear on in the absence of any evidence against them, and more so about whether the preposterously overzealous assistant principal who ordered the search should have known he was over the line, to which the only possible answer is "only if we expect principals to possess basic human decency." Sadly, I'm not sure if I can answer that question anymore.
Fairfax School Board members have debated over time whether to allow students to carry Tylenol or other over-the-counter medicines without registering them with the school nurse. County policy permits cough drops to be carried on campus, for instance, but not shared. Arlington County policies permit high school students to carry over-the-counter pain relievers. A 2006 state law in Maryland overturned some local rules requiring a doctor's note for children to use sunscreen at school.
OMG!!! Cough drops! Sunscreen! Drugs! Terrorists! We have to save the chilllldruuunnnnnnnnn!!!!!

Back to the DCist post:
The teen that was suspended -- an honor student and a letterman, no less -- studied the handbook on drugs and found that not only would her punishment been less if she had been caught with heroin, but that her two-week suspension was the same punishment if she had brought a gun to school. It's understandable that the school wants to curb prescription drug abuse by students, but their blanket reaction to the issue sets a very dangerous precedent -- not to mention the message it sends to other students.
The message it sends is that the adults in charge of the world are childish and frightened and generally extremely poor at their jobs. It sends the message that the world is full of very dangerous things including Advil, and that even smart adults are utterly incapable of discerning the relative risks of anything that carries the slightest possibility of danger. It sends the message that the rules matter more than reality, that common sense is nothing compared to slavish devotion to procedure, and that if you want to get ahead you do what it says in the little booklet and don't question authority even when — perhaps especially when — you're part of the authority. It sends the message that not only should students not think, but the people in charge should not think either.

As always, let us welcome wisdom from the ancients:
"The superior man [or Gentleman, or Scholar] is correctly firm, and not merely firm"
— Analects, XV.36

04 April 2009

Has the whole world gone crazy?

Bloomburg.com | Financial Rescue Nears GDP as Pledges Top $12.8 Trillion

The U.S. government and the Federal Reserve have spent, lent or committed $12.8 trillion, an amount that approaches the value of everything produced in the country last year, to stem the longest recession since the 1930s.

New pledges from the Fed, the Treasury Department and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. include $1 trillion for the Public-Private Investment Program, designed to help investors buy distressed loans and other assets from U.S. banks. The money works out to $42,105 for every man, woman and child in the U.S. and 14 times the $899.8 billion of currency in circulation. The nation’s gross domestic product was $14.2 trillion in 2008.
I can't really believe I'm living through such a massive National Pants Shitting Moment. [Warning: link is mostly work safe, but contains some firm tetragraphemes.]

Does it seem slightly insane to anyone else that our Dear Leaders have shoveled almost an entire year's worth of output into the maw? Can we at least agree that if we get to 100% of GDP that's too much? Wouldn't we have been in no-worse shape had we just cut every soul in the country a check for 40 grand? Is this really happening?

Porn and UMD

XXX Film Screening Spells Lost Money for University of Maryland After Senate Intervenes

Tickets were selling fast for Saturday night's showing of a "XXX blockbuster" at the University of Maryland's student union. (Pirates! Skeletons! An orgy of belly dancers!) Then, like a douse of cold water, the state Senate stepped in.

During debate yesterday over the state budget -- an exercise usually devoid of sex appeal -- a conservative senator drew his colleagues' attention to the scheduled showing of "Pirates II: Stagnetti's Revenge," a hard-core porn film, at the state's flagship university.

The award-winning sequel is almost 2 1/2 hours' worth of, uh, swashbuckling. The cast is full of actors whose names are registered trademarks. The film is full of special effects (to say the least).

Legislators were not impressed.

Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County) called it "shocking" and offered a budget amendment: Any public university that allowed the screening of a triple-X film would forfeit state funding -- about $424 million next year in U-Md.'s case.
Being a UMD student and knowing Dr Harris, I've had three different people email me about this. I'm more amused than anything. I mean, really? Porn? We couldn't even get approval to set one of the lecture halls up for a Bourne marathon or to watch last year's UEFA Champions League games, so I can see why porn might be disallowed.
Administrators canceled the screening. And although some advocacy groups were relieved, many students were mad.
Fellow Terapins: get your porn like college students everywhere — for free on the internet. I happen to notice that Stagnetti's Revenge seems to be available and well-seeded on BitTorrent if you're that disappointed.
[Mad] not because of the porn, said Liz Ciavolino, a sophomore who is active in the student group Feminism Without Borders, but because of something she thought was worse: "I really don't think the state should bully us around with their budget power."
So the state government is supposed to keep shoveling money into the university without any oversight or control? Does Ciavolino not understand how a tax-payer funded university works? The state doesn't just cut budget checks and then walk away.

03 April 2009

A minor observation about Ars Technica

Gawker - Ars Technica Slammed in Condé Nast Digital Layoffs

Ars was one of the rare blogs that really did do journalism and as such read like magazine or newspaper (but smarter).

One semi-superficial thing that I always noticed: most RSS feeds that include some of the content but force you to click-through for the below-the-fold stuff just take the first paragraph or two of the text for insertion in the feed and lop off the rest. I can't blame anyone for doing this; I did the same thing when I was in charge of the website for my school newspaper. I wasn't about to edit every story feed to figure out where the best breakpoint was, so I just told the parser I wrote to grab the first paragraph and shove that into the little teaser section in the template. Our EIC never liked that solution, but I told him if he wanted real teasers he could find the staff to write them. Never happened, of course. But I digress. Badly.

Ars Technica stories actually break at a point that makes you want to click through and read them. I don't know if that's a function of them being written by actual news writers and they just have a habit of crafting catchy ledes, or whether it's an actual policy to drive click-throughs and hence page views and hence ad revenue.

Either way, Julian Sanchez is lamentably one of the staffers getting the heave-ho. I guess I'll have to keep track of him through his personal blog again.

02 April 2009

Voice Mail. Boooooo!

For Some, Voice Mail Is Losing Its Allure - NYTimes.com

Voice mail never had any allure to me to begin with. I can't stand it. (Actually I hate conducting business on the phone generally, but voice mail is particularly loathsome to me.)
There are no definitive studies of how many voice mail messages American leave compared with earlier periods, but if the technology is heading toward obsolescence — as many communication experts suspect — the trend is being driven by young people. Again and again, people under 25 recount returning calls from older colleagues and family members without bothering to listen to messages first. Thanks to cellphone technology, they can see who called and hit the Send button to reply without calling their voice mail box. “Didn’t you get my message?” parents ask. “No,” their children reply, “but I saw that you called.”
That's me.

I've always found it interesting that email has so thoroughly replaced phone calls in both CS departments I've been a part of that people use "I'll call him" to mean "I'll send him an email." Calling has become so rare that even the word "call" has become unused enough to warrant changing it's meaning to "a generic telecommunication." I suspect this is true in the wider scientific and technical community, but I don't want to jump to conclusions.

01 April 2009

"Annual Capitol Hill Science Fair A Great Success"

Computing Research Policy Blog: Annual Capitol Hill Science Fair A Great Success:

The Coalition for National Science Funding, of which CRA is an active member, held its annual Science Exhibition on Capitol Hill last week. It was once again a great success with a room full of hundreds of attendees and a number of Congressmen visiting exhibits. For the first time, the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) attended, spoke briefly on the importance of funding basic science research, and received many thanks from the community there for her efforts to see science funded as part of the stimulus bill and the FY 09 Appropriations.

[...] The event, a science fair for Congress and staff, had 35 booths manned by researchers representing universities and scientific societies featuring some of the important research funded by the National Science Foundation.
The fact that we need a science fair (a science fair!) in order to engage congresscritters like a pack of snotty-nosed third graders in the recognition that research is being done and researchers want money is so disappointing. This is how science policy is set in what I'm told are the halls of power? With three-panel poster presentations? I'd like to see the agriculture lobby or the defense contractors have to stoop to events of this lameness. Can we at least not call it a science fair? Or if we do, can we make sure someone builds a paper mache and baking soda volcano that will blow up on Maxine Walters' shoes?

More unexpected and unsought but fascinating knowledge

This time, etymology and bibulous tidbits of knowledge, from Jacob Grier:
Most modern grenadines are pretty much just high-fructose corn syrup and red food coloring, so you wouldn’t know that they’re supposed to taste like pomegranate. (Hence the name from the French for pomegranate, grenade, from which hand grenades are also named.) It’s a cocktail ingredient I’ve tended to ignore because of the poor quality of commercial brands, so making my own opens up many new possibilities for mixing.
Now I have the image of a Crimean War era grenadier in a tall fur hat lobbying antioxidant-rich fruits into the fray while sipping a Tequila Sunrise.