31 August 2009

Monday Morning Video: 100 Guitar Riffs

I have no spare cycles to think of something useful to say on this bland Monday morning so instead ... Rock and Roll!



I declare this project very dude.

There's a list of song titles & artists on the guy's website, so you might want to watch the vid there so you can follow along.

29 August 2009

Top Gear Lays Out Some Truth

Some important points from the fellows on Top Gear, one at the beginning and another at the very end:



(1) No one ever factors in the initial energy required to build these things.

That energy use is out of sight and out of mind. This is what I said about it last summer: "You will likely consume less energy if you purchase a used Camry rather than a new Prius, because manufacturing the Prius is intensive work. But if you drive the Camry around you look like an average schmuck, while driving the Prius marks you as a true believer."

(2) How you drive matters more than what you drive.

I picked up some advice from an old British engineer back in undergrad: "Change your habits before you change your kit." Very wise advice, and it applies to all sorts of things. He was talking about a nuclear fuel recycling plant, but it also means you switch to diet coke and start taking the stairs before you buy a bunch of home gym equipment and new track shoes. So before you rush out to get that Prius, quit the jackrabbit starts, use the cruise control, and stop tailgating. Seriously. Stop your damn tailgating. Not only will you save yourself gas, you'll make it easier for everyone else to drive in a way that saves them gas.



Other British environmental news, via Matt Johnson:
The Met Office has caused a storm of controversy after it was revealed their £30million supercomputer designed to predict climate change is one of Britain's worst polluters. The massive machine - the UK's most powerful computer with a whopping 15 million megabytes of memory - was installed in the Met Office's headquarters in Exeter, Devon.

It is capable of 1,000 billion calculations every second to feed data to 400 scientists and uses 1.2 megawatts of energy to run - enough to power more than 1,000 homes

The machine was hailed as the 'future of weather prediction' with the ability to produce more accurate forecasts and produce climate change modelling. However the Met Office's HQ has now been named as one of the worst buildings in Britain for pollution - responsible for more than 12,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.

It says 75 per cent of its carbon footprint is produced by the super computer meaning the machine is officially one of the country's least green machines.
Send in the clowns.

28 August 2009

Friday Afternoon Video

Offered without comment, some abstract geometric animation:

AS ONE from makoto yabuki on Vimeo.

Football thoughts

ESPN | Greg Easterbrook | Welcome to the AFC Preview

AFC East investments in quarterbacks in the past decade, by teams other than New England: five first-round draft choices, nine second-round choices, one third-rounder, two fourth-rounders, plus several other starters. Result: Buffalo, Jersey/B and Miami enter this season with average or unsettled quarterback situations. Investments by New England in the same period: a third-round and fourth-round choice used, but first- and second-round choices gained (from trading Drew Bledsoe and Matt Cassel), leaving the team ahead in draft terms. Result: Patriots enter the season with a former NFL MVP, Tom Brady, at quarterback. One reason New England consistently wins is because the Flying Elvii aren't sinking high draft choices or trade value into quarterbacks, like everyone else. In the past quarter-century, New England has spent only two first-round choices (Bledsoe, 1993; Tony Eason, 1983) and no second-round choices on quarterbacks. All those picks not expended on quarterbacks mean lots of defensive backs, guards, tight ends and other less glamorous players drafted, and a team with a deep, quality roster. For instance, the entire center of the New England defensive front -- Jerod Mayo, Ty Warren, Richard Seymour and Vince Wilfork -- is made up of high-first-round picks. This is possible because the team invests so little in drafting quarterbacks.
If you limit the amount of money a team can spend on purchasing on-field talent, the sensible thing for them to do is to purchase off-field talent. I think the Pats have lined up great talent, both in Belichick and his coaching staff, and in the front office. That's where you can get a competitive advantage. I don't actually know if New England is paying these guys more, but they should be, because I think they're getting a huge leg up on the competition by being smart off the field.

Same deal in college, by the way. When ND can't pay the Jimmy Clausens what they want, they're almost bound to lavish salary on the Charlie Weises. (Well, they can pay Jimmy Clausen, and do, they just can't do it in cash. They're paying him the value of tuition, room, board and books for four years, plus the lifetime value of a diploma, which is the same thing they pay all their other players, and the same thing other colleges would pay him.)
The Patriots' spread is also fast-paced -- New England had 1,097 offensive snaps in 2008, the most in the league, by getting to the line quickly. The more snaps your offense runs, the more opportunities for yards.
Key to success right there, at all levels of the game. If you're smarter and better drilled and better conditioned you can get more snaps than the other guys, and you've got yourself an instant advantage. (Although you should adjust this statistic to be snaps per minute of possession to get a better correlation, I suspect.)

PS Greg Easterbrook does football analysis for ESPN. Really? Cool. The post linked above alternates between the AFC preview and economic analysis. It feels like being at a grad school party, bouncing constantly between normal conversation and geekiness.

27 August 2009

USPS: please steal this idea

I've criticized the USPS a few times recently, and frankly, for good reason. They just aren't that good at what they do.* But just to show you I'm not a terrible guy, I'm going to try and pitch in and make mail delivery both more pleasant for users, and more profitable for the USPS. Here's my idea, which may turn out to have a fatal flaw I haven't noticed, but unlike the mail carriers in any Post Office I've ever been to, at least I'm trying.

(* I should be mad at them, in fact. I just got my baptismal certificate mailed to me, and it was nearly ripped in half. Don't worry though, all the Container Store fliers in today's mail were in pristine condition.)

The plan is that the USPS set up a way to buy stamps online, sort of like Stamps.com, but forget about actually printing any stamps out. What customers do is log onto their account, and indicate that they're ready to mail a letter, and input the zip code of the recipient. The postal service then gives them a very large random number, and deducts the price of a first class stamp from their account. The customer writes this number on the envelop in the place of a stamp. The postal service scans the envelop upon receipt, and reads the number. If the number on the envelop corresponds to a number they have sold, and the zip code on the envelop matches the zip code associated with the number when it was activated, the letter gets delivered. If not, return to sender.

By selling only a small fraction of the potential numbers in the range being used, and selecting them randomly, you prevent people from guessing a number and taking their chances on not paying. By associating it with a zip code, you prevent people from stealing the number on someone else's outgoing mail to use for themselves (unless the thief also happen to want to send a letter to someone in the same zipcode, in which case you could associate the mail number with the street address rather than just the zip code).

Furthermore, because every letter mailed in this way has a unique identifier, this can function as a built-in tracking number.

The big benefit over Stamps.com is that you don't need a printer. All you need for my scheme is a web-enabled device and a pen. Customers never have to worry about running out of stamps, or loosing them. The postal service doesn't need to worry about printing and distributing real stamps. Boom. Victory.

(This seems like such an obviously good idea to me that I'm getting that tingly feeling I get when I've overlooked something obvious. Did I leave something out? Is someone already doing this?)

In the shade of the trees.

It has been brought to my attention that I appear heartless for speaking ill of the dead yesterday.

First of all, I could have said this. What I said seems pretty mild in comparison now, doesn't it? If I had wanted to be mean I would have linked back to the Ted Kennedy Memorial I designed last summer.

Second of all, Kennedy's final political action was this:
Senator Ted Kennedy, who is gravely ill with brain cancer, has sent a letter to Massachusetts lawmakers requesting a change in the state law that determines how his Senate seat would be filled if it became vacant before his eighth full term ends in 2012. Current law mandates that a special election be held at least 145 days after the seat becomes available. Mr. Kennedy is concerned that such a delay could leave his fellow Democrats in the Senate one vote short of a filibuster-proof majority for months while a special election takes place…
What Mr. Kennedy doesn’t volunteer is that he orchestrated the 2004 succession law revision that now requires a special election, and for similarly partisan reasons. John Kerry, the other Senator from the state, was running for President in 2004, and Mr. Kennedy wanted the law changed so the Republican Governor at the time, Mitt Romney, could not name Mr. Kerry’s replacement.
“Prodded by a personal appeal from Senator Edward M. Kennedy,” reported the Boston Globe in 2004, “Democratic legislative leaders have agreed to take up a stalled bill creating a special election process to replace U.S. Senator John F. Kerry if he wins the presidency.”
"Lion of the Senate," my foot. The guy respected power, first and foremost. And I don't respect that. As usual, Don Boudreaux says it well:
While Kennedy didn’t choose a life of ease, he did something much worse: he chose a life of power. That choice satisfied an appetite that is far grosser, baser, and more anti-social than are any of the more private appetites that many rich people often choose to satisfy.
I'd also refer you to Radley Balko's comments, concerning not just Kennedy, but the eulogizing of all "public servants." Here's a Kennedy-specific portion:
I feel no compulsion to praise Kennedy’s life in politics. Kennedy was an elite, and not by virtue of any actual accomplishment (sorry, but we have 100 senators no matter who comes out on top on election night. Getting elected to political office in itself adds no value to society as a whole). Instead, Kennedy was an elite by birthright, by being born into the closest thing America has to royalty. He used his status and political power to procure advantages the rest of us don’t have, whether it was evading responsibility for his role in a young woman’s death, or hypocritically killing off a planned wind farm in Nantucket Sound because the renewable energy project would have sullied the view from the Kennedys’ Hyannis Port compound–to pick two examples that bookend his life in politics.
Finally, I mentioned yesterday that 150,000 people who aren't Ted Kennedy died in the last 24 hours because we should feel empathy for more than just the powerful and well-connected who pass away. Here's a small sampling from the last day or so:
  • Stanley H. Kaplan, the founder of the nation's first test preparation company, died Sunday. He was 90.

  • Austrian skiing great Toni Sailer, who in 1956 became the first athlete to win all three alpine ski events at a Winter Olympics, died Monday. He was 73.

  • William J. Williams Sr., one of the owners of the Cincinnati Reds from their Big Red Machine days, died Sunday. He was 93.

  • William A. Emerson Jr., a journalist and author who covered civil rights flashpoints as part of a cadre of gutsy Southern reporters and later served as editor in chief of The Saturday Evening Post, died Tuesday. He was 86.

  • The Rev. Carl K. Moeddel, a former second-ranking administrator of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, died Tuesday. He was 71.

  • William H. Robbins, a retired NASA scientist honored for improving satellite communications technology, died Saturday. He was 82.

  • T.J. Turner, the former Miami Dolphins defensive lineman, died Monday. He was 46.
Unfortunately only those with a claim to fame get Associated Press obits, so for all the unknowns out there, may you cross the river and rest in the shade of the trees.

Rhetoric & English Curricula

I just came across an old Julian Sanchez post about a dishonest debating trick which he calls the "fiat shuffle." (I thought the fiat shuffle was something you did on the way to the mechanic after your Cinquecento breaks down. Rimshot! Cue Ray Magliozzi-esque snorting laughter.)

Now, there’s a problem with the logic of the argument—one that crafty debaters used to occasionally employ on purpose back in my days of collegiate geekery. I used to call it the “fiat shuffle,” and it works like this: You propose policy X for debate. Now, quite possibly X is politically impossible (right now) for one of any number of reasons, but that’s OK, because the folks proposing that we do it get to fiat (yes, among debaters, “fiat” can be a verb) that their proposal could be implemented.

The trick of the fiat shuffle is to then re-import the political barriers you’ve assumed away to argue for your position. So (to pick a round I vaguely remember being in): You propose that kids from affluent schools be required to switch places with kids from poorer schools nearby, and offer as an argument for the program that the more politically powerful rich parents will then be motivated to agitate for improvements in the poorer schools. Except, of course, if they’re powerful and motivated enough to do that, they’d be even more likely to use their influence to block such a program in the first place.
When I say that schools should teach rhetoric, this is the kind of thing students should be taught to recognize. Teaching people to identify and reject bad arguments would do more benefit both them and society than having them snooze through another discussion of Catcher in the Rye.

My sophomore year high school English curriculum was ostensibly focused on public speaking and communication, but that pretty much meant that we read the same books we always did, and wrote the same lame essays, with an over-specified, rigid structure, and then got up in front of the class and read them aloud. We were admonished to maintain eye contact with the audience and use at least three hand gestures. (Yes, they counted gestures, as if gestures were distinct things you scripted in, rather than being organic motions used to help convey the tone of your remarks. And by an "over-specified, rigid structure," I mean I was told how many sentences should be in each paragraph.) No mention of rhetorical devices was ever made, nor were we made aware of tricks such as Sanchez's fiat shuffle. As far as my teachers were concerned there was only one way to make an argument, either written or spoken, and that was one paragraph of introduction, follows by three paragraphs of supporting arguments, each of which contained a single appeal to authority, and then one paragraph of conclusion.

I think the sum total of our education in speech making was a 400 word essay by William Safire* about how language is important, and a highlight reel of some JFK speeches followed by the teacher saying "Did you see that? He was really good at speeches. Probably the best ever. You should all try to learn from him."

* I remember it was Safire because I was shocked at the time to be reading something in my public school by a self-described libertarian conservative. And a former Nixonite, no less! That's pretty scandalous for Montgomery County Public Schools.

PS I have a feeling the JFK highlight reel from my day has already been replaced by an Obama reel. The 10th grade reading list (which I believe is still the year they cover oration) consists of one or two selections from a list of 16 books, depending on level, plus the 1892 feminist short story "The Yellow Wallpaper," plus Obama's victory speech from the 2008 election. I don't actually remember that speech; it was probably well done. I question the wisdom of drawing contemporary politics into the English curriculum, but so be it. I don't object to it as a selection per se, but are the curriculum crafters really claiming it's the best piece of English oration to study? Or are they selecting it even though it isn't the single best example because they feel kids will relate to it better? If that's the case, what's the justification for a 117 year old feminist story about psychosis? That's surely not the most relatable thing. (For reference, here's a Top 100 list of 20th Century American oratory.)

Anyway, I have to say I was actually pretty pleased with this year's reading lists. Which teacher snuck Camus and Sartre on there? Well done. And Hemingway! He was so declasse when I was around. I most shocked by the presence of The Fountainhead on there though. I think opening up any Ayn Rand in the English department office in my day would have caused at least one stroke.

When I was around these summer lists were abysmal. I think the only book I read for school over the summer that I liked was Alas, Babylon. In addition, Isaac's Storm was mediocre. The rest were terrible. The record during the school year wasn't much better in terms of finding books I actively liked, but I also tended to have fewer I actively hated. I think the sum total of books I was assigned to read in school that I liked consists of Macbeth, Hamlet, Death of a Salesman, The Glass Menagerie, and The Great Gatsby. I was also required to read Julius Caesar in a Latin class, and From the Earth to the Moon and Hot Zone for middle school Science classes. Classes that weren't English exposed me to 60% as many good books as classes which were English.

I'm now entirely off topic, so I'm signing off.

26 August 2009

Ted Kennedy Dead

Ted Kennedy Dead

I'd like to point out that 150,000 other people will die today in the world, none of whom worked so hard to gather power and prestige to themselves, and only few of whom drove drunk and killed somebody.

Sandwiches

Whenever Special Lady Friend tells me on the phone that she has a surprise for me or bought me a present, I always ask if it's a sandwich. This is partially to induce charming feminine giggles, and partially because sandwiches are the best food genre ever. Now, my crazy guesses have been vindicated:


That's the "giftwich," via Insanewiches.

In other sandwich news, SLF and I went to The Pop Shop in Collingswood, NJ for some of their famous grilled cheese sandwiches, and we were not disappointed. However, it did raise some questions about the ontology of grilled cheese sandwiches. Besides (1) being a sandwich, (2) having cheese, and (3) having been exposed to a heated, griddle-like surface, are their any requirements for a sandwich to be a grilled cheese? I ask because my sandwich, while extremely delicious, had too much meat and too little cheese for it to fall into my conception of what a grilled cheese sandwich should be. I think cheese should not only be present, but be the dominant filling ingredient.

And in yet more sandwich news, The Atlantic had a run-down of sandwiches around the world yesterday. One can draw much inspiration from this.

25 August 2009

Chemicals

Coyote Blog on "chemicals" in food, etc:

Wow, You Mean There’s Actually A Point to All These Ingredients?

Sometimes, greens and organic-proponents act as if the only point of chemicals is to … uh… I don’t know what they think. They act as if the chemicals are added simply as an evil conspiracy by corporate America to both make the product less efficacious and simultaneously more expensive and complex to make. Somehow this behavior is all driven by the profit motive, though the logic sort of escapes me.

Well, at least one green seems to be starting on a voyage of discovery:

Good news and bad news at the dentist this morning. The good news is, my teeth are fine. The bad news is, the dentist told me I should give up Tom’s of Maine and Nature’s Gate in favor of Crest and Colgate. I pressed him on it because I know sometimes people have knee-jerk reactions about green products, and he insisted that he’s only come to the conclusion after observing many people’s teeth. In fact, he went so far as to say that I’d be better off brushing my teeth with just water. He said the big C’s of dental care have “lots of artificial ingredients in them that are great for your teeth.
This is really an excuse to post another The Customer Is Not Always Right tale, since it includes the line "chemical...as in harmful to all life!"
The Building Block(heads) Of Life
Bookstore | Durham, NC, USA

Customer: “I’m looking for some school books.”

Me: “Alright, what sort of books are you looking for?”

Customer: *sigh* “Some chemistry guides, I guess.”

Me: “Alright, let’s head over and look at a few different guides.”

(I take her to the chemistry section of the bookstore.)

Customer: “I’m just not excited to be taking this course.”

Me: “Are you’re worried that it will be too difficult?”

Customer: “Oh, no! I just don’t want to be forced to learn about something I don’t believe in.”

Me: “Er…sorry? What’s your degree program?”

Customer: “I’m in vet school. I’ve already done all of my bio classes, and i really loved them, but I’m really not interested in learning about chemicals and how they harm the Earth and stuff.”

Me: “That’s not really what chemistry is about, you know.”

Customer: “What do you mean? Just look at the name: CHEM-istry. Like, CHEM-ical. As in, harmful to all life!”

Me: “But you said you enjoyed your biology courses, so why not your chemistry? They’re both really important sciences, especially for your major.”

Customer: “I just don’t get why I have to learn about chemicals and stuff! biology is different - that’s Mother Nature! Not some science that was made up in a lab.”

Me: “Well, think about what life is, when you break it down. What helps build life?”

Customer: “Biology.”

Me: "Right! Back up some now.”

Customer: “…Atoms?”

Me: “Now come back up a bit. After atoms, but before biology.”

Customer: *blank stare*

Me: “Chemistry! What happens when different atoms come together? chemical reactions. That’s all part of chemistry. You can’t have biology without chemistry - it’s a natural part of life.”

Customer: *brightens up* “I had no idea! Now I can’t wait to take chemistry!”

I promise I'll refrain from posting more of these, even though about half of them warrant it. I will just mention that there was one Michael Scott-like character who thought that cutting up his credit card meant that he didn't owe anything on it anymore, and lots of people who invent new rights for themselves, like the right to take an employee's sandwich since it's next to the cash register.

Counterblasted also has a pithy line about the Tom's of Main story: "Most of the time, "non-green" products are safer, more effective, and/or tastier than "green" ones. Why are there preservatives in snack products? To preserve them." Also from his blog, this wordsmithery: "Man up, bitches; it's raw brain from here on out. Chillin' with the Inuit eating only bloody caribou? That's some hardcore shit right there." I came across Counterblated via TJIC, and I'm liking it, but I have to wonder if the name is a reference to James VI's superstitious and arrogant 1604 tract, A Counterblaste to Tobacco. That would be slightly undude.

Tuesday Tab Clearing

Katherine Mangu-Ward points out that $3 Billion was spent to scrap 2% of the 42 million "gas guzzlers" on the road. She calls the program "midnight basketball for jalopies." Man... midnight basketball. I almost forgot about that shenanigan. Anyway, she concludes:
When Obama said "they are getting the oldest, dirtiest and most air polluting trucks and SUVs off the road for good," he probably just misspoke, and didn't actually mean to imply that Cash for Clunkers would actually get the oldest, dirties vehicles off the road.

No worries, though. If there's one thing we learned from the Bush presidency it's the wisdom of keeping several justifications handy for each major policy decision. No WMDs? That's OK, because...freedom! No environmental gain from cash for clunkers? That's OK, because...stimulus! Ta da!

I had to link that because I like the "midnight basketball for jalopies" moniker, but mostly because the "Ta da!" reminds me of GOB Bluth "escaping" from prison after getting stabbed by White Power Bill Dirty Ears Bill. That was a great moment in television. (I can't find a clip, but I think it's in Season 1, Episode 4.)

(BTW: All three seasons of Arrested D are available on Hulu for your viewing pleasure. You have no excuse for not having seen it now.)



From the "All Politics is Interest-group Politics" File, OpenSecrets.org has a nice table of the top institutional donors to political campaigns over the last 20 years. Here's a capture of the top 20:


Note well the preponderance of labor unions and professional guilds.

David Henderson has important clarifications about the corporations on the list:
It's illegal for U.S. corporations to donate to individual politicians and it has been so since 1907. Here's what economist Jeffrey Milyo wrote on it in The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics:
Consider that large firms spend ten times as much on lobbying as their employees spend on campaign contributions through PACs, as individuals, or in the form of unregulated contributions to political parties (i.e., soft money). I mention employee contributions because, contrary to the sloppy reporting that appears regularly in U.S. newspapers, corporations in the United States do not contribute to political campaigns: they are prohibited from doing so and have been so prohibited since 1907. When you read that Enron has given X million dollars to candidates, what that really means is that people who identify themselves as Enron employees have given X million dollars of their own money.



Physicist Rick Trebino of GaTech has a great explanation of how to publish a "comment" (that is, a critique or correction) of an article in an academic journal. I've never tired to publish a comment, but I'm finally at the end of my first long, dark gauntlet of journal publishing (idiosyncratically, CS people publish mainly in conference proceedings) so I think I can sympathize. In case you don't read to the end — though you should, since it's a tale that Joseph Heller would be proud of — be advised that this is a true story.



A new theory about why time only flows one way. I don't have my metaphysics/epistemology/cosmology hat on, but it sounds reasonable. To risk a one sentence summary of the theory: time doesn't have to flow one way for any physical reason, but a consciousness is only capable of perceiving it moving in one direction. I can't say I've really wrapped my head around this, but it sounds reasonable, and it jives with what I remember from some philosophy classes. (And, oddly, brings to mind something from a theology class. I remember a professor trying to describe God as being atemporal. He doesn't know what will happen in the future but rather experiences the past, present and future concurrently. Somehow this seems connected to me, though I'm sure Hitchenites the world over are upset that I'm getting religion into their science, or chocolate into their peanut butter, or something.)



Patriotism & Dissent: UK Edition
To Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, the British National Health Service is, he warns Americans, a "60-year failure" that he "wouldn't wish on anybody." For uttering such heterodoxies on American television, writes Michael C. Moynihan, Hannan was denounced as "unpatriotic" by the Labour Minister of Health while the Conservative Party leader in the European Parliament said Hannan "should be disciplined for his comments about the NHS."

Read all about it here.



Bryan Caplan on the ever-so-cheerful subject of prison rape. Here's a surprising result, which is sadly only a little surprising:
The most striking result, though, is one that only fans of Gary Becker and/or Lord Acton would have expected:
More prisoners reported abuse by staff than abuse by other prisoners: 2.9 percent of respondents compared with about 2 percent.
I remember seeing similar statistics for prostitutes. That is, they were either assaulted by or forced to provide free services to police more often than to pimps or gang members or other criminals in order to secure protection. In fact, prostitutes in Chicago are more likely to sleep with police for protection than they are to get arrested by them.



Via Brian Dunbar:
A Place to Stand | An American Government X-Prize Works

I got this story via Jerry Pournelle who says
I have never understood why prizes are not popular. They cost almost nothing -- perhaps a million a year total to fund a commission that determines if a prize should be awarded -- and you know the total to be paid. A ten billion prize for a Lunar Colony Prize (keep 31 Americans alive and well on the Moon for 3 years and one day) would either get us a Moon Base or it would cost nothing. A reusable space ship prize of 5 billion (send the same ship to orbit 13 times in one year) would again get us a space ship or would cost nothing. We spent more than half that on the X-33 fiasco.
Perhaps it is the ultimate proof of Pournelle's Law - that the prime purpose of government spending is to pay government workers & their friends & X-Prizes are devoted almost entirely to the nominal but secondary purpose of achieving results.
Unsurprisingly I'm also in favor of more prizes. I think this is related to the way that modern technology companies conduct R&D through buying start-ups, rather than through their in-house research arms. (Well, in addition to their in-house arms.) Every time some founders set out with the end goal of being bought up by Google or Microsoft or Apple, which is most of the time in the software industry, they're essentially entering an open-ended contest, in which the actual challenge is only vaguely defined as "develop some technology that we [GOOG/MSFT/AAPL/etc.] like." I can envision a similar procedure for the government, so that we might encourage more useful things like Recovery.org and waste fewer dollars developing execrable sites like Recovery.gov.

(Actually, I rescind that recommendation, since the process of choosing winners for relatively open-ended prizes would quickly become too corrupt. You'd probably need to specify things in at least as great of detail as used in the Netflix Prize, less in less detail than the current federal procurement process.)



Steven Pinker on the decline of violence throughout history. I think I've actually had this debate with my father before.
When the archeologist Lawrence Keeley examined casualty rates among contemporary hunter-gatherers—which is the best picture we have of how people might have lived 10,000 years ago—he discovered that the likelihood that a man would die at the hands of another man ranged from a high of 60 percent in one tribe to 15 percent at the most peaceable end. In contrast, the chance that a European or American man would be killed by another man was less than one percent during the 20th century, a period of time that includes both world wars. If the death rate of tribal warfare had prevailed in the 20th century, there would have been two billion deaths rather than 100 million, horrible as that is.
If you don't want to compare us to hunter-gatherers, here's something more recent, though limited to just murders:
When the criminologist Manuel Eisner scoured the records of every village, city, county, and nation he could find, he discovered that homicide rates in Europe had declined from 100 killings per 100,000 people per year in the Middle Ages to less than one killing per 100,000 people in modern Europe.
Pinker concludes:
Man's inhumanity to man has long been a subject for moralization. With the knowledge that something has driven it dramatically down, we can also treat it as a matter of cause and effect. Instead of asking, "Why is there war?" we might ask, "Why is there peace?" If our behavior has improved so much since the days of the Bible, we must be doing something right. And it would be nice to know what, exactly, it is.
My answer is that we've all gotten too rich to run around killing each other so much, but you'd expect that from a proud capitalist running dog like me, wouldn't you?

The Customer is not Always Right

I'm loving this site. As always when it comes to tales of astounding stupidity, I'm never sure whether to despair that such people manage to survive and breed, or to take comfort that I'm competing in a world populated by idiots.

Not Always Right is my new Blank Top Chronicles, since that blog was taken off line. (All is not lost, though! The Wayback Machine has an extensive archive of Blank Top posts.)

Here are some stories of America in the first quarter of the 21st Century:
Land Of The Free, Home Of the Single-Minded

(This takes place in 2008, when George W. Bush was still president. A customer brings a book filled with his quotes to the register.)

Customer: “What kind of nonsense is this? I can’t believe you guys would really sell these books here. He’s still our president, and he deserves respect!

Me: “I’m sorry if the books offend you sir, but we offer them for customers who have different opinions.”

Customer: “This is America! We should all have the same opinion!” *storms out with his purchase*




A Runaway Train Of Thought

(A caller phones into our car rental company looking for a vehicle, but we’re sold out in every nearby location.

Caller: “Why aren’t there any cars for me? Everyone I ask tells me they’re out of cars!”

Me: “We’ve been having a hard time keeping a hold on any cars with this tourist season.”

Caller: “Terrorism?”

Me: “No, ma’am, the tourist season. It’s been a really big push into your area lately, so Florida’s swamped.”

Caller: “Everyone’s been blaming the terrorists today. Why are we all letting the terrorists win?” *begins sobbing*

Me: “Ma’am, it’s tourists, not terrorists.”

Caller: “I’m an American! In America! Why are we letting them ruin my life? We can’t let these terrorists win!” *continues sobbing for a moment and then hangs up*



Land Of The Free, Home Of The Naive

(I get a call from a new renter with whom I had signed a lease contract with the previous night.)

Me: “Thanks for calling [apartments]! How may I help you?”

Renter: “My name is *** and I just signed the lease last night. I want to cancel it.”

Me: “Cancel? I’m sorry, but the lease is a binding contract between yourself and the management company as we discussed.”

Renter: “What! I don’t want it! Just cancel it!”

Me: “Well, there are some options. We can try to rent the apartment to another tenant to end your lease early, or, if you happen to qualify for a job or military transfer–”

Renter: “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me. I can’t believe that in the United States of America, I can sign a legal document, and not get out of it!” *hangs up*

24 August 2009

Cowboys Stadium

ESPN | Titans kicker exposes problem in Cowboys Stadium: Punter kicks into HD screen over field

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Tennessee Titans felt they exposed a major flaw in Cowboys Stadium during the first football game played in the building when reserve punter A.J. Trapasso hit the gigantic HD screen that hangs over the field.

But after a 30-10 Dallas win, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he doesn't think it is an issue. The NFL signed off on the 160-foot long, 90-foot high video board, Jones said, and he does not plan to alter it.

[...]

"I hit it probably a dozen times in pregame," Hentrich said. "Probably somewhere around a five-second punt is going to hit it and some of the guys in the league wouldn't be able to punt here if it's not raised; they'd just be nonstop hitting it. I don't know what the people were thinking. I guess they should have tested things out before they put that thing in place. It'll have to be raised."

Jerry Jones is a prick. The screen can be moved (and will be for an upcoming U2 concert), but he's refusing.

This isn't even the worst thing about the new Cowboys Stadium though. Fast forward to 1:47 in this GeekBrief video to see some seats that are shamefully bad. Jones should be embarrassed to have these things on sale.




Pay Gap

Cato @ Liberty | Chris Edwards | Federal Pay Continues Rapid Ascent:

In 2008, the average wage for 1.9 million federal civilian workers was $79,197, which compared to an average $49,935 for the nation’s 108 million private sector workers (measured in full-time equivalents). The figure shows that the federal pay advantage (the gap between the lines) is steadily increasing.

[...]

What is going on here? Members of Congress who have large numbers of federal workers in their districts relentlessly push for expanding federal worker compensation. Also, the Bush administration had little interest in fiscal restraint, and it usually got rolled by the federal unions. The result has been an increasingly overpaid elite of government workers, who are insulated from the economic reality of recessions and from the tough competitive climate of the private sector.

It’s time to put a stop to this. Federal wages should be frozen for a period of years, at least until the private-sector economy has recovered and average workers start seeing some wage gains of their own. At the same time, gold-plated federal benefit packages should be scaled back as unaffordable given today’s massive budget deficits. There are many qualitative benefits of government work—such as extremely high job security—so taxpayers should not have to pay for such lavish government pay packages.

Regular readers know I have no particular sympathy for government workers, nor am I anything but cynical about the Federal fiscal process, but I need to say that this is not an apples-to-apples comparison being made here.

For one thing the high job security that Edwards points out leads most government employees to have longer tenure than private sector employees, so the the average age of government employees is higher than civilian employees, and age is positively correlated with income (with the age range of ~25-65). A combination of the Baby Boomers reaching the top levels of the bureaucracy imminent to their retirement, along with the "Echo Boom" graduating college and seeking entry-level jobs both occurring in the last decade may account for some of the increase in the civilian/federal gap.

Secondly, a lot of the lowest income jobs in America go to immigrants, often non-citizen immigrants, and a lot of government jobs are limited to US citizens. I have no idea how much this skews the results, but I've seen a lot of other income studies where it had a big effect, so I'd like it to be accounted for.

The bigger issue is that the federal government outsources most of it's menial jobs to contractors, moving them off the federal books and into the civilian column. By and large there are no federal employees cleaning sinks or pushing brooms, those are all contractors now. Partially this is a result of the Clinton's administration's attempt to "shrink government." They did so by reducing the number of federal employees and contracting out everything they did. The same number of man-hours of work were being done on behalf of the government, and at a higher cost, but he could brag that the size of government, measured by the cherry-picked metric of number of employees, shrank. I'd like to see some numbers which account for the nature of the work being done, rather than lumping all jobs together.

I'm more concerned with the growth of the gap between federal and civilian sectors over the last decade than the existence of the gap, at least until I can get some apples-to-apples numbers. I wouldn't be surprised if there was still a very large gap, especially because I think the Public Choice critique Edwards makes is basically right, but these numbers alone don't tell me much.

(Via Coyote)

Coin Flips

Schneier on Security: Non-Randomness in Coin Flipping

It turns out that flipping a coin has all sorts of non-randomness:

Here are the broad strokes of their research:
  1. If the coin is tossed and caught, it has about a 51% chance of landing on the same face it was launched. (If it starts out as heads, there's a 51% chance it will end as heads).
  2. If the coin is spun, rather than tossed, it can have a much-larger-than-50% chance of ending with the heavier side down. Spun coins can exhibit "huge bias" (some spun coins will fall tails-up 80% of the time).
  3. If the coin is tossed and allowed to clatter to the floor, this probably adds randomness.
  4. If the coin is tossed and allowed to clatter to the floor where it spins, as will sometimes happen, the above spinning bias probably comes into play.
  5. A coin will land on its edge around 1 in 6000 throws, creating a flipistic singularity.
  6. The same initial coin-flipping conditions produce the same coin flip result. That is, there's a certain amount of determinism to the coin flip.
  7. A more robust coin toss (more revolutions) decreases the bias.
I'm reminded of the coin-flipping in Friday Night Lights, in which a coin had to strike the ceiling, and then come to rest on the floor before it was read. That's always struck me as a the gold standard of coin-flipping entropy-generation.

23 August 2009

Geekgasm: Hellboy Edition



Jakob Westman has combined two of my favorite things: Playmobil toys and Hellboy. I can not tell you how into Playmobil I was back in the day. I had a few police, and a decent set of knights, but the Western collection was where it was at for me. Some cowboys & indians, some stage coach robberies, a little panning for gold, a cavalry charge across the floor of the den ... those were the days.

But put all that together with the iconic art of Hellboy? Just beautiful.

Sadly, this is a one-of-a-kind set commissioned by Mike Mignola. If I had my own it would get a place of honor right beside my Big Lebowski action figure.

(Via The Ephemerist. NB: Westman's website is in Flash, so to find the Hellboy stuff, go to the "Misc" section and it's to the right.)

21 August 2009

USPS

From Carpe Diem, via Coyote Blog:
NB: The Post Office is still losing money at that price point.

Also:
The stamp vending machine at the downtown Flint Post Office no longer sells stamps, it sits there empty. Right next to the dark, empty vending machine for stamps sit two fully operational, bright and shiny vending machines, one for soft drinks and one for snacks, presumably owned and operated by a private, for-profit vending machine company (see photo above).
Same for my branch. They also have one of those automated mailing centers that walks you through buying postage for parcels, but about 95% of the time there's a mailman there punching the buttons for customers, thus obviating any efficiency gains from the capital investment of the machine. But remember, according to Fearless Leader Obama this is evidence that we should support MORE government involvement in health care.

"I want a hamburger. No, cheeseburger. I want a hot dog. I want a milkshake. I want potato chips --"

Hit & Run | Peter Suderman | Progressives Betrayed?:

Meanwhile, I wonder: What did progressives expect?

That Obama could simply roll into Washington and ignore the myriad forces arrayed against a liberal agenda? That conservatives, Republicans, moderate Democrats, and interested industry groups would simply go away or shut up? That Obama, through force of will and liberal coolness, could use his awesome rhetorical ju-jujitsu skills to flip the opposition and defeat nutty right-wingers and conservative politicians forever?
Yes, that's exactly what many of them expected. Plus a pony.

(Subject line)

Purchasing-as-expression; Manners; Gibson, Polanski, Wagner & Guthrie

Julian Sanchez, discussing the Whole Foods boycott:
I think it’s actually a significant achievement of liberal societies that, not only do we refrain from clapping you in irons if you’ve got the wrong religious or political views, but that we’re more generally disposed to bracket those things in our non-intimate relationships and just take them out of the calculus when we’re engaged in most forms of polite interaction and market cooperation, at least when we’re not talking about views that are really wildly beyond the pale. One of the ways markets and liberalism more generally dovetail is that they function by giving us the luxury of ignorance: I don’t need to know why the goods I’m selling are suddenly in greater or lesser demand, or what particular purpose they’re being put to, and vice versa for the money I give others for goods—I just need to respond to the price signals generated by that demand. And in social life more generally, I treat my neighbors with a certain level of respect just as fellow citizens without much bothering about what they do in the bedroom or whether it’s Ronald Dworkin or Michelle Malkin on their bookshelves, even if I happen to know these things.
(Emph. mine.) I think that's mostly true, but as people have begun to define themselves less by what they produce and more by what they consume, they have intentionally undermined this. People don't just want to buy coffee or lettuce or cars or blue jeans, they want to buy them and in doing so say something. Many people these days are specifically trying to circumvent the efficient ignorance they can have about the people they buy things from. Of course they freak out when the people who buy things from them — i.e. employers — make similar non-objective judgements.

This purchasing-as-expression is the principal reason that I'm fine with a bit of "culture war." As I said last summer:
As far as the culture war goes, I don't need people claiming that they represent the "real America." And I'm not interested in hearing about the Starbucks crowd versus the Dunkin' Donuts crowd. I don't really care what my politicians tastes are in hot, caffeinated beverages because the way they like their coffee doesn't say anything about them. But I also do not think it prudent to remove people's eating and drinking habits from discussion entirely. Joining the locavore movement says a lot about the value one places on the environment and what one know about economics, as well as how rational one is and whether one is more swayed by emotional or scientific arguments. (Ditto people's consumption of cloned meat and their opinions about biotech.) That's a piece of culture that I'm perfectly willing to include in the culture war. Generally I don't care what kind of pants my politicians wear, or cars they drive, or beer they drink. But if they only buy Wrangler jeans, drive Fords, and (formerly) drank Budweiser because they wanted to buy American, then I know a lot about where they stand on nationalism and free trade and probably immigration as well.
Anyway, Sanchez lead off the post with this observation from Dworkin:
On the familiar account of somewhat ritualized behavior like tipping your hat to people you encounter, or saying “Please” and “Thank you” at the appropriate times, these are ways of showing respect. But he suggests an alternative, quite plausible, interpretation on which these little rituals are ways of smoothing social interaction by making it less dependent on or reflective of personal assessment of respect. Etiquette and politeness, in other words, are ways of making our behavior somewhat more automatic so that we treat people reasonably sociably under certain conditions whether or not we particularly like them.
I've always thought the second explanation is much stronger. You don't hold the door for someone because of how you feel about them, you hold the door despite how you feel about them. It's not a way of expressing your feelings, it's a way of making your feeling irrelevant. This whitewashes a lot of noisy signals from he environment and reduces everyone's cognitive load. You know how some people get when they have a crush, and they start analyzing every little thing the object of their desire does? Politeness is a way of keeping us all from doing that all day long. When it comes to going through a door with someone, you can only send two signals: obviously refuse to hold the door for them, sending the unambiguous "I don't like you" signal, or hold the door and send a signal devoid of information.



PS This is maybe only loosely related to our ability to decouple the private lives of our economic partners from our interactions with them, but it reminds me that no one can seem to make up their minds about whether it's a good idea or not to take artists' personal lives into account when assessing their work. I've had people tell me they won't see a Mel Gibson movie because he's antisemitic, but they're cool with Roman Polanski movies, despite the pesky "raping a 13 year old" thing. Not because they think antisemitism is worse than rape, but because "it's just different." This is just one of those things that almost no one does consistently, instead using them as a post-rationalization, or using their refusal to comsume some bit of culture as a cultural expression itself. Also on my list of specific occurrences of this phenomenon: not listening to Wagner because of (again) his antisemitism, but being totally cool with Woody Guthrie's Stalinism, and before the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact broke down, his opposition to fighting the Nazis.

PPS A new biography claims William Golding, Nobel laureate and author of Lord of the Flies, tried to rape a 15 year old when he was 18. Take that for what you will.

20 August 2009

Department of Very Minor Economic Indicators

Here's Blue Gray Sky on this year's Notre Dame football ticket lottery:
It should be obvious to anyone browsing this table, but I'll spell it out: win rates were way up this year, with only Southern Cal falling below a 90% win rate for home games. In the three years we've done the poll, these are the highest win rates we've ever seen, including following the lackluster 2007 season. (Earlier polls available here: 2006, 2007, 2008). Last year, only one home game hit the 90% mark (Syracuse), while even less star-studded games were a tough ticket (Stanford, just 14%). This year, six of the seven home games were up over 90%, with Nevada, Washington, Navy, and Connecticut being damned near guaranteed admission, just for asking. Two years ago, the Southern Cal win rate was a measly 4%; this year, it's up to 60%.

And with the win rates being so high, it's safe to say that demand in this year's lottery was way, way down. In fact, we had more than a few comments from people submitting blank entries, with explanations that no application was sent this year.

What's the reason? The economy? Lack of disposable cash on hand this year? Or diminished expectations for the Irish, and a crummy slate of home games to boot? Probably a little of each.
Here's the table mentioned (it might be clearer in the original post I linked to):


Those are some pretty astounding numbers. I'd be surprised if there were much higher at any time in the last ten or fifteen years.

Personally I don't think diminished expectations are the cause this year; expectations seem about median compared to the last several years. I think it's pretty clearly an economic thing for most people. Who wants to pay for the chance to win a chance to pay for tickets? Additionally, you pay for the tickets to all the games you request tickets for upfront, and then get refunds for any tickets you do not win the option to purchase in the lottery, so you need to be willing to tie up a lot of cash to enter. (Or you did in previous years, when you were less likely to win.) I would put the lackluster slate of home games as the secondary cause.

There was talk that ticket sales would suffer from all the alumni upset about the Obama commencement thing, but I just don't see that being a big motivation. ND fans (and for that matter, modern Americans) just aren't that committed to boycott-type actions. I had dozens of friends tell me back when we were in school that they weren't going to donate any money to ND after they were graduated (which you must do in order to enter the lottery) because of this or that transgression by the administration. To the best of my knowledge I am the only one of them who has actually not done so.

I have had a lot of young alumni friends all say that they're willing to take their chances, go to South Bend and try to find a ticket when they get there, either from friends who have extras or from scalpers. Pretty much all of my friends have been dutifully entering the lottery for the last few years since we were graduated, and everyone is learning the lesson that it isn't that hard to connect with someone else who is looking to offload extra tickets. I don't think this is a stable long-term strategy, but anecdotally more people seem to be trying it this year, at least among my cohort.

19 August 2009

Anathem & Whole Foods

In my post discussing Anathem and it's made-up vocabulary earlier, I forgot to mention my favorite word from the book: to plane, meaning to utterly destroy your opponent's position in an argument. To plane someone is to have figuratively razed their intellectual position to the ground.

I'm definitely going to be using plane more often. To get me started, here's Radley Balko planing the leftists who are boycotting Whole Foods over CEO John Mackey's WSJ op-ed containing alternative reforms to ObamaCare. Balko takes them to the ground so thoroughly it would be a shame to excerpt just one quote, so go read the whole thing.

Anathem

Patrick at Popehat posted this vintage XKCD comic recently:

Randall Munroe's hidden caption is "Except for anything by Lewis Carroll or Tolkien, you get five made-up words per story. I'm looking at you, Anathem."

I'm going to really disagree with Munroe here. First of all, regardless of what you think about Anathem, Orwell also gets a pass. But more substantively, I didn't find the made up vocabulary for Anathem to be an impediment. I think part of the reason is that Stephenson takes care when he makes up new words. They aren't just syllables he's picked out and strung together, but allusions to English words. (I'm on shaky ground for providing examples because I had to return my copy to the library.) The title, for instance, refers to a song (or anthem) sung when a member of the community is expelled, or anathematized. Anthem + anathema = anathem. Convents becomes "concents" to associate them with the consensual, voluntary nature of being in one in this story. If anything, most of these new words just reminding me of Rastafarians replacing "oppression" with "downpression," so that when pronounced it would have the negative connotations of down rather than the positive connotations of up.

For me, Anathem wasn't even the book about cloistered intellectuals whose language through me for the biggest loop. That honor would go to The Name of the Rose. Not only are frequent passages of it in Latin, but unless you're familiar with the Fraticelli and Catharist heresies, and 13th Century church theology and internal politics, you're going to be a bit lost. Eco (or his translator) may have been using "real" words, but they're rare enough, or in foreign languages, or references to obscure enough historical characters, that it still makes it awfully hard to read without frequent consultation with reference materials.

Anyway, I really enjoyed Anathem. It was kind of slow going at first, but not as bad as Stephenson's previous effort. It ended up in a place that would have been really hard to predict from the first couple hundred pages, and I mean that in a sort of bad way. Like many SF authors, he indulges a bit too much in describing the specific devices and procedures and tactics in the story. Other than that, it was a blast.

I'm sort of getting ahead of myself -- a quick introduction to the story is needed. Anathem is about a world where the scientists and intellectuals live in monasteries, and the religious people live outside them. Of course it isn't so simple, as certain sects of the scientific orders accuse the others of being too religious because the Platonic realm of ideals is rather close to a heaven or deity. (This is pretty cool for me, since I consider myself to be a neo-Platonic Christian Humanist.) The scientists live their lives cut off from society in their monasteries, emerging once every 1, 10, 100 or 1000 years, depending on their particular vows, so that they can avoid distractions and give their lives over to seeking the truth. Because there's this relatively uninterrupted chain of intellectual pursuit, a recorded history of Anathem's world exists going back 6 or 7 millennia. This gives the story a lot of depth, as historical characters and events figure prominently in the lives of the current monastics. I really liked how Stephenson captured that aspect of continuing the investigations of the past, since that's one of the things I rather like about being a scientist: the feeling that you're connected to all the people who've come before you in your field, and you're carrying on a conversation with all your intellectual fore-bearers. I also like how the monasteries stand as little islands of constancy while civilization rises and falls and ebbs and flows and waxes and wanes. It was like a more complicated version of A Canticle for Leibowitz -- rather than the monastery standing through one historical cycle, we get a compounded oscillation of civilization outside the walls.

The story follows a young scientist, beginning just before his first opportunity to leave his monastery in 10 years. Of course he and his friends think life is a little dull, and wish they lived in interesting times. And of course, this being a novel, they get their wish. What follows are big world-spanning adventures, with lots of cosmology, metaphysics and epistemology. Again, that's great for me, because I love cosmology, metaphysics and epistemology. I can see some people being turned off by the frequent dialogs between characters about these things, but Stephenson does as good a job as anyone else fitting science lessons into his narratives. In the hands of Heinlein or Rand or Dan Brown we'd just get one character lecturing everyone else, but Stephenson has much more finesse.

Tyler Cowen said in a recent interview on Marketplace of Ideas that he only recommends a book if he gets to the end and wishes there was more. I'm happy to say I can recommend Anathem on that basis, even though it's already 1000 pages long. I'm not so sure I want a continuation of the story, as I want more stories on that world. Because we got little glimpses of 7000 years of history I'd love to go back and find out more about what else has happened on that world. There are great stories to be told about the Reconstitution, and the Sacks, and the Praxic Age.




One of the ideas in Anathem that got me curious was the notion that different orders of the monk-scientists lived together in the same monasteries. I'd really be interested how that would work out in today's Church. As devoted readers may know my father is in the process of becoming a Brother of the Holy Cross. (Though they aren't cloistered like the adherents in Anathem.) He's had some dealings with Franciscans and Dominicans, and has a lot of admiration for the Trappists (by way of Gethsemani Abbey and Thomas Merton). I'm really curious how things would work if they were all mixed together. There are many theses in organizational psychology waiting to be written about the living and working arrangements of contemporary religious orders.

Astroturf

Ryan Sager | Neuroworld | Keep Off the Astroturf:

With the “public option” part of President Obama’s health care reform plan looking dead in the water, many of its supporters are taking issue with the legitimacy of its opposition. “We call it ‘Astroturf,’ ” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said of the protesters at town-hall meetings. “It’s not really a grass-roots movement.”

What exactly is Astroturf supposed to mean? Typically, that, in the absence of widespread support for a position, some unseen entity manufactures the appearance of it. But is that really what’s happening here?



Here’s a rule: Organizing isn’t cheating. Doing everything in your power to get your people to show up is basic politics. If they believe what they’re saying, no matter who helped organize them, they’re citizens and activists. The language at the town halls may get ugly and rough. But it’s not Astroturf.
Thank you, Sager. Thank you.

I've had to add "astroturf" to the list of political words that convey no information whatsoever, right alongside "spin," "elitist," and "swiftboating." It's one of the things that Red Team and Blue Team both do all the time that's righteous when they're doing it and sinister when the other guys are doing it. How is what the Vast Rightwing Conspiracy is accused of doing at townhalls any different than what the SEIU is doing? (Via Matt Johnson).

Here's Coyote Blog on all of the other things that Red Team and Blue Team that make them look pretty damn similar from where we sit on our little patch of libertarian ideological wilderness. (To address his footnote, as of 2000 my school system was still using civics textbooks that describes the ideological space as running in one dimension between communism and fascism. One day out of boredom I got into a doozy of an argument with my civics teacher about how that continuum ought to loop around into a circle. She was a sweet lady, but also a card carrying communist (no joke, she actually had a card), so that made for an interesting class period.)

So anyway, I'm pretty psyched that the current iteration of ObamaCare looks dead in the water. I wish it didn't get torpedoed largely by people whose passions outweighed their information by several orders of magnitude, but that's the sad nature of Democracy most of the time. I'm also particularly concerned that one of the lessons that politicians are going to learn is that you can not, under any circumstances, look like you might be meddling with Medicare. That's not going to be good for us in the long run, where I define "us" as "anyone under 50."

Vick & Favre

Michael Vick suiting up for the Eagles has caused much gnashing on teeth on the part of Special Lady Friend. The list of non-human things she loves runs something like this:
  1. Dogs
  2. The Eagles
  3. The Phillies*
I don't have much to add about this, other than to say that I'm tired of people saying that Vick "deserves a second chance." (1) Sure he does, which is why he's alive and free in civil society. Getting a second chance does not mean "a second chance to be a star." (2) He had a second chance, somewhere between the first dogfight and the second. If he had any empathy that was his chance for his conscience to kick in and realize that he was doing some monstrous shit and put a stop to it. He missed that chance, and dozens of subsequent ones.

That said, I'm not particularly annoyed at either the Eagles or the NFL. They think letting Vick play will be good for them and that's their prerogative. As Dale Cooper pointed out at Porch Dog earlier, there are plenty of other abhorrent criminals putting NFL jerseys on this year, and no one is raising the hue and cry about them.


* That's the Fall and Winter version. In Spring and Summer #2 and #3 are swapped. Depending on the season High SPF Sunscreen may also make an appearance on the list.




The next big NFL story is about how small of a story Favre going to the Vikings is. Tally me up with all the other people who don't care where the guy hangs his cleats. I never really liked the guy to begin with, partially because I'm still bitter about Super Bowl XXXI, but especially because I can't stand the two-card-monty game of I'm-retired-oh-wait-never-mind. That's some low rent stuff there. Just fade away already.

18 August 2009

Theology by other means

wrantings of a random scrub...:

I may no longer be ELCA (I hopped synods to the LCMS a couple years ago), but I still keep occasional tabs on what goes on over there. So I was dismayed to see this headline in the Star Tribune, not for its content necessarily, but for its tone:

EARLY VICTORY FOR GAY CLERGY AT ELCA ASSEMBLY

Note to Strib: the process of attempting to discern the Lord's will is not some sort of civil rights competition. The only victory lies in aligning church doctrine and policy with God's will. Lay off.
I can sympathize with randomscrub on this one. A lot of my Catholic friends and I sympathize with or support, to varying degrees, many of the movements to reform the Church's positions on perennial topics like married clergy, ordination of female priests, stem cells, condoms, etc. But what turns a lot of us off about many of the would-be reformers is that they seem to treat these issue like they do any other political issue. Picketing outside the Apostolic Nunciature is very crass way of attempting to guide the Church towards the Truth as you perceive it.

Even when you think the Church has the wrong position on something (which I very often do) you ought to accept that Rome is acting in good faith -- both figuratively and literally. If that's true then these debates need to be approached with a bit more respect and restraint than those surrounding your average free trade agreement/World Bank/G8 dust up. And if you can't assume the good faith of those you're disagreeing with then how can you manage to be coreligionists with them?

13 August 2009

Swing and a miss for the Barackstar



"UPS and FedEx are doing just fine. Right? The uh... no, they are. I mean, it's... it's the Post Office that's always having problems."

So despite the massive taxpayer subsidy to the USPS, as well as a legal monopoly on 1st class mail, the government-run provider is doing a worse job than the private-sector providers?

Talking point fail.

12 August 2009

Jeers

Item #1:
Coyote Blog | Cash for Clunkers: $416 Per Ton of CO2 Reduction

Christopher R. Knittel of UC Davis has a paper (pdf) looking at likely CO2 reductions from cash-for-clunkers under a variety of assumptions. The $416 figure per ton of CO2 avoided may actually be low, as it does not include the well-documented rebound effect of people with higher MPG cars driving more miles**. Also, he admittedly assumes that cars being turned in will have average future driving miles for a car of similar age, though there is anecdotal evidence that in fact the cars being turned in are driven less than average. Under these assumptions, the cost may be as high as $600-$1000 per ton.

The analysis looks pretty thoughtful, with the proviso (which the author is the first to make) that data on the program and cars bought/turned-in is still sketchy. The interesting part was that there were no reasonable assumptions that even got the price within an order of magnitude of the $28 per ton clearing price the CBO estimates under cap-and-trade.
Item #2:
Going to the Mat | Tighter Security for Cardin Townhall

WBAL-TV in Baltimore
: The Washington County Sheriff's Department and Hagerstown Community College campus security are gearing up for a town-hall style meeting on health care reform hosted by Sen. Ben Cardin.

The event discussing the hot-button issue is being held at the college's Kepler Theater on Wednesday.

At similar meetings around the country in recent weeks, members of Congress have faced heckling from their constituents. Cardin was booed and jeered throughout a meeting in Towson on Monday night.
In a better world Congressmen would face heckling and jeers every time they stepped out in public, just for having the arrogance to exercise the kind of power they do over their fellow citizens, especially given their unrepentant predilection for kludgish boondoggles like $3,000,000,000 car scrapping programs. Forget meddling further with health care, I say jeer them for being congressmen.

Pre Cana

Future Mrs. South Bend 7 and I went by the office of the local parish a couple of days ago to gather some information on their Pre Cana programs. For those in the audience who are not now nor soon will be married in Catholic ceremony, Pre Cana is the Roman Catholic Church's marriage preparation program. It is administered by either the diocese or the parish, and can take a number of forms, but attendance at some version of the program is required if you're going to be married in a Catholic church.

To my disappointment, the parish had exactly no information for us on their marriage prep program and told us to call the diocese. The parish did, however, have an entire table of literature explaining the Church's position against gay marriage. So: lots of information about people they don't want to get married; no information at all for people they do want to get married. Priorities.

The information available online is either non-existent, self-contradictory or out-dated. I don't mean out-dated as in "old fashioned," I mean they list programs from 2008 as upcoming events. Literally out-dated. It's been annoying difficult to get accurate information about our options for this thing. FMSB7 and I live 150 miles apart, and many programs are only offered twice a year, so some advanced planning is required. We can't just pop down to the rec room in the church basement on short notice to do this.

I'm disappointed that in trying to fulfill the Church's own requirements, and I get a bunch of hoop-jumping bullshit. We got a similar attitude trying to book FMSB7's home church for the ceremony. This was back in late 2008, for a wedding in Spring 2010. That may seem like a really long lead time, but these days 18 months is not that far in advance when it comes to 21st Century wedding planning. (I have two sets of friends who will be engaged for at least two years.) We had the reception venue all picked out and ready to take a deposit, but couldn't get the parish to book us for the ceremony. They wouldn't schedule us in because they didn't have a ledger for 2010 yet. They didn't see this as a problem. Over the course of a couple of weeks they kept telling FMSB7 to get back to them in a couple of months so they could schedule our date. They wanted us to put down a deposit for the venue, and then sit on our hands for a while until they were ready to ink us in, and take the chance that everything would go according to plan and no one else would show up wanting to get married at the church on the same date. I'm not sure how many of you are also going through modern wedding planning, but that's an invitation for trouble. FMSB7 eventually convinced them, after several weeks, to add a note to the back of the 2009 calendar that we had called dibs on our chosen date.

When I say that the Church needs to adopt to modernity, this is the kind of thing I mean, not changing major doctrinal positions. Would I like to see them support gay marriage or married priests or change a whole host of other positions? Sure, but what I'm more concerned about now are the public relations aspects of the organization, and the way they interact with people.* My experience with the Church has not been bad, per se, but it's been all too reminiscent of dealing with Comcast or Verizon, and not with a group who has my spiritual well-being at heart. I can't shake the feeling that they're looking at me like someone who's locked into their operation, and that they think they're doing me a favor by allowing me to be married in a Catholic church at all. They need to rethink whether they need me more than I need them.**

(* Not because I think my minor inconveniences are more important than these bigger issues, but because I think this is the front where it is most possible to actually effect change, and to do so with little or no downside.
** Even if people, in the aggregate, need the Church more than they need people, the Church needs to make sure it convinces people this is true. What people think they need is a more germane issue than what they actually need for these purposes.)

The Church, by making this experience harder and less pleasant than it needs to be, is doing itself a real disservice. They have a chance to be useful to me, to show me how they can be of service guiding me through a major event in my life. Instead of looking at it as a chance to provide value and win me over, they give me hoop-jumping and bureaucracy. That's not the way to get people back in the pews. More importantly, that's not a way to serve people or aid them in leading a Christian life. Perhaps I'm being hopelessly Erasmusian, but last I checked that was their entire raison d'ĂȘtre.

What does it say about the Church that the only form of communication my mother, a life-long Catholic, receives from them is weekly donation envelopes? This is probably a much better way to raise money than just hoping she remembers to bring her checkbook to Mass every weekend, but what does that tell us about their priorities that the only message they find it worthwhile to send her is "Please give us some money. Now."

The Church is perennially concerned, for good reason, about it's waning popularity. If it weren't for Hispanic immigration, the US R.C.Ch. would already be in pretty dire condition. The way I see it they have four options:
  1. Go the route of the modern Samaritans, accept shrinking populations and just stop worrying about how many Catholics their are.

  2. Fight for extremely open immigration policies, and bet on importing their way to replenishment.

  3. Change major doctrinal positions in hopes of appealing to a younger, more liberal generation. This may fill the pews, but would be selling out and would almost certainly run deeply afoul of Rome.

  4. Work on the interface between the Church administration and people, and the underlying attitude thereof, and try to conduct their affairs in a way that recognizes that people have much more choice than they did even a generation ago about where, how, or if they worship.
I don't think it's enough to stand up in front of a congregation and promise that ego sum via et veritas et vita, you need to show people how you can actually help them to lead a more fulfilling, more satisfying life.


PS I really don't want it to seem like I think the admittedly minor inconveniences of trying to set up a wedding in a Catholic Church are The Worst Thing Ever. Let me be clear that I think they are minor inconveniences. I do think, however, that they are further indications that the Church operates too much like a self-perpetuating bureaucracy, focusing on it's own rules and requirements, and less like an organization focused on serving people and enriching their lives. The point of this post is not to beat up on the Church, but to point out that they are missing an opportunity to serve brides and grooms, the majority of whom would appreciate some guidance.

PPS I'm not asking for the world here, either. Some pamphlets, a website with up-to-date information, the ability to contact the parish by email. A bit of customer service, that's all I want.

California: A Real Class Act

The Cranky Professor: Is California Over?
Won't take her own scrip?
Small businesses that received $682 million in IOUs from the state say California expects them to pay taxes on the worthless scraps of paper, but refuses to accept its own IOUs to pay debts or taxes. The vendors' federal class action claims the state is trying to balance its budget on their backs.

Lead plaintiff Nancy Baird filled her contract with California to provide embroidered polo shirts to a youth camp run by the National Guard, but never was paid the $27,000 she was owed. She says California "paid" her with an IOU that two banks refused to accept - yet she had to pay California sales tax on the so-called "sale" of the uniforms.

The class consists mostly of small business owners, many of whom rely on income from government contracts to keep afloat. They say California has used them as "suckers" as it looks for a way to bankroll its operations while avoiding its own financial obligations.
I'd offer the same advice to my three friends who moved to California this year as I would to underage kids going to a house party: wear shoes you can run in and always know where the back door is.

11 August 2009

Semi-belated movie review: HP & the Half-Blood Prince

Special Lady Friend and I went to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince last weekend. She liked it much more than I did (it was her third time seeing it); I though it was okay. Unless you're a big Potter fan I'd wait for the DVD and rent it. (Although if you're a big Potter fan, you've probably already seen it.)

It sort of reminded me of the novelizations of movies, except in reverse, obviously. The general complaint with novels based on movies (and I'm working mostly from what I've heard from others, since I've only read one or two, tops) is that they tend to get the individual scenes right, but lack the pacing and thematic consistency overall. Though Half-Blood Prince is a movie made from a novel, I got the same impression. The individual scenes were quite good, well executed, extremely well done visually, but the overarching structure of the film fell short.

I thought the narrative arc overall lollygagged a bit. In the previous Harry Potter installments there's been much more focus on the specific threat or challenge to our plucky protagonist: what's in the Chamber of Secrets? Who wins the Tri-Wizard Tournament? The main line of the plot, and the main threat Harry is confronting, is much more vague here. Malfoy is up to something, but all we get of Harry's suspicions is a couple of baseless (if true) accusations to teachers. Two students are almost collateral damage in suspected assassination attempts, but that seems like a rather low causality rate for a standard year at Hogwarts. The anonymous Half-blood Prince is vaguely sinister, but no attempt is made in the movie to figure out who he his. Hermione mentions once that there's no mention of him in the library, and then at the end he reveals himself. That's the entire sum of that narrative thread in the film. If I remember correctly, a running concern for Harry is that Dumbledore is often absent from Hogwart's. The cause of this absence and of his injured hand is dwelled on repeatedly. This is mentioned in one scene in the movie, I believe. Similarly I recall lots of pages about Ron's poor quidditch performance and nerves and such. The film flits right past this to Harry's solution for it, probably so they had an excuse for a good action-packed quidditch scene.

I understand that you need to cut some things about to make a movie, but when you weaken these threads you're left with a series of scenes, not an overall narrative. I just didn't feel the tension building up the way it did in previous installments. What was the ticking clock here? What was the crisis that had to be averted, or threat neutralized, or mystery solved? You had some suspicious behavior by Malfoy, who's general suspicious and sinister all the time. There's some increased activity by Death Eaters, who are always up to no good anyway, and seemed less threatening than the Dementors did in the previous film anyway. Snape does something ominous at the very beginning of the film, and then pretty much doesn't show up until the end. That doesn't add up to something that will have me on the edge of my seat wanting to see what happens next.

Overall I think this was decent, but not great. I preferred each of the previous three films. I think it does succeed in the respect that's it interesting to see a good creative team turn the events of a good book into cinematic reality. It's fun to compare your imagination of a fantastical event like the underground lake scene to the film version that director David Yates makes. I wanted to see what happened next because I wanted to see how the book was turned into film, not because I was anxious to unravel plot threads. Scene-by-scene, I think Yates et al did a very good job, it's just in tying them all together into a compelling 153 minute narrative that they fall a little flat.

As always with Harry Potter movies, my hat is off to Production Designer Stuart Craig and Art Director Andrew Ackland-Snow. The film was a pleasure visually. I have no idea who was responsible for the effect of the memories dissolving in the pensieve, but they did fantastic work. That was truly beautiful. I would hang a flat screen on my wall just to play a rendering of that effect, and it would be more rewarding than 95% of stuff I've ever seen in art galleries. Disclosure: I am an absolute sucker for fluid effects like that. I am still captivated by the curlicues and arabesques you get when you pour that first creamer into hot coffee, so this was right up my alley.