30 September 2009

Netflix

Here's what I saw when I tried to add An American Soldier (formerly The Recruiter) to my Netflix queue:

Detail:

Perhaps it's time to do a bit of culling on the queue.

(In my defense 120 of those 500 movies haven't been released on DVD yet. Some haven't been released in theaters yet either. I add movies to my queue as soon as I hear about them to avoid forgetting.)

Miscellaneous Polanski Commentary

Ken gives a good, solid fisking to the petition drafted by the Société des Auteurs et Compositeurs Dramatiques at his stomping ground on Popehat.



Like Ken, I am skeptical of the "Hollywood is a moral cesspool, inhabited by morons" meme, as well as the less overtly judgmental but closely related "Hollywood is completely out of touch with America" meme. But what are we to make of the seemingly overwhelming support of Hollywoodians for Polanski compared to this:
On the Los Angeles Times website only one in 30 comments from members of the public supported Polanski and most called for him to face justice.
Sure, the LA Times comment system is not exactly a perfect statistical cross-section of America, but I don't hear anyone in the film industry calling for Polanski's head. There's got to be somebody in Hollywood who agrees Polanski is a rapist shit who deserves some much delayed justice. (Besides Rob Long, and even then I'm just assuming he agrees with me. He's been too busy critiquing Ralph Nader's delusional new 700 page novel to address Polanski.) Have I just not come across the film industry types who are correct about this? If so, please leave a comment pointing me in their direction.



Remember what rough treatment Whole Foods got after CEO John Mackey had the audacity to suggest non-Obama-approved health care reform proposals? What do you think being a rape apologist will get you these days? Here are some people towards whom you can direct your ire, if you are so inclined:
  • Woody Allen
  • Pedro Almodovar
  • Wes Anderson
  • Darren Aronofsky
  • Monica Bellucci
  • Jean-Pierre Dardenne
  • Luc Dardenne
  • Terry Gilliam
  • Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
  • Wong Kar Waï
  • John Landis
  • David Lynch
  • Michael Mann
  • Julian Schnabel
  • Martin Scorcese
  • Tilda Swinton
  • Harvey Weinstein


The Cranky Professor has this to say about that petition:
I love this line from the petition:
"The arrest of Roman Polanski in a neutral country, where he assumed he could travel without hindrance ... opens the way for actions of which no one can know the effects," said the signatories...
What do they think Switzerland is, Disneyworld? Switzerland is neutral in WAR, that doesn't mean it doesn't have a lot of laws and arrest people - even some who are wanted in other countries.
Amen. Neutrality doesn't make a country into Candyland. There are still rules.



Alex Massie advises Polanski's friends that they are not helping when they say things like this:
Then again, [Robert] Harris is hardly the only one of the film-makers' friends who has embarrassed himself. Consider Whoopi Goldberg:
"I know it wasn't rape-rape. It was something else but I don't believe it was rape-rape. He went to jail and and when they let him out he was like, 'You know what, this guy's going to give me a hundred years in jail. I'm not staying.' So that's why he left."
In this video clip Goldberg admits she has no idea if it was consensual, but she's still sure it didn't qualify as rape. (For the record, it wasn't consensual in any way, shape or form.)

Does Whoopi Goldberg exist in a universe with any moral grounding whatsoever? What the hell is rape-rape?? F*** that. And F*** Whoopi Goldberg. Two times.



Here's how I see it:
P1: Roman Polanski is a rapist.
P2: It is in society's interest to punish rapists.
C: Therefore it is in society's interest to punish Roman Polanski.
If you want to reject my conclusion you need to reject one of my two premises. Which one is wrong? What am I leaving out that's relevant? The crime was a long time ago, he's an artist, he's old, he was on the way to an award show in his honor, he's been living overseas in the country of his birth, he thought Switzerland wouldn't arrest him, the Swiss have (or had) banking secrecy laws, the Swiss are neutral, his victim has personally forgiven him, his second wife was murdered, his mother died in the Holocaust. I get it. How do any of those things bear on P1, P2 or C? How are they anything but obfuscatory?

One more reason to love The Who

bdunbar | Hippie

Woodstock
Abbie Hoffman was the source of the one amusing Woodstock anecdote. You'd think you'd get a lot of funny stories from filling a cow pasture with half-a-million adolescents. But no. The Who were playing. After "Pinball Wizard," Pete Townshend turned away to adjust his amplifier. Abbie rushed onstage, grabbed the microphone and began a political rant. Townshend "whacked him in the head with his guitar."

It was one of Pete's best licks. And here's another: "The people at Woodstock," the book quotes Townshend as saying, "really were a bunch of hypocrites claiming a cosmic revolution simply because they took over a field, broke down some fences, imbibed bad acid, and then tried to run out without paying the bands."
Pete Townshend is a stud. End of story.

28 September 2009

Dude Fest!

Just got back from Lebowski Fest 2009 DC. Simply amazing. It was great seeing the movie in a crowd so full of energy and admiration and joy. The difference between this and watching the movie at home was as big as the difference between a live concert and playing a CD.

I rocked a decent Dude costume, with some sandals, beat up shorts, stretched and faded tee, bathrobe, and shades. Special Lady Friend took it up a notch with a Nihilist costume, complete with green painted nails and a bandaged little toe. There were some great costumes around, including many Dudes, a handful of Walters, a couple of Valkyries, a couple of Jesuses, a Time Man of the Year, and a Maude-trying-to-conceive. I was really hoping to see a Knox Harrington, but no luck.

DC is the last stop of the 2009 Tour, but there are still tickets available for the bowling party tonight in Bethesda for anyone in the DC area looking for some entertainment. I highly recommend it.



In a bit of coincidence, Special Lady Friend's Parents saw this license plate while on a trip to upstate NY today:




In other Lebowski news, I saw this post from Jacob Grier in my feed-reader when I got home: El Dude
My drink for this month is a variation on the White Russian. The White Russian’s enjoyable as is, but it could be a lot more interesting. Kahlua’s a one-dimensional liqueur and vodka is, well, vodka. I decided to rehabilitate the drink with Patron XO Café, a tequila-based coffee liqueur, in place of the cloyingly sweet Kahlua, and then added a few other things to make El Dude:
1.25 reposado tequila
.75 oz Patron XO Café
.5 oz heavy whipping cream
.25 oz triple sec
cardamom tincture to taste*
wet whipped cream**
cinnamon

The renegade who had it made / Retrieved for a bounty

Joan Z Shore | Polanski's Arrest: Shame on the Swiss

Arresting Roman Polanski the other day in Zurich, where he was to receive an honorary award at a film festival, was disgraceful and unjustifiable. Polanski, now 76, has been living in France for over thirty years, and has been traveling and working in Europe unhindered, but the Swiss acted on an old extradition treaty with the U.S. and seized him! The Swiss Justice Ministry will decide whether to extradite him to the United States.
I've been hearing versions of that argument all over, and they're all bullshit. You can shove that "He was being honored and besides he's an ARTIST!" right up your a**. Polanski drugged and raped a girl. End of story. I don't care if he was a butcher, or a baker, or the living reincarnation of Michelangelo Buonarroti, Claude Monet and Federico Fellini rolled into one.

"He was to receive an honorary award." That's the excuse? An award? I'm sure a goddamned statuette would cancel out someone abusing your daughter or sister or wife. "He may have forced himself on my little girl, but I'd hate to disrupt his award ceremony, so let's let him go." Screw you two times.
The 13-year old model 'seduced' by Polanski had been thrust onto him by her mother, who wanted her in the movies. The girl was just a few weeks short of her 14th birthday, which was the age of consent in California.
You know what's even more despicable of an excuse than she was asking for it? Her mother was asking for it for her. Let's put aside the fact that Polanski plied her with booze and ludes and that she objected to being violated anally and vaginally because her mother was desperate for her to be a star. Surely children of overbearing parents forfeit the right to refuse sex, right? Oh, and also ignore Polanski's own admission that he knew she was underage.
I met Polanski shortly after he fled America and was filming Tess in Normandy. I was working in the CBS News bureau in Paris, and I accompanied Mike Wallace for a Sixty Minutes interview with Polanski on the set. Mike thought he would be meeting the devil incarnate, but was utterly charmed by Roman's sobriety and intelligence.
In that case drop the charges forthwith. Intelligent rapists are fine by me. Really, Joan Z Shore? You call yourself a feminist and you're letting Polanski off the hook because he was sober and smart? That's how it's going to be? I am in awe of your principles. (Perhaps this explains why the Left was okay with all the Kennedeys' womanizing. Oh, wait. I forgot about the "sobriety" thing. Never mind.)

Hang the son of a bitch.

Actually, scratch that. Prison would be worse for this jackass. People in prisons, both guards and inmates, don't like child rapists. That's just one way prisons are more civilized societies than the Huffington Post.

(Via Nick Gillespie, who comments:
There are arguments against continuing to pursue Polanski, not least of which is the fact that he made a civil settlement with his now-middle-aged victim who has publicly forgiven him. So some measure of restitution has been acheived.
Actually, I think that's a terrible reason. The point of making statutory rape distinct from rape generally is to protect all minors who may become victims, not just the particular victim of the act being prosecuted. Statutory rape means we ignore the mindset of the victim. It's irrelevant. It doesn't suddenly become relevant thirty years later. The law doesn't care what Samantha Gailey thought about it when she was 13, and it shouldn't care now. Additionally, the criminal justice system is not about the personal retribution or restitution for the victim. What Polasnki did was not just an affront to Gailey, but to order, nature, childhood and innocence.

(Also, note well that even putting aside the matter of Gailey's age, she objected vigorously to his advances even after he drugged her. This would be rape no matter how old she was at the time.))

(Subject line)

PS I don't have the patience for this anymore, but every single argument I've come across defending Polanski is a goddamned abortion of rationality. I'll turn you over to Jim at Porch Dog, who absolutely planes Anne Applebaum's Washington Post Op-Ed. Ken at Popehat razes the Polanski apologists in general, as well as providing some links to similar efforts. Here's a short excerpt from Popehat, summarizing the basic flavors of Polanski defender arguments:
1. That it is morally acceptable to gloat over the fact that a rape victim does not want the perpetrator tried, even when she specifically says it is because she can’t bear for her family to be dragged through the mud.
2. That the victim’s mother fed her to Polanski to promote her career — as if this is a morally significant mitigating factor, as if it in any way excuses the conduct.
3. That the victim — who, in her grand jury testimony, referred to the act performing cunnilingus as “performing cuddliness” — was a sophisticated seductress.
4. That it is irrational or vengeful to pursue a child-rapist for 32 years, because moral responsibility for rape has a shelf-life.
5. That it is irrational or vengeful to fail to forgive a child-rapist, and excuse him from legal consequences, when he previously experienced great hardship.
6. That living a life of luxury in France is a great hardship. (For people with normal moral sensibilities, to whom rape is not properly classified as “sexual liberation,” I grant you it might be.)
7. That Great Men of letters exist on a different plane, and that right-thinking people overlook their peccadilloes.
8. That opposition to drugging and having sex with 13-year-olds — let alone raping them — is a sign of Puritanism.
9. That the Fugitive Disentitlement Doctrine, which generally prevents fugitives from litigating their cases in the forum they fled, is somehow unfair.
10. That a trial judge is bound by the deal a defendant cuts with the prosecution.
PPS Polanski isn't even that damn good of a director. Rosemary's Baby was some intense stuff; I'll give him credit for that one. His version of Macbeth was average at best, and The Ninth Gate shat all over Pérez-Reverte's excellent source material, The Club Dumas. That was such a cock-up of such a great book that I honestly can't consider the guy to be that good.

25 September 2009

Clowns on the left of me, jokers to the right.

Coyote Blog | Expectations:

I must say that I do find it interesting that a few heated verbal exchanges and one guy carrying a gun peacefully somewhere near where the President was speaking is considered a looming threat from the right to civil society while lefties physically clashing with police and destroying property (again near the President) is treated as ho-hum, more leftish rioting. The same bored reaction tends to result from union violence as well. Is it bias, or have we just had years to get used to violence on the left? With memories of Seattle, all subsequent violence I guess seems tame and not worthy of comment.
I don't think it's that we're inured to it. I think it's that people view leftist rioters as silly college kids whose hearts are basically in the right place but just don't know how to express themselves and will grow out of it soon, but they view right wingers as selfish, psychotically aggressive and possibly revolutionary. Each group (unwittingly or not) encourages this view. The leftists sport dreadlocks and wear silly costumes as if they're going to an absurdist performance art production, and the rightists have buzz cuts and wear fatigues and act as if they're in the middle of Red Dawn.

PS Look at these pictures from the London G-20 summit in April. Two of those radicals are literally dressed as clowns. It's no wonder people don't take them seriously even when their hissy fits boils over into rioting.

I am *definitely* tapped out.

I'm walking down the hallway of the CS building. I wonder what time it is. I check my wrist, but I'm not wearing a watch today.

I reach into my pocket and withdraw an item. It isn't displaying the time, so I flip it over. Maybe that side will tell me the time.

No luck. I scrutinize the first side again, but still don't know what time it is. Why won't this thing tell me the time?! What is wrong here?

Then it hits me.

I'm not staring at any sort of time-telling device. Not my phone. Not my iPod. This thing in my hand is a plastic ID card. Ah. Right.

I do reach one chronographic conclusion: it has been a long week.

Mockery of -- and through -- Sportsmanship

Going to the Mat | Honor, Humility and Sportsmanship

Stories like this one always make me feel proud and hopeful for the future.
Thamail Morgan took the kickoff and headed up the field.

He was at the 20 ... 30 ... 40

He had been avoiding, dodging or just simply running through tacklers on the way. Football always had come easily for Morgan. This game was no different. By the time he hit midfield, only open space was ahead of him. The two-time Arkansas all-state selection was headed for a touchdown.

40 ... 30 ... 20

He glanced at the clock and saw the final seconds ticking away. He realized his team, Cave City, was on the way to a victory over Yellville-Summit, comfortably ahead, 34-16. He also realized two other things: This wasn't an ordinary game. And he wasn't the same Thamail Morgan.

When he reached the 2, he stopped. He took a few steps back and took a knee at the 5-yard line.

[...]

"I did not tell him to kneel down, he did it on his own," Bradley said. "I did not expect them to kick it to him. I figured they would kick away, because he has the ability to break away. I did not know that he was going to do what he did. He broke tackles, ran sideline to sideline, and got to the 2, and just stopped. That is when he backed up and took a knee on the 5-yard line."

Morgan did not do this completely on his own.

"We were on the sidelines yelling for him not to score," Bradley said. "Some of the players on the field were saying it, too. But I'm not sure how much he could have heard all of it."

He heard it, Morgan admitted. But he didn't need to.

"Before the game, we as a team talked about being classy,'' he said. "We did not want to come out in a game like this and not show any class.
That's so patronizing.

Am I the only one that would be infinitely more insulted by someone refusing to score rather than "running up the score" against me? I would be furious with a guy for doing that on the field. It's far more insulting to be beat narrowly by someone who isn't really trying than to be beat badly by someone who is. When you step onto the field you deserve the best competition the other guys have in them. Your opponent giving you something less because he doesn't think you can handle it? That's an open affront. That's what you do when you're playing against young children, and even they usually see through it and hate it.

Those kids are forever going to remember this as the game in which some hot shot kick returner pitied them and deigned not to score a final touchdown. People who only read the box score may think "Oh, they only lost by 18 and not 25. Good for them." The guys on the field know they were granted clemency. The guys on the field know that their opponents didn't respect them enough to keep trying. Obviously you don't want to loose, and you don't want to loose badly, but you also don't want pity.

If the coach is so damn classy, why did he have this powerhouse returner in the game in the first place? (And don't they have a ball-control return play for the four minute drill and such? One with a blocking plan designed to maintain possession and not rack up yards?) If he was so concerned with being "classy" he should have put the scout return team in. In my book putting in the second string is the only semi-respectable way of showing a soon-to-be-defeated opponent mercy.* Everything else is just a self-aggrandizing, ostentatious power trip.


* That's still a little insulting, but that's counterbalanced by the good it does for the second stringers to get some action.

Bird Music

Jarbas Agnelli's Birds on the Wires:
Reading a newspaper, I saw a picture of birds on the electric wires. I cut out the photo and decided to make a song, using the exact location of the birds as notes (no Photoshop edit). I knew it wasn't the most original idea in the universe. I was just curious to hear what melody the birds were creating.

I sent the music to the photographer, Paulo Pinto, who I Googled on the internet. He told his editor, who told a reporter and the story ended up as an interview in the very same newspaper.

Here I've posted a short video made with the photo, the music and the score (composed by the birds).



(Via Monoscope.)

I'm tapped out

Occasionally I have these brief freak outs where I suddenly suspect I have left my keys somewhere and lost them. More often than not that occurs while I'm driving my car, with the keys in the ignition.

I just wondered if and why I had left my laptop in the basement. While I was reading a pdf file on my laptop, not in the basement.

I think that's a sign I need to bail out for the night.

24 September 2009

"Proper scientists, not mad vegetarians on bicycles..."

Via Professor Bainbridge, here's some good talk about speed cameras from the Top Gear fellas:



(Previous analysis from Top Gear here on the matter of driving habits and fuel efficiency.)

Can we make legislation self-culling? Is there any precedent for putting measures into new legislation which would void the law if it was ineffective? I know we have sunset provisions now, but I'm looking for something which actually bases the phase-out on a measured effect and not just wall clock time.

Something like "Whereas we wish to reduce traffic fatalities and believe speed cameras to be an effective means of doing so, this legislation authorizes installing cameras along public roads blah blah blah... If, after a period of five years, traffic fatalities on roads with cameras are not lower than they were prior to the passage of this bill, use of speed cameras to issue citations is withdrawn."

I know legislators can always reauthorize anything which expired in that way, but for so many issues where there's a one-way ratcheting effect (like punishments for sex offenders) it would seem useful to have a decay function built in to counter act the ratcheting.

I suppose you could also introduce an autoinhibitory effect where the original, expired legislation would stipulate that it must be actively repealed before any new laws could be passed on the same matter, but that probably wouldn't be very useful since if you had the votes to pass the new law you'd have the votes to overturn the old one. But still, it extends the unexplained mental analogy I have right now to neurotransmitter mechanics which got me thinking about this. Okay, I'm much too pre-occupied with neuroscience to think about this now. Signing off...

Transhumanism

Mind Hacks | Transhuman nature:

ABC Radio National's All in the Mind has just had an excellent programme on 'the singularity', the idea that at some point in the future computer power will outstrip the ability of the human brain and then humanity will be better off in some sort of vague and unspecified way."
Bingo.

Of course humanity almost certainly will be better off in some sort of vague and unspecified way in the future, and specifically due to increased computing power. The hard-core transhumanists' problem is that they tend to confidently extrapolate exceedingly specific ways things are going to be different, but leave the actual mechanisms for these changes entirely ambiguous and indeterminate.

Ray Kurzweil et al's bread and butter is "and then a miracle occurs."

Transhumanists are like the eccentric uncle of the cognitive science community. Not the sort of eccentric uncle who gets drunk at family parties and makes inappropriate comments about your kid sister (that would be drug reps), but the sort that your disapproving parents thinks is a bit peculiar but is full of fascinating stories and interesting ideas.

They occasionally take themselves too seriously and it's the sort of sci-fi philosophy that has few practical implications but it's enormously good fun and is great for making you re-evaluate your assumptions.
Quite right, again. I find transhumanism very fun, and it makes for some enjoyable fiction. (Try, for instance Schismatrix. Make sure you read the "Plus" version that includes the short stories in addition to the novella.) Unfortunately when you get down to brass tacks, there's just no way currently to get cognition to reduce to computation, which seems to be the underpinning of most transhumanism (at least the prominent and annoying singularitarian side of it). I wish things were otherwise, but thought is not a Turing process. That doesn't in any way preclude us from a "Quacks Like a Duck" theory of AI, but it also means that faster computers will not necessarily get us any closer to true thinking machines.

(Via Ryan Sager)

Podcast News

Lars Brownworth — the man who brought me one of my favorite all-time podcasts, 12 Byzantine Rulers — has a new project out: Norman Centuries. I'm excited that he's going to cover Norman activity in Sicily and Southern Italy as well as France and England. This is especially nice timing since The History of Rome Podcast went on fall break this week while the host, Mike Duncan, gets married, honeymoons and moves.

If I was a screenwriter I bet I could mine a half a dozen movie ideas out of Brownworth's Byzantine series. We've had out fill of (Western) Roman stuff, and it's time for some Byzantine movies. It's an exotic but still relatable setting. Constantinople would provides lush visuals: huge monuments, broad battlements, busy ports and markets, opulent palaces. You've got epic clashes of civilizations mediated by confrontations between influential schemers which keeps the struggles personal. Back-stabbing advisers, generals on the make, cunning wives, rival bishops, underage emperors, disloyal guard captains. Good stuff.



I have just learned that one of my favorite Sicilian dishes, Pasta alla Norma, was named after Bellini's opera Norma, and not after the Normans, as it was originally explained to me. In light of that, and because there's never a bad time for Maria Callas, here's Casta Diva from Norma:

23 September 2009

"The Duct Tape Programmer"

Joel on Software | The Duct Tape Programmer:

Duct tape programmers are pragmatic. [Jamie] Zawinski popularized Richard Gabriel’s precept of Worse is Better. A 50%-good solution that people actually have solves more problems and survives longer than a 99% solution that nobody has because it’s in your lab where you’re endlessly polishing the damn thing. Shipping is a feature. A really important feature. Your product must have it.
[Emph. mine.]

Joel Spolsky is talking about a good lesson from Peter Seibel's book, Coders at Work, which is interviews with CS All Stars like Knuth and Norvig and Steele. He's saying that you shouldn't be afraid to say no to the architect astronauts who want you to use multiply-inherited templated whatevers since the fancy techniques often use up more effort than they save.

I went through a two year period where I didn't work on many large or even medium-scale programming projects over my senior year of undergrad and first year of grad school because a lot of my classes were more pencil-and-paper stuff. My coding got really rusty over this period, but the silver lining is that I forgot most of the overly fancy and trendy stuff I knew, and I'm left with the ugly-but-gets-the-job-done core of my former knowledge.

Camera Dump

I finally invested the $2.81 necessary to get a card reader in order to get cameras off my phone conveniently. So here's what I've seen in the last few weeks. (Click any photo to largify it.)

I plan on submitting this one to There I Fixed It forthwith.

A very classy vanity plate in UMD's Lot 11:


Faithful Companion Gus does not think I washed the grill rack sufficiently, but he's willing to help out with the cleaning:


From this angle, Gus looks like Dogbert — big head, tiny limbs, no visible body:


In case it isn't clear, that's a cinnamon bun surrounded by a pretzel. I have no idea why people would do this either.


Check out this delicious Pimm's Cup I whipped up. The home-grown mint leaves really ties the drink together. It was so delicious I had to share it with the internet.


Speaking of herbs, check out the size of this basil I grew. And I've got some pretty big mitts.


Here's two of Special Lady Friend's cousins hanging out with a lion at the zoo.


This is not a great picture, but before we went to the zoo we saw Toothpick City II. It was amazing. I am so in awe of this project. I do not have the words to describe the audacity necessary to build exact scale replicas of the world's most famous buildings out of implements originally designed to remove detritus from in between our chompers.

Science and the Belfast Cowboy

I'm feeling particularly optimistic about my pursuit of scientific knowledge this afternoon thanks to a fine short review paper by Baddeley ("Working Memory: Looking Back and Looking Forward," Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 2003). Much to think about there. (Perhaps too much.) It's been a very tough adaptation for this Computer Scientist to get into a groove of reading psychology and neuroscience articles over the last couple of months, but I'm finally feeling in a groove.

This motivated feeling will probably pass when I actually have to figure what to do with all these new leads and turn them into an actionable outline, but in the meantime, it's time for some happy music.



Interesting biographical anecdote about your humble blogger: In high school physics my best man and I had to build a self-propelled vehicle out of cardboard and drinking straws and rubber bands and such. Ours only worked when Van Morrison's "Jackie Wilson Said" was playing in the vicinity. No joke. I'm still waiting for the physicists to come up with a unified theory of gravity, electromagnetism and blue-eyed soul.

22 September 2009

Further evidence that the mind is a subtle and deeply strange thing -- Part 2

I had a dream last night that I was tasked to rebuild Disney World, but on the ocean. The whole thing had to be on converted cruise ships and floating platforms lashed together, and every ride had to be like It's A Small World or Splash Mountain, with the cars riding on a flume of water, even the Skyway gondola and the Tower of Terror.

And do you know why Disney World had to be rebuilt? Because it was destroyed. By Zombies.

But not just any zombies. Subterranean zombies. Burrowing zombies. They were like sand worm zombies, and they could hear mechanical noises from under ground and they would burst up onto the surface and do their zombie business. This made it difficult to scout out Original (Terrestrial) Disney World from out Jeeps, but scout we did, collecting priceless Disney artifacts.

I think P.J. O'Rourke was navigating, but it might have been Neil Patrick Harris. He had a knack for finding stashes of hooch every time we looked for artifacts. We were more amazed that he managed to find booze in Disney World than that he wanted to get plastered while surrounded by zombies. My best friend from elementary school was our jeep mechanic. He had this crazy theory you could scare zombies away with Bach, and it sort of worked, but mostly didn't. He was really good with his homemade cross bow, so we let it slide.

Oh, and the new Floating Disney World was also supposed to have a museum presenting the history of In-N-Out Burger, with special wings devoted to Animal Sauce and another for their war with Five Guys. Not a marketing war. More like a gang war, with armed mercenaries claiming territory for rival burger chains. White Castle and Fuddruckers were like the Ottomans and the Serbians in WWI -- they were there, but no body really paid much attention.

So. Seasteading + Water World + Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom + Walking Dead + Dune + Driving Like Crazy + Snow Crash. Yes.

(Read the first installment of "Further evidence that the mind is a subtle and deeply strange thing" here.)

21 September 2009

Monday Morning Gibe: Bestselling Author Edition

"Author Dan Brown strode through the brass lobby of a bar and ordered a beer, his eyes white as something white. The bartender had eyes too."

Merlin Mann (aka hotdogsladies)
Dan Brown is right up there with Michael Moore as someone who doesn't lie so much as he shits on the very nature of Truth.

20 September 2009

What's up, Doc?

Site gag genius, offered without comment:

Wooster Collective | Seen On The Streets of Antwerp, Belgium

Giddy-up!

You know what I loved as a kid? My rocking horse. That thing was the best.

You know what's even more of the best? This rocking horse:


Bike EXIF | Felix Götze rocking horse

A little bit of fun for the weekend: German designer Felix Götze has created this rocking horse from old motorcycle parts. Apparently it’s for a little lad called Otto Komei, who is fascinated by the choppers coming out of the workshop opposite his house. Götze installed a two-stroke thumper of 150 cc with a slash-cut exhaust, because “everybody rides V2 four-stroke”. That sprung leather saddle is a neat touch, and so is the airbrushing by artist Thomas Weber. Who’s a lucky boy? [Images and concept copyright Felix Götze.]
I don't even want one for my (future) kids. I want one right now, for me, so I can rock out while watching TV.

Cowen on Blogging (Edited)

Marginal Revolution | How should economists integrate their personal and professional lives?:

In many ways the core of blogging is a willingness to apply what you know to every problem you encounter, and see how good a job you can do of it in a more or less integrated fashion.
Bingo.

Edited to add: That sounds right to me, but it also necessarily entails going out on limbs you're not so sure of. I try not to judge bloggers by whether they are always right about what they post, but whether their contributions are a net positive to my understanding. (Or really, that's how I try to judge my own contributions. I'm pretty sure I don't have the whole story about ND's Econ department, but I think that I'm probably more right than not, and that's enough for me.)

Shake up at Notre Dame Econ

The Chronicle of Higher Education | Notre Dame to Dissolve 'Heterodox' Side of Its Split Economics Dept.

Early in this decade, the University of Notre Dame's economics department was bruised by a long series of quarrels over methods and ideology. So in 2003 the university's leaders came up with a Solomonic solution: They split the department in two.

Some of the faculty members stayed in what became known as economics and policy studies, a heterodox department that made room for post-Keynesians, Marxians, and historians of economic thought. (Broadly speaking, that had been the character of Notre Dame's economics program since the 1970s.) Others moved into economics and econometrics, a more-mainstream department with an emphasis on quantitative tools.
That's fine with with this ND alumnus.

I wish Economics as a discipline was more heterogeneous. I love the application of computing and math to all sorts of problems, but I think the practitioners of econometrics have gone a bit off the rails. They forget that numerical analysis must serve domain knowledge, not dictate it.

I'd love to see more of certain aspects of Heterodox Economics taught at Notre Dame, but my wish list is for some neuroeconomics, evolutionary economics, and Austrian economics. The heterodoxy you actually got at ND amounts mostly to various flavors of Marxism (or Marxianism, or what have you).

I'm a little intrigued that this Higher Ed article describes the split as heterodoxy vs orthodoxy. It was always described to me as being more about economics & public policy vs econometrics and quantitative analysis.
Above all, [critics] say that the dissolution would represent an intellectual loss for the university. While Notre Dame once had an economics program that was distinctively shaped by currents in Roman Catholic social thought, they say, it will now be left with a neoclassical department much like the ones at almost every other major university.
Let me read between the lines for non-Notre Dame people. In this case "distinctively shaped by currents in Roman Catholic social thought" means "heavily influenced by Liberation Theology." Which in turn means socialism.

And I don't mean "socialism" in the "Obama == The Joker == Socialism! ZOMG Death Panels!!" way. I mean that Liberation Theology is the dominant Catholic current in contemporary Christian Socialism, which, like all socialism, I view as being fundamentally incorrect. A lot of my friends at ND were enamored to one degree or another of Liberation Theology/Christian Socialism, and I believe most of them have just never been exposed to the arguments that I think rather conclusively prove the untenability of their positions. I don't really blame them, I just don't think they've ever thought about Hayek or Bastiat or Ricardo. (They probably look at me and think I'm hopelessly uninformed about all the arguments proving I'm wrong though. Such is life.) I respect all my Liberation Theology friends, I think their hearts are in the right place and they want to help people, I just happen to think they're wrong about how to go about it.*

A few friends of mine would argue — or rather, already have argued — with me that Liberation Theology has nothing to do with Christian Socialism, but I'm sticking to my guns and saying they're inseparable. Some of them argued that it's really closer to corporatism than socialism, but that's not any sort of improvement in my eyes.

Anyway, back to econ at ND. I never took an econ class there for a few interlocking reasons:
  1. Before getting to any of the interesting classes you had to take one semester of intro micro, one semester of intro macro, and one semester of intermediate micro or macro. I didn't want to wade through three semesters of massive lectures to get to one semester of game theory or other goodness.
  2. The department was being sundered while I was there, so all the course requirements and offerings and such were a mess that I didn't want to deal with.
  3. The department(s) just didn't have a great reputation.
  4. Engineering students like me had a very limited number of free electives to fill up.
  5. There were lots of other interesting classes for me to take in art and film and history and philosophy and so on.
I never bothered with formal econ classes, and I think it's worked out for the better. I've gotten what I feel to be a pretty fine education from reading blogs and listening to podcasts and checking out library books. Tyler Cowen and Russ Roberts and some of the other GMU faculty (and others, of course) think this is a legitimate way to do it, so I'm sticking with them. It doesn't rival a full major in econ, but I've found it more fulfilling and worthwhile than the handful of electives I would have taken as an undergrad.

(Via Tyler Cowen)

* So Skip & Stretch and all the other guys I've had this conversation with before: no offense. We've already agreed to disagree on this one. No hard feelings?

CBS: Very Undude

The Pats play the Jets ... right now. CBS has the rights, but I can't get it in my area.

No big deal, there's probably some regional game on they're playing instead, right?

Nope. They're showing a half hour of previews of their new fall shows, followed by several hours of infomercials.

How can this be a good outcome for anyone involved? What perversity lead to this? Whom do I blame?

I really need some Patriots football to wash the bitter taste of ND's poor performance yesterday out of my mind. Grrrr...

19 September 2009

Iain Banks enjoys the finer things

Iain Banks - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

At the beginning of 2006 Banks captained a team of writers to victory in a special series of University Challenge on BBC2, beating a team of actors 185-105 (1 January 2006), and then the 'news' team 190-45 in the final (2 January 2006).
A fellow quiz show jockey? I knew I liked Banks.

It gets better:
He also won an edition of Celebrity Mastermind, taking 'Malt whisky & the distilleries of Scotland' as his specialist subject on BBC1 on 2 January 2006.
Excellent intellectual priorities! He also consider publishing his Science Fiction under the pen name John B. Macallan, after his favorite whiskies: Johnny Walker Black and The Macallan.

If you don't know Iain Banks, I recommend starting with The Player of Games. I like Excession more, but it has a pretty convoluted structure, so PoG is easier to cut your teeth on. Both are set in the same universe along with five other novels, though they aren't really a series and are meant to stand alone. If you want a completely independent Banks book to start with, try The Algebraist.

17 September 2009

The Telly

I'm watching Sons of Anarchy on DVD and I thought they did something kind of cool which I never would have noticed had I been watching it on week-to-week broadcast. They ended one episode with two characters riding away as The Black Keys' "Keep Me" played, and they started up the next episode, the same two characters still riding, more or less right where they left off in the middle of "Keep Me." I thought this was pretty neat editing, made all the much more awesome because "Keep Me" is one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite contemporary bands. I continue to maintain that DVD/DVR/BitTorrent is the best way to enjoy modern television.



Sons of Anarchy is highly recommended, though be warned I'm only halfway through the first season so far, so I suppose that's provisional. I love Ron Perlman,* I love outlaws (cf Tom Robbins' distinction between outlaws and criminals**), I love the soundtrack, I love Charlie Hunnam (from Green Street Hooligans, among others), and I think the Hamlet & Macbeth themes are kind of interesting.

In other TV news, The Office and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia are both starting up their seasons tonight. Everyone more or less knows about The Office, but I'm regularly surprised how many people have never seen Always Sunny. It's a preposterously under-rated show, so I feel it's my blogo-duty to evangelize it right now.

Both Sons of Anarchy and Always Sunny are on FX (as is Rescue Me, whose early seasons were great and whose more recent seasons have fallen off but are still good). I was thinking about my favorite current shows recently, and I was shocked how few are on the Big Four broadcast networks. With AMC and FX putting out such good stuff, basic cable is outperforming both broadcast and HBO/Showtime/etc.

* Who's rumored to be in The Hobbit. Excellent. Playing who, though? He's got the voice for a dwarf, but they would have to do some serious trickery to get him down to dwarf size. Although I suppose John Rhys-Davies is 6 feet easy, so it's nothing new.

** Here's a hint: "If you're honest, you sooner or later have to confront your values. Then you're forced to separate what is right from what is merely legal. This puts you metaphysically on the run. America is full of metaphysical outlaws." — Still Life with Woodpecker. Not that there's anything metaphysical about the outlawry in Sons of Anarchy, but it's a great quote.

The Calculus

In this mini TED talk, mathematician Arthur Benjamin endorses an idea that's near and dear to SB7's heart: calculus does not need to be the pinnacle of secondary math education:



Here's what I said about calc last winter:
I think the best thing about calculus for high school students is that it's the most rigorous class they're likely to face. You spend an entire year confronting only two ideas (differentiation and integration) and if you don't grok them you can't really fake it. Contrast this to, say, American Government where you can have some fleeting and incomplete notions of separation of powers and the Bills of Rights and the New Deal and hand-wave your way to passing marks. Of course calculus' rigorous and monolithic nature is also it's weakness: if you don't grok those two principles the entire year goes over your head. Students are left feeling like all of mathematics is beyond them.

What I'd like to see taught is probability theory, hopefully with some statistics as well, discrete math, and perhaps some linear algebra. I like probability and statistics because I think it helps people understand the world in a quantitative way better than any other math class. Even if the only benefit was that no American with a diploma ever played the slots again I'd consider it worthwhile. I think discrete math has the advantage of geometry in the you can do pretty advanced reasoning based on very simple components and relationships. Discrete math also has a lot of subfields that can be taught, which overcomes that weakness of calculus by allowing a student that didn't understand set theory to move on after a few weeks to graph theory where they might fair better.
Benjamin seems to hold mostly the same idea, but keeps his endorsement limited to stats. He mentions the divide between continuous and discrete mathematics, but frustratingly doesn't actually endorse discrete math as a discipline. This isn't too surprising, because in my experience no one without a background in math, CS or EE has taken a discrete math course or typically knows what it is. Here's a wikipedia breakdown of topics covered by the umbrella of "discrete math":
  1. Logic
  2. Set theory
  3. Information theory
  4. Number theory
  5. Combinatorics
  6. Theoretical computer science
  7. Operations research
  8. Discretization

16 September 2009

Steal this Pitch: Deli Slicer Edition

Every deli I've been to seems to be equipped with a slicer and a scale. Why hasn't anyone combined these two things yet? Instead of having the deli attendant slice some meat or cheese until they think it's about the weight you asked for, and then remove it for weighing, and then putting it back on the slicer to top it off (repeating as necessary), why not just build a scale onto the little platform where the slices drop down onto?

I am interested in any and all technologies which will (a) reduce the amount of time I must spend shopping, and (b) reduce the amount of time and effort between me and a sandwich.

(Does such a thing exist already? A quick Google search suggests not, but I don't know where to look for definitive information on modern deli supplies and equipment.)

15 September 2009

The Latest in Signage Technology

Seth’s blog | Signage Features of the Toyko Subway System Inexplicably Missing Elsewhere

I’ve been in about 15 subway systems. Only in the Tokyo system have I seen these helpful features:

1. Walking distances. [...]
2. Station-to-station distances in minutes. [...]
3. Letter-number names for each station. [...]
Amen. Seth explains each of these features briefly, and they all sound like they're worth adopting. (Although I don't think many subway stations in America (or London, for that matter) are big enough to need #1.)

I love signage. Appropriate signage of large public buildings is apparently a real open issue in architecture, from what I'm told.

(Via Jacob Grier)

Big Brass Ones

The SB7 Big Brass Ones Award of the Day goes to Josh Wexler:
The Agitator | Ballsy Agitator Reader Stands Up to Bully Cop

Josh Wexler, a 30-year-old piano player, said he saw a New Orleans police officer run a stop sign and strike a pedestrian with his car in the French Quarter at 12:45 p.m. Jan. 29.

When the pedestrian raised his hands as if to say, “What are you doing?” the officer rushed out of his vehicle and “angrily” grabbed the startled man, Wexler said.

The officer in question, William Torres, reportedly forced the pedestrian to place his hands on the hood of his squad car and reached for his handcuffs as if to arrest him.

Wexler, who was driving behind the police officer, decided to intervene.

He got out of his vehicle and told the officer he saw him run the stop sign and hit the pedestrian. Wexler told Torres he had no right to arrest the man.

At this point, Torres reportedly allowed the pedestrian to go free, directed his attention to Wexler and asked, “Do you want a ticket?”

“A ticket for what?” Wexler said. "I didn’t do anything."
Bully for Wexler.

You can read the full story at the New Orleans City Business, as well as the rest of the summary at The Agitator.

14 September 2009

Brady Being Brady

New England Patriots 25 — Buffalo Bills 24

That was such a fine final three minutes that it managed to wipe out all my bitterness about the Irish's abysmal loss on Saturday. A weekend of poor football has been redeemed for me.

"I scream with pain until you cry 'uncle.'"

Michael Kinsley - Democrats Need to Stop the Umbrage Game on Rep. Joe Wilson:

Umbrage is itself, generally, a lie. The ostensible victim of the offensive remark (call him or her the 'umbragee') is actually delighted at the opportunity, while the ostensible offense giver (call him or her the 'umbragor') is sorry to have wandered into this thicket, or is made to feel sorry as the umbrage game plays itself out. The rules of the game are perverse but simple: I scream with pain until you cry 'uncle.'
Ha! I love that last line.

I think it describes so much of the atmosphere kids operate in these days. They learn that the more aggrieved you seem the more likely you are to get your way, and they take that lesson with them into the adult world.

I have no idea whether the Democrats ought to back off of Joe Wilson, either tactically, strategically or ethically, but I do think Kinsley has a good analysis of "The Umbrage Game."

Here's what I think about Wilson's petulant little outburst:
1. Why would you shout "You lie" after one of the most true statement's of that speech? There were plenty of dishonest or self-contradictory things Obama said, so why not call him out for that?

2. This may, as Kinsley reports, have been a boon to Joe Wilson personally, but he makes every other ObamaCare critic look like a royal tit. Thanks, jerk.

3. I don't give a hoot that he interrupted the President of the United States in front of Congress. I care that he interrupted a man in front of an audience. It's just as low class to interrupt John Doe in front of the Local Association of Ditch Diggers. By the way, the real insult as I see it isn't to the speaker, it's to the people who gathered to listen to him. They didn't come to hear Wilson's outburst, and he doesn't get to supersede their choice in the matter.

4. I often wish American political discourse operated more like Speakers' Corner, but sadly it doesn't.* Someone needs to remind Wilson that this is not 'nam, this is politics. There are rules.
(* I wish our education system operated more like this as well. I'd sincerely love to see a weekly Speakers' Corner set up as a regular event on college campuses. I'd like to see professors require students to defend their ideas from a soapbox once in a while rather than in an essay. I'd love to see students required to take a debate-centric class in the same way they take discussion-centric seminars, even or especially if that debate is no-holds-barred Speakers' Corner style in front of not just their classmates but the rest of the campus. Let's raise some voices and get some blood pumping. Hell, I'd love to see professors and administrators get up there and mix it up too. Make them defend that op-ed they wrote, or the decision to give an honorary degree to whomever.)

Maybe my love for Speakers' Corner-style, rock-em-sock-em, down-and-dirty arguments is why I'm pretty sympathetic to even the more impudent rabble-rousers at the summer town halls. My mother's congressman canceled his scheduled town hall and instead scheduled three conference calls in the middle of the afternoon on weekdays to avoid the insolence of his plebeian detractors. I have vanishingly little respect for this course of action. I'd vastly prefer we had congressmen with the chops to get in a room and mix it up a little. If anyone thinks that's effectively impossible, you really ought to get to the corner of Hyde Park near Marble Arch on a Sunday and see what some of those guys can do with a hostile crowd.

Finally, a note on how I think Obama handled Wilson's outburst. (Here's a 30 second YouTube clip to refresh your memories.) I think the icy glare he shot Wilson at first was the correct response, but the avuncular tut-tutting "That's not true," sounded soft. Everyone else in the room was already chastising Wilson. Obama should have let them express displeasure for him. You're the President, you're on the fancy dias, you don't need to respond to a petulant accusation. I think his first reaction was the right one: stern glare, bit of a finger point. At that point you either pick up where you left off, or repeat the last line decisively while staring directly at the interrupter without wavering. I think he looked a little more like a school teacher than a ruler, and I find it interesting that his instinct was right, but he overrode it with some ill-advised gentleness.


(Via Jesse Walker.)

1, 2, 3, 4 Obama declares a trade war

Forbes.com | Tire Trade Tiff Rolls On: China hits back after the U.S. imposes duties on Chinese tires.

HONG KONG -- Just two days after the United States slapped Chinese tire imports with hefty tariffs, Beijing has hit back by saying it would launch an anti-dumping investigation into automobile and chicken products from the U.S.

[...]

The "protectionist" policy that seems to have triggered the Chinese tit-for-tat investigation was an order signed on Friday by President Barack Obama that imposes a 35% tariff on tires imported from China on top of the existing import duty of 4%.
Splendid. A trade war is totally what we need right now. I am really loving this transformative, Obama-era politics of hopënchange, because I completely agree that it's more important to reward your steel worker buddies during a recession than it is to keep trade flowing.

(Here's a bigger-picture take on protectionism from the Weekly Standard.)

If limiting trade was a good idea, wouldn't we be rewarding Cuba and North Korea by enforcing embargoes?
Protective tariffs are as much applications of force as are blockading squadrons, and their objective is the same: to prevent trade. The difference between the two is that blockading squadrons are a means whereby nations seek to prevent their enemies from trading; protective tariffs are a means whereby nations attempt to prevent their own people from trading.

— Henry George, "Protection or Free Trade," 1886
If limiting trade was a good idea, Africa would be the richest place on Earth. William Easterly has some great images — top to bottom, that's shipping routes, airline routes, and IP addresses. Practically the whole southern hemisphere is desolate.



13 September 2009

Quick Hits and Tab Clearing

A writer for the Simpsons ruins some anti-TV, Literature post-doc's day. Well done, sir. Well done.

(I also know just how he feels about social situations like that. I regularly remind myself "Don't be a misanthrope," like he does. It usually doesn't work.)



Heads-up displays in contact lenses?! Future here we come. I've fantasized about having a HUD since I played the Comanche flight simulator games back int he 90's. Of course if we want to be really cool we need to bypass the contacts and just jack right into our optic nerves or primary visual cortex.

(Via Peter Suderman)



Thomas Friedman is a dope. I don't relish name calling, but I lack the patience to wade through all the ways he's wrong about Chinese "democracy" being preferable to our brand. I'll let Will Wilkinson do it for me. He's got a great lead:
Thomas Friedman’s New York Times column today would be astonishing in its incoherence if only Friedman hadn’t long ago sapped us of our ability to be astonished by his incoherence.



I mentioned kegerator construction recently, so I'll also post a link to this review of the EdgeStar KC2000SS kegerator. It looks like a pretty good deal at $425. (NB: The review page linked there is work-safe, but note that the site it's posted to has some content that isn't the classiest. Call it a Maxim Magazine level of crudeness.)



Those anti-ObamaCare lunatics sure are a violent bunch. All their dastardly, Brown Shirt tactics are subverting American democracy. Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have whipped them up to a bloody rampage and they're going to ... wait, what's that? Oh, right. Never mind:
In more than 400 [town hall] events: one slap, one shove, three punches, two signs grabbed, one self-inflicted vandalism incident by a liberal, one unsolved vandalism incident, and one serious assault. Despite the left's insistence on the essentially barbaric nature of Obamacare critics, the video, photographic, and police report evidence is fairly clear in showing that 7 of the 10 incidents were perpetrated by Obama supporters and union members on Obama critics. If you add a phoned death threat to Democrat representative Brad Miller of N.C., from an Obama-care critic, the tally is 7 of 11.
Damn facts and figures, getting in the way of a good story all the time.



I posted some art from Atomic Robo yesterday. (NB Writer Brian Clevinger posted a higher res scan of that panel on their official website, and linked it in the comments section. So cool.) Anyway you need to check out Wegener's sketch of a dinosaur flying an F-14. Wicked. (Scroll down on that page.)



Coyote Blog on government accounting practices:
By the way, it is almost impossible for government NOT to subsidize such an entity, in part because of the way government accounting differs from private accounting. Government accounting is on a cash basis, so large up front investments show as a first year loss with no future expense implications. In operation, it means capital spending is pretty much free. And numerous charges that private firms take on, such as liability insurance, are not charged for on government books. I compete with the government a lot, and have investigated this dynamic in depth. Even why my costs are lower, the government, because of the way it accounts for things, often thinks its costs are much lower than mine and they under-price us.
I'm mystified that people believe a publicly-run plan will not be tax subsidized. The best example Obama could come up with was heavily subsidized public universities. We just spent how many billions of dollars bailing out private companies (not to mention Fannie and Freddie) and people still believe a public health insurance plan wouldn't get as much money as it wanted from the coffers? The writing has been on the wall for decades with the USPS, and the Postmaster General just went before congress about two weeks ago to tell them that they were broke and had burned through the special line of credit they were given which was supposed to last for several more years. It was mostly a courtesy call to let them know that the Postal Service didn't actually have any money to make payroll, but that they were going to keep writing checks, and would the Treasury just play along? And Congress shrugged its collective shoulders.



I don't want to just repost everything Warren Meyer does at Coyote Blog, but the dude has been on a roll lately. Here are two more points of his about the economics of ObamaCare (one and two), and a post about the UK forcing Alan Turing to choose between chemical castration and imprisonment for being gay. Turing chose the chemicals, and then killed himself two years later, at the age of 41. On behalf of Computer Scientists, AI researchers, and anybody with human decency, let me give a very sarcastic thanks to Her Majesty's government for screwing the pooch on that one. Really great thinking there, taking one of the best minds of the 20th century and making him so miserable he would rather be dead.



I was downtown in DC Saturday during the big 9/12 tea party/protest/rally, but I was there for a game watch of the ND/Michigan game a mile or so away. (I have exactly nothing to say about the game. Grrrr.) I did see plenty of guys hanging around after the fact with "Don't Tread on Me" flags and talking about flat taxes, but that was all I saw. Matt Welch has a general round up of his impressions from the scene.

I agree with Arnold Kling on this point:

Now, the elitism of President Obama and his supporters has reached in-your-face levels. They have utter contempt for the Tea Party-ers, and the Tea-Party-ers know it.

I wouldn't want the Tea Party-ers at the faculty picnic, either. But my sense of class solidarity with Obama and other educated progressives does not make me want to see them exercise power. If anything, being a member of the educated elite and knowing knowing them as well as I do makes me share the Tea Party-ers' fears.

Like Conor Friedersdorf I think mass protests are almost always a lame idea. I've seen these things in DC for a quarter of a century, and they're almost always about making people feel like they're serious and dedicated rather than actually changing people's minds or influencing events. (With some big exceptions, as Friedersdorf mentions.)



This story about a carrier pigeon in South Africa being faster than an internet download has been making the rounds. That article doesn't mention it, but I believe the transfer in question was 4GB. This is a good time to mention the latency/throughput trade-off.
Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway.
— Andrew S. Tanenbaum, Computer Networks, 1996
See also: Sneakernet and IPoAC — "Internet Protocol over Avian Carriers."



Norman Borlaug died earlier today. Reason calls him "The Who Saved More Human Lives Than Any Other." Here is an NYTimes obit. I concur with Don Boudreaux on this aspect:
It’s distressing, I can’t help adding, that dead politicians are often canonized in the popular press while most of humanity will go to their graves never hearing the names of, or learning of the contributions of, genuine heroes of humanity such as Norman Borlaug.

Amen.

Forget protest rallies. Save the world with Science.

Wow

I'm not even a tennis guy, but ... just wow.

11 September 2009

Friday Afternoon Chart: 'Throwing Money at Problems' Edition

From Andrew Coulson at Cato@Liberty, by way of Coyote Blog:


I would prefer if both vertical axes on this chart ran from 0, rather $3500 and 250 points. The math NAEP is scored from 0 to 500, I believe the reading is the same. That would be slightly more honest, though it would still show an order of magnitude increase in spending vs a flat trend in achievement. It's also not made explicit from that chart, but the spending figures do appear to be per pupil, not aggregate.

Coyote makes the following observation: "It is interesting that among the left, this chart is proof that we need to spend more money while the exact same chart in health care (say with scores replaced by life expectancy) is proof we need to spend less money. In fact, the health care chart would look better, because at least there the key metric of quality has increased over time."

10 September 2009

Speaking of Science...


How cool is this Atomic Robo panel? Way cool, right? Look at that jaunty hat Robo is wearing! He's a robot, why is he wearing a hat? Because he's just that cool. Obvi.

That's Scott Wegener art from Atomic Robo and the Shadow from Beyond Time, issue #4. Via this Comics Should Be Good review column by Bill Reed, who is calling it his favorite issue of the year. I can't verify its awesomeness since I read Atomic Robo in trades, but Robo is some damn fine comics, so I believe it.

I would love this panel printed up as a poster on the door of the lab. That would get me so psyched up to do some science every morning.



UPDATE! Brian Clevinger, writer of Atomic Robo, was nice enough to post a higher resolution version of this panel in the comments. I am seriously impressed and really grateful that he read my JV, bush league blog post and bothered to take the time to respond and to post that file. That is above and beyond for a creator, and I'm oddly moved by his effort.

If you want some comics that will make you joyful, get yourself some Atomic Robo. I like a lot of books, and tv shows, and movies, and music, and there are a lot of worthwhile emotions those things can provoke in you, but Robo just makes me happy like few other cultural creations. Heavy Ink has the issues of the latest series in stock, and Amazon has the first and second trades available as well.



PS Does anybody remember those old Saiontz & Kirk ads for the ambulance chasing lawyers? They were big here in DC and Baltimore, I don't know how far they ranged though. They always ended with this ultra dramatic "Saiontz!! ... AND KIRK! If you have a phone... YOU have a LAWYER!" Now whenever I think about capital-S Science, I hear the voice of that announcer from the ads. Saiontz! Science!

Exite! Chemicus sum!

Attention Internet: I am loving this patch that Atomic Nerds designed.
Back Off! I'm a Scientist!

(It's for a contest run by Larry Correia, the author of Monster Hunter International, which I haven't actually read or really know anything about, but I'm still loving it.)

I'm thinking I need one for wearing around the lab. Perhaps when I order my gratuitously unnecessary lab coat I will affix one of these bad boys. No, I don't need a lab coat at all for what I do. The dirtiest thing I work with is my fountain pen. But still, it would be my official thinking coat. My jauntiness factor when pacing the halls would go up by a couple orders of magnitude at minimum.

My labmates and I have also long wanted more Latin in Computer Science. I won't even pretend we aren't all jealous of the natural sciences. I think the only Latin in CS is the derivation of the name "mip map," a technique for texture mapping, from the Latin multum in parvo, for much in a small space.

I do prefer the use of "naturalis" rather than "chemicus" for scientist though. No particular reason, it's not like I know much about Latin. It just reminds me of the bygone days of the natural philosophers, which is a nice romantic notion.

You can (sort of) order a patch here. I agree with one of the commenters that they ought to CafePress this design if possible.

(Of course, I'd be remiss in not mentioning this XKCD shirt.)

Waste, Fraud & Abuse

Arnold Kling | What's Wrong with Obama's Health Care Speech

He said,
Reducing the waste and inefficiency in Medicare and Medicaid will pay for most of this plan.
And if we don't pass this plan, does he intend to keep the waste and inefficiency, out of spite?
Ha!

For some more good Waste, Fraud & Abuse humor, I commend you to season 1, episode 3 of Yes, Minister, titled "The Economy Drive," which can be watched in full on YouTube. (Part 1, part 2, part 3.) Yes, Minister, and the follow on show, Yes, Prime Minister, are highly recommended, especially for Sorkinites who think West Wing is the definitive political drama of our times. You could teach an entire PoliSci class basing each lecture on an episode of Yes, Minister.

Also, as with all political speeches, I am reminded of this XKCD gem:

09 September 2009

Overdraft Rant

I'm really rubbed the wrong way by blog posts like this one from Felix Salmon and this one from Kevin Drum based on today's NYT story on overdraft fees on checking accounts. I just can't get behind anyone who knows — knows for sure, with complete metaphysical certitude, as John McLaughlin would say — what any product or service ought to cost. "I think the fees ought to be $35." "Well I think they ought to be $20." "Well I think they ought to be free!" Why are these people pulling numbers out of the æther and claiming they're the One True Price?

Look, I agree that it is better for banks' fees to be openly disclosed so they can be compared to the competition. And I agree that opting out of programs like overdraft protection ought to be easier rather than not. I will even consider proposals to limit fees to one per day, or having some provisions for customers with deposits pending to their account. But where do people get off thinking they know exactly how much something specific like an overdraft fee ought to cost? How is it any more justifiable than me saying "You know what should cost less? Felix Salmon columns! Publications should only be allowed to pay up to $109.42 for any written material from Felix Salmon."

If you don't like your overdraft fees there's a simple solution. Don't overdraft your damn account. You know how many times I've over drafted my account? None. Never happened. And believe me, it's not because I have so much money that there's always a big cushion. I wish it were otherwise. You know who's fault it would be if I did spend more money than I had? Here's a hint: not my bank's. The government is not our mommy or our daddy or our financial adviser. Man up and take some responsibility rather than demanding that we create new regulations to slap ever more foam padding over all the pointy bits of the universe.

My paternal grandmother never had much money, and she never once overdrafted her account. That's because she never used a debit card. My father picked up the habit from her; he's never used a debit card either. Neither of them wanted to give themselves any extra rope to hang themselves, either in terms of overdrafts, or in exceeding their self-imposed budgets, so it was cash or check all the time, and every check went in the ledger as soon as they got home, if not sooner. (Side note: using cash is faster than using cards at point of sale, on average. I would not have guessed that.)

(I feel like such a conservative right now, especially based on Tyler Cowen's characterization: "10. Responsibility is a more important value than either liberty or equality [to conservatives]." I'm having flash backs to my youth, before I discovered libertarianism and grew out of conservatism. I'm also feeling quite cranky, and come morning I'll probably regret being all "Bah humgbug, they deserve it!" (Even though they kind of do deserve it.))

Here's some info from Salmon:
And while back in July I said that 20% of bank customers pay 80% of the overdraft fees, in fact, according to the most recent FDIC report, it’s worse than that: the 13.9% of customers who get charged 5 or more fees per year pay a whopping 93.4% of the banks’ total fee income. And the 4.9% of customers who get hit 20 or more times per year are paying an average of $1,610 apiece in these fees. That’s money they really can’t afford.
I agree that's money they can't afford. Which is a great reason they shouldn't overdraft their accounts every other week. That sounds heartless of me, but seriously, you have some people that chronically spend money that isn't theirs. How is the solution for this to absolve them of responsibility? Also, the assertion that the $1610 is money they can't afford is true insofar as no one really wants to spend that money on fees, but the implication is that these 4.9% of customers are particularly less wealthy than the median. That may be, and probably is, true, but it's still assuming facts not in evidence. What I'd like to know is what proportion of our chronic overdrafters use the register in their checkbooks for debit card purchases or check their bank balance online regularly and often. I'll wager fewer of them do than the general population, from which we could only conclude that people who put little effort into avoiding overdrafts get stuck with the bill for the most overdrafts. The horror! The injustice!

Does anyone else get the impression that Salmon thinks that it's somehow scandalous that overdraft fees are not uniformly distributed throughout the population? Presumably responsibility will never be uniformly distributed, so why should the costs of irresponsibility be so? If the 93.4%/13.9% distribution is "worse" than the 80/20, would a 70/30 distribution be better? Would society really be better off in any meaningful way if the Gini coefficient for overdraft fees was 0.0?

This whole business about an epidemic of overdraft fees is also annoying because ... well because IT ISN'T HAPPENING. The plural of anecdote is not data, and all that. The total charges from overdraft fees have gone up 90% since the beginning of the decade. But the total amount charged on debit cards has gone up 333% over the same time period, and the total number of debit card transactions has gone up 378%. (That's data the NYTimes doesn't bother to present in their article, but can be derived from the exceedingly misleading charts they published with it. We're talking irresponsibly misleading. Lies, damn lies and statistics style misleading.) People are getting fewer penalties per transaction. Shouldn't that be evidence that overdraft problems are lessening? I may be being too curmudgeonly about people's overdraft fees, but can we at least agree that this appears to be a trend piece about a trend that doesn't exist?

(Hat tip to Coyote Blog for pointing out the error in that chart. He has more commentary on the matter here.)



PS This also bugged me in Salmon's post:
There’s also no debunking of this kind of thing:
Michael Moebs, an economist who advises banks and credit unions, said Ms. Maloney’s legislation would effectively kill overdraft services, causing an estimated 1,000 banks and 2,000 credit unions to fold within two years. That is because 45 percent of the nation’s banks and credit unions collect more from overdraft services than they make in profits, he said.
This simply doesn’t follow: just because a bank currently has more overdraft revenues than it makes in profits does not mean it’ll fold in the event those revenues go away. Especially not at credit unions, which don’t exist to make large profits: at most of those 2,000 credit unions, overdraft revenues are probably a very small proportion of total revenues and won’t make much of a difference if legislated away.
So he's annoyed at what he sees to be an unverifiable claim, and he responds with his own claim which is also based on no evidence. He's right that it is possible for banks to find something else to replace the lost revenue, but he's still making an argument that amounts to "I disagree, therefore I am right." And besides, if there are such easy revenue streams out there to substitute for overdraft fees, why aren't banks already tapping into them? Overdraft revenues probably won't make much of a difference anyway. Yeah, that's a solidly verifiable, debunkable, empirical claim for you. That's only a step above Well, I'm pretty sure it doesn't matter, so there! Nana-nana-nanaa pffffffffttt!



PPS From the NYTimes: "Rather, regulators and lawmakers say they hope to curb abuses and make the fees more fair." InformationGain('fair') == 0.0.



PPPS Again from the NYTimes: "For instance, some banks have said they might slap a monthly fee of between $10 to $20 on every free checking account [if overdraft fees are limited]. At the moment, people who pay overdraft fees help subsidize the free accounts of those who do not." Super. By all means, let me prop up people with irresponsible financial habits. We're not doing enough of that in America yet. I am totally psyched about the prospect of spending ~$180 a year to free my fellow citizens of the burden of knowing how much money is in their checking accounts.

I also love the implication that people who spend money they don't have are somehow being victimized by being forced to subsidize the responsible account holders. Every business has different profit margins on different consumers. My groceries are "subsidized" by the people who impulse buy the candy bars in the check out aisles. My video rentals are "subsidized" by the people who keep their movies late. There's nothing wrong with that. I'm failing to see where the moral panic is in this.

This whole article is framed like some epic affront to social justice, rather than people just not liking the terms of their contracts. Behind what Veil of Ignorance does one stand to end up hoping to be born into a world where everybody shares the burden of some people spending money they don't have?

In order to play up the injustice angle the NYTimes also uses an anecdote of a mentally challenged guy whose caretaker sister couldn't un-enroll him from automatic overdraft protection on his B of A account. She claims she tried for years to get him out of it, but never (a) bothered to move his account to another bank without overdraft protection, or (b) got him one of those stored-value debit cards marketed for children that would cap his spending.

Also, let's make this explicit: the Times is saying that there's this one guy (who is perhaps representative of multiple guys?) who is legally allowed to have his own checking account, but is mentally incapable of understanding the consequences of using it, and thus should not be fully liable for its misuse. Because of this, everyone — all adults — need special protection from overdraft fees. We can't expect this one handicapped guy to be responsible, and so we shouldn't expect you, dear reader, to be responsible either. That's the argument they're making by using this guy as an exemplar.



P4S
I've gotten way off topic from ranting about people who know ("know") how much things ought to cost generally, and ended up grumbling about overdraft fee reforms specifically, so I'll bring things back around with this Megan McArdle anecdote from last week about someone who knows ("knows") how much insurance should cost:
I remember having a conversation with a coworker within three minutes a) complained that there was no reason that health insurance should cost so much and b) insurance was really important, because a few years ago his wife had had a baby prematurely with massive complications for her, and if they hadn't had insurance it would have cost several hundred thousand dollars.
This is a little more subtle, but the same problem. To assert something costs too much (or too little) is to implicitly make the claim that you would recognize the "correct" price for it. Even the people who set the prices don't know the "correct" prices, because there is no such thing as a correct, morally justifiable, philosophically grounded One True Price. There is only what people will agree to at any given time, and that is dynamic. Everyone claiming prices are wrong are Monday Morning Quarterbacks at best, and whiners at worst.