31 October 2008

Awww

Warren Ellis:
Small child I scared the crap out of: “That was...a trick! A TRICK! (looks at her friend and giggles with glee) That was our FIRST TRICK!”

Hallowe'en costumes

Noir writer and actual femme fatale Christa Faust has a few choice words for good girls choosing their costumes today.

The reason for the season

Via Indri, special Hallowe'en coverage from the Onion.

Mountains of Madness

Ganked entire from Brad DeLong for Hallowe'en, the correct response to some (real) news about Antarctica that may prevent us from seeing President Obama inaugurated.

Ph'nglui Mglw'nafh Cosma Shalizi R'lyeh Wgah'nagl Fhtagn!

Cosma Shalizi writes:

Ghost Peaks, Buried in Ice: [T]his has me terrified:

It is perhaps the last great Antarctic expedition — to find an explanation for why there is a great mountain range buried under the White Continent. The Gamburtsevs match the Alps in scale but no-one has ever seen them because they are covered by up to 4km of ice. Geologists struggle to understand how such a massif could have formed and persisted in the middle of Antarctica. Now, an international team is setting out on a deep-field survey to try to get some answers. The group comprises scientists, engineers, pilots and support staff from the UK, the US, Germany, Australia, China and Japan.

The ambitious nature of the project — working in Antarctica's far interior — has required an exceptional level of co-ordination and co-operation.... “There are two easy ways to make mountains,” explained Dr Robin Bell, from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who is a lead US researcher on the expedition. “One is colliding continents, but after they collide they tend to erode; and the last collision was 500-million-plus years ago. They shouldn't be there. The other way is a hotspot, [with volcanoes punching through the crust] like in Hawaii; but there's no good evidence for underneath the ice sheet being that hot. I like to say it's rather like being an archaeologist and opening up a tomb in a pyramid and finding an astronaut sitting inside. It shouldn't be there.”...

The expedition gets under way in the next few weeks and will take some two-and-a-half months to complete.

Space-travelers. In tombs. In an inaccessible, highly anomalous mountain-range in Antartica. Do the fools know nothing? Or do they know only too much?
I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why. It is altogether against my will that I tell my reasons for opposing this contemplated invasion of the Antarctic — with its vast fossil hunt and its wholesale boring and melting of the ancient ice caps. And I am the more reluctant because my warning may be in vain...

30 October 2008

iTunes

On his Twitter feed Wil Wheaton has been recounting his wrestling match with iTunes.
iTunes: "Hey, I know you're having a rough morning. I'm going to go ahead and move from The Dead to Miles Davis, dig?"  Me: "AWESOME."
Gah! I should have told iTunes, "I see what you did there." FAIL
iTunes: Ima keep you on your toes and shuffle albums from Charlie Parker to Skynyrd.  Me: My toes. I am on them.
iTunes: Hey, what's this? Simon and Garfunkle?  Me: HOW DID THAT GET IN THERE?!  iTunes: Gosh. I wonder.  Me: PLAY TOOL! PLAY TOOL! AHHH!1
Brain: ONE WAY OR ANOTHER! I'mgonnagetcha!  Me: Blondie? Stop it.  Brain: Don't blame me. Blame Rock Band 2.  Me: iTunes? Little help here?
iTunes: I'll play Bauhaus, and maybe Joy Division. But don't bitch when I play Hall & Oates.  Me: Dude!  iTunes: Hey, you ripped it, sport.
Me: Dave Matthews Band? WTF?  iTunes: Turns out you've been putting music into me since 1997, Tough Guy.  Me: "Tough Guy?"  iTunes: Sweet Tits?
iTunes: I'm sorry about everything. Here's the theme to Fish.  Me: Aww. Let's never fight again.  iTunes: PSYKE! LISTEN TO WAYNE NEWTON BITCH!
Me: You're playing a lot of Zeppelin today.  iTunes: that's because you didn't set me to shuffle.  Me: Oh, so it's Nobody's Fault but Mine?
iTunes: So. The Smiths.  Me: Shutup. I can be emo once in awhile.  iTunes: Oh, that's just adorable. Have some This Mortal Coil, Captain Emo.
Having been enjoying using my iPhone on headphones a lot the last couple of weeks, and getting some weird surprises, I know just how he feels.

Obama infomercial

In case you missed it on television, YouTube of course has Barack Obama's infomercial. Ray Ghanbari observes:
Obama is demonstrating the Powell doctrine, applied to presidential politics...the katana blade is gleeming brightly in the Florida night
In case Governor Palin is reading this blog, allow me to explain what the Powell Doctrine means here.
The “Powell doctrine” holds that the US should go to war only as a last resort and then only with overwhelming force.
Overwhelming force. Damn straight. I just gave Senator Obama a few more shekels. He's going to win, but the bigger the margin, the better. Senator McCain's blather about how liberal Obama is works to liberals' advantage if Obama wins big.

29 October 2008

Rant

I think that it's not the rantiness that has folks forwarding this page — though it is a good example of the form — it's the annotations.
But at least he was right about that surge thing. I mean, he and Bush got almost everything else wrong, but they backed the right horse this one time. Except (and if you've been getting your war news from any channel that spends more on graphics than foreign correspondents, you might want to hang on to something here) the surge isn't the thing that's turned down the American death toll in Iraq to "only mildly horrific."

I know! I was surprised too, until I took ten seconds to look it up for myself. Bush misleads the media and they totally fucking fall for it, and then they feed it to the public who buys it hook, line and sinker. Who'da thunk that'd work? Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me, fool me twenty seven times and apparently we're plum out of shame and we've moved on to... hey, was that a Friends re-run you just clicked past, dude? Go back! This is the one where a group of mid-twenties New Yorkers live in apartments the size of small aircraft carriers and nobody says a word about it through the entire show. It's fucking hilarious.

Hmmm? Oh yeah, Iraq. Nothing else has been going on there that could have made those insurgents stop shooting at our soldiers, right? Well, nothing besides the fact that we started paying them not to shoot at us. From where I'm sitting this is a major breakthrough in military strategy. Instead of getting shot at now, we've got ourselves on a ceasefire payment plan. And then, if we ever cancel our subscription, they'll have twice as many guns. There's no way that fucking plan could backfire. Unless we run out of money, I guess.

Oh.

Fuck.

Y'know, in 2000 I was prepared to be impressed with Senator McCain's character. By the primary season in 2008 I was not so impressed, having seen him carry water for Bush for so long. In the course of the campaign I've learned more and more that has made me like him less and less. And yet this rant succeeded in lowering my opinion further.

Dollhouse

If you're the sort of person who cares, you probably know that Joss Whedon's newest project is a TV series called Dollhouse, and you may also have heard rumours that the show has been in trouble with the network ... and here it hasn't even been broadcast yet. Was this just fans' paranoia caused by the cancellation of Angel and Firefly?

At last, Mr Whedon himself has told the tale.

Basically, the Network and I had different ideas about what the tone of the show would be. They bought something somewhat different than what I was selling them, which is not that uncommon in this business. Their desires were not surprising: up the stakes, make the episodes more stand-alone, stop talking about relationships and cut to the chase. Oh, and add a chase. That you can cut to.
Um, who did they think they had hired?

You know if you want to read Mr Whedon's ramblings. I will say in advance that they are long and, in the end, reassuring.

28 October 2008

Change we can believe in

Me in February:

His candidacy is a bet that the American people are sick of the Republican propaganda machine's nasty, polarizing effect on the political process, and that it's possible to rise above that process, to run as a voice of moderation, and win.

Clinton is the candidate of winning the game, Obama is the candidate of changing the game.

Obama's powerful “bringing America together” rhetoric — and his mushiness on policy — are both characteristic of this approach. What does Obama stand for? It's hard to tell, beyond changing the style of American politics. But right now changing the style of American politics is a worthwhile goal. The question is whether it will work, and I go round and round about that. It may be that Obama is simply naïve, and that the Republicans will find a way to slime him too and make his ploy impossible. But with a deeply unpopular Republican President and weak Republican candidates, this year may be the best opportunity we'll get to change the face of American politics.

Almost nine months later, we have Obama being very clear about policy ... and mostly offering up some impressive thinking. But more importantly, we have this:




These are people who have been driven out of the Republican party, rather than who have been drawn to the Democrats ... but in Obama they see a Democrat they can vote for.

Eric Hirshberg talks about the interviews in that clip.

Agent

John Scalzi has done an interview with a booking agent for superheroes.

Q: Okay. It’s a Gila Lizard large enough to stomp a car, that shoots poison from its tear ducts.
A: Good. That’s a Class Four monster, which is our classification for non-sentient mutated animal species, with the poison-casting sub-classification. Now, if this were a real emergency I would check the ISSB database, but off the top of my head I can tell you that there are three ISSB-affiliated super beings that could respond in under an hour with powers that would be useful for this particular mission: Battling Tiger in Glendale, ElectroBot in Emeryville and Bryan Garcia in San Jose.
Q: Bryan Garcia?
A: Yes. What about him?
Q: It’s just not the usual sort of super being name.
A: He’s new and he thinks the super being masked identities thing is kind of silly. He fights in jeans and t-shirt. Whatever makes him happy.

Not much stranger than my job.

27 October 2008

Celebrity endorsements

I doubt there's enough money in the world to get these actors to reprise these roles, but they're doing it to support Barack Obama.

Voting

Via Content Love, I learn of Jill Lepore writing in the New Yorker describes the history of voting proceedures.
In this fall’s Presidential election, every citizen who is eighteen or older—except, in some states, prisoners and felons—will be eligible to vote. Somewhat more than half of us will turn up. We won’t be clobbered, stabbed, or shot. We will not have to bring our own ballots. We will insist that how we vote be secret. The founders didn’t plan for this. No one planned for it. There is no plan. It’s patches all the way down.
Fascinating.

Virtual flash mob

Ganked entire from Nfiniteperplexity:
I logged on to World of Warcraft last night and got EATEN BY ZOMBIES! Apparently there's a special event to promote the new expansion or something. It was pretty funny because normally everything that happens in World of Warcraft is pretty well understood; if you don't understand how the seasonal Brewfest event works you can ask questions in the general chat channel and someone will probably answer you. But last night it was more like:
[3. Local Defense] The Crossroads is under attack!
[3. Local Defense] The Crossroads is under attack!
[1. General] some_dude: wtf is going on?
[3. Local Defense] The Crossroads is under attack!
[1. General] helpless_noob: lol zombies evrywhere!
[3. Local Defense] The Crossroads is under attack!
[3. Local Defense] The Crossroads is under attack!
[1. General] random_person: omg i got killed like four times
[1. General] some_dude: they even killed the flightmaster
[3. Local Defense] The Crossroads is under attack!
[1. General] random_person: what the hell i'm a zombie now
[3. Local Defense] The Crossroads is under attack!
[3. Local Defense] The Crossroads is under attack!
[1. General] helpless_noob: I think you can get cured in Orgrimmar
[3. Local Defense] The Crossroads is under attack!
[1. General] other_guy: uhhhh...zombies?
[1. General] random_person: braaaaaaainnnnsss!
I can't explain why, but this amuses the hell out of me.

25 October 2008

Olympians

Via Thomas Roche, a spicy and strangely sweet story from Olympian Matthew Syed in the London Times Online about sex in the Olympic village.
No meal or coffee break was complete without a breathless conversation with a lithe long jumper from Cuba or an Amazonian badminton player from Sweden, the mutual longing so evident it was almost comical. It was an effort of will to keep everything in check until competition had finished. But, once we were eliminated from our respective competitions, we lunged at each other like suicidal fencers.
....
For some reason the International Olympic Committee insists on bunching the swimming events towards the beginning of the Games with the inevitable consequence that the aquatics folk get going earlier — sexually I mean — than everyone else. So much so that, at the outset of the Sydney Olympics, Jonathan Edwards, a Christian and triple jumper extraordinaire, caused a ripple by telling them publicly to keep a lid on it. Edwards was simply concerned about getting woken up by creaking floorboards ....
Mr Syed is a world-class competitor in table tennis.

Journalism

Brad DeLong:
Joe Klein of Time has been banned from the McCain plane, while other Time employees Jay Carney, Michael Scherer, and Mark Halperin are still allowed on it.
....
It seems to me that right now Jay Carney, Michael Scherer, and Mark Halperin have a choice: they can either write stories true enough about the McCain campaign to get themselves banned from the McCain plane, or they stay on the plane through the election and so shred their journalistic reputations for all time.

The problem is that there is a long institutional history here.

I strongly recommend clicking through and reading about that institutional history. It tells a story that sums up our current crisis of politics and journalism as well as any 824 words possibly could.

24 October 2008

Safety first

Jim Macdonald at Making Light liveblogs the shlocky horror movie Unearthed and — bonus! — includes helpful safety tips.
The title sequence ends with someone (face has been concealed throughout) racking a shotgun and walking off-screen.

From there — we’re in a diner somewhere in the Southwest. A nice waitress is filling someone’s thermos with coffee, and talking with the guy about his dogs. A thermos of coffee is a good thing. But not much good against dehydration.

6:23 The guy is a truck driver. Big point made of his tee-shirt (that had better be important later). He’s heading out … uh oh! Something scuttled across the road (it’s dark!) and looks like he crashed. But he (like all Making Light readers) was wearing his seat belt. I sure hope he’s okay.

8:55 Uh oh. Looks like the fuel truck (which our guy was driving) has blown up. A Black Dude from Detroit in a Fancy Car has arrived at Russell Means’ gas station with the news. Russell is there with his beautiful young Native American female scientist relative (you can tell she’s a scientist because she has a microscope). No gas available at the gas station.

Making Light readers who know that Half A Tank Is Empty will be okay, because they already refueled.

As usual at Making Light, the comments are actually worth reading.

Polling data

Sam Wang at the Princeton Election Consortium makes an astonishing observation.
It is not in the interest of individual pollsters or media organizations for you to have the most accurate possible picture of the horserace.
Of course!

Follow the link; he digs into it, and it's fascinating.

23 October 2008

Veep

Provoked by the Republican candidate for the Vice Presidency, Brad DeLong notices something.
The Vice President of the United States is the President of the Senate. That means he sits up front. He has the gavel. He chooses who gets to speak next. He chooses when to gavel them to sit down. He makes procedural rulings--which can be overruled by a simple majority vote, it is true, but he makes procedural rulings.

It is true that the Vice President has not traditionally exercised his powers to be President of the Senate. If the President were to tell the Veep to exercise them, it would piss the Majority Leader off--and the Minority Leader too to the extent that the Minority Leader hopes to someday become Majority Leader. But we could someday have a Constitutional Moment, couldn't we? The Vice President could show up and take the chair, right? And then call on and recognize whomever he or she chose and only whomever he or she chose for just whatever purposes he or she chose--and the Veeps decisions would stick, to the extent that he or she was sustained in rulings by fifty-one senators.

Bruce Ackerman at The American Prospect explains this weird little aspect of our government.
Under the original U.S. Constitution, members of the Electoral College didn't cast one ballot for president and one for vice president. The Founders distrusted political parties and sought to minimize their influence. They refused to allow electors to designate a party ticket for a two-candidate slate, as they do today. While electors were each given two ballots, they were told to cast both ballots for the men they considered best qualified for the presidency. The candidate with the most ballots became president; the runner-up became vice president. This system virtually guaranteed that the vice president, serving as president of the Senate, would be the president's principal political antagonist.

But party politics quickly proved too powerful for the Founders' ingenious efforts. During the election of 1800, all the Republican electors voted for the party ticket of Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, giving each of them 73 votes in the Electoral College. Although everyone knew that Burr was the party's vice presidential choice, the tie threw the proceedings into the House of Representatives, and the Federalists almost succeeded in making Burr president. When Jefferson finally ascended to the presidency, the Republicans made sure that the problem wouldn't happen again by enacting the Twelfth Amendment, which created the Electoral College voting system we have today.

But the Jeffersonians failed to consider how this constitutional change could transform the Senate presidency into an instrument of presidential power. It inadvertently created a constitutional time bomb that has been ticking for two centuries. It hasn't gone off only because vice presidents have understood that the Senate was its own place and that their constitutional responsibility was to protect the integrity of its procedures.

Ackerman's post is worth reading in full, since it is occasioned by some moves by Vice President Cheney.

Kids today

My soul sister is a high school principal. One day she stumbled into a conversation her kids were having about what radio stations they favour, and they wound up speculating about her musical tastes. Too amused by the guesswork, she refused to tell them. One of the kids finally closed the discussion by suggesting that of course she wouldn't listen to any of the stations they were familiar with, she probably liked rock ’n’ roll.

Yeah. Rock ’n’ roll, the music of old people.

I'm pretty accepting of my geezerhood these days. That music they listen to, it's just noise. And what are they thinking, going out dressed like that?

Oh, my aching back.

Wicked Warren Ellis, a.k.a. “Internet Jesus,” is forty years old and hipper than I will ever be. His blog demonstrates that he keeps up on weird pop music, European art movements, disturbing body modifications, et cetera. The participants in the online fora he hosts appear to be composed of Intense, Well-Read Young Men and Sassy, Exhibitionistic Young Women. I was the first person I knew who had heard of le parkour and I knew it because of a Warren Ellis comic book.

Today he's writing about his thirteen year old daughter.

My daughter is now 13. You can tell this by the way she presents herself for dinner at a restaurant wearing red and black striped fingerless gloves, a black puffball skirt and tights, a t-shirt that’s the dilute 2008 iteration of an idea Vivienne Westwood scrawled on the back of a fag packet in 1976, and a pair of boots that appear to have been fashioned from the hollowed-out legs of a particularly unfortunate black bear.
....
Having accounts on social network services is evidently “sad.” She’s forgotten her email password and messages her friends through game and fashion sites. She uses YouTube to listen to music.
His daughter, of course, does not think he is cool.

Rock!

22 October 2008

Peak Wingnut?

John Cole at Balloon Juice suggests that the era of right-wing nonsense may be on its way out, and that we might already have passed Peak Wingnut.
These days, there seem to be more than enough outlets to rebut the bullshit, the media is tired of being treated like morons, and the Democrats seem for once ready and itching for a fight. But most of all, the attempts just seem so feeble.
....
Nothing like two wars, an economic meltdown, and Sarah Palin to bring clarity to the debate.
But he updates his post quickly.
Never mind, via the comments, I see I spoke too soon.
....
wingnut is a renewable resource. Peak Wingnut was the shortest lived “theory” ever.
Indeed, he goes on to guess that the right wing will only get battier in the years to come.
Wingnuttery, online, at home and in paranoid little gatherings, is about to get almost unimaginably worse. Bloggers know better than to say it in so many words, but as a community defending crap like Katrina, Rumsfeld, Harriet Miers and Alberto Gonzales has left the online right depressed, let down and exhausted.
....
The stupid that will come after their party leaves town on a rail will make the last eight years look like a junior UN meeting.

Say Hebbo to Tarvuism

I've just discovered Tarvuism, a whole religion I've never heard of, described in astonishing detail at the Tarvu.com website. I had thought that the Church of the SubGenius and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster were the most exciting new religions happening today, but Tarvuism covers some territory that I hadn't realized I was missing. Plus It's SO easy to join!

The belief system seems wholesome enough on the face of it:

  • Tarvu is our Lord God
  • There are two universes
  • The Tarvunty is the Holy Book
  • We should all “be nice”
  • Men and women are equal (to each other)
  • Tarvu's Prayer should be said every day
  • Octopuses are holy creatures
  • Everyone has an invisible guardian from Universe A.
And I gotta love the names of the books of the Tarvunty: Beginnings, Questions, Narratives, Lucky Numbers, Paradoxes, Ablutions, Recipes, Fools ...

21 October 2008

Facts

I turns out that Wil Wheaton is cooler than Chuck Norris. Much cooler.
  1. Accurately depicted in GURPS, Wil Wheaton as a character would cost 413 points.
  2. Wil Wheaton has access to seventh level disciplines.
  3. Wil Wheaton once visited the eighth dimension using his own home-made oscilation overthruster.
Or if not cooler, at least geekier.

Via Wil Wheaton himself!

Moral codes

Brad Hicks, reflecting on why folks vote Republican, makes a more general observation about moral reasoning.
I long ago got my nose rubbed in the fact that there are two competing views in American society of what a code of morality means. For a while, I thought it was a crazy vs. sane thing. When I found out otherwise, I suspected it was a social-class based thing. When I found out I was wrong about that, I concluded that no, it's just a cultural thing, something that runs in families, just as some families are shouters and some are deeply afraid of open displays of anger. Anyway, the divide is this. Some people believe that when you adopt, and state, a code of morality that that code is a sacred promise that you are making to yourself, to your family, to society. They believe that if you fall short of your sworn code of morality, it may be a sin that God can forgive, but it is a sin against yourself that you should never forgive. They (we) believe that you should hold it against yourself for the rest of your life that you knew better, promised better, and did whatever it was anyway. On the other hand, there are people who believe that no matter how high or low you set your moral standards, you're going to break them some of the time. To them, a moral code is not so much a set of promises as a set of aspirations. Which means that to them, it's not really fair to judge someone by how often they fail to live up to their own moral code (or society's). Why not? Because they sincerely believe that everybody breaks their own moral code roughly equally often, that the only thing that conceals this fact is that some people are just lucky enough or sneaky enough to hide it better when they do. Believing this, they judge people, morally, by what they promise to do, by what they say that they're going to do. Why? Because they believe that the people who promise more are the ones who will try harder.

20 October 2008

Mortaging your future

James Howard Kunstler observes “Fannie and Freddie ... managed during the past decade to make housing virtually unaffordable for any normal, responsible person unwilling to game the system.” Case in point: Elusis tells the tale of how she got burned with her subprime mortgage.
I thought it might be worthwhile to tell my personal story of being a subprime mortgage-holder, because I really feel like I did as much as I could to do things right, and still got screwed.
....
I got steered into dodgy mortgages when it's possible I might have qualified for better ones (and if I didn't, I might have opted to rent rather than buy!). The terms my mortgages were written for don't square with my memory of what I agreed to, which I only discovered too late in the process to call things off. As a result my payments were always more than I had really comfortably planned for, and yet I managed to make my payments on time every month. In the end, other bad mortgages destroyed the appraisal value of my property, and forced me to pay money to hand over my place to a buyer (who, fortunately, was a friend and someone I could unequivocally say did absolutely nothing but try to make the deal work out in my favor; she even paid all the closing costs when we found out the devastating news about the appraisal.)

I suppose people might find much to criticize in this story. It's always easier to armchair quarterback. I'm not ultra-naive about finance but I'm not super-savvy either. I felt reasonably sure that I understood the terms of my loans and that what I eventually got was not what I agreed to, but would a court of law find that I was misled, or that I misunderstood? I could have been more forceful about wanting to try for a conventional mortgage rather than the no-document, but when you're looking at dozens of hours of work and phone call after phone call for more pieces of paper, with someone saying “it's fine to do it this way,” what choice would you make? When you're sitting across from an expert who's done hundreds of loans, would you second-guess them?

I wasn't trying to over-reach; I knew I couldn't afford a stand-alone house or even a two-bedroom. I bought a well-kept but modest place — no jacuzzi or covered parking or fitness club or new appliances or bathtub with jets. I had been concerned about the market for some time, but the experts I was with told me I needn't worry. And when I found out what the real terms and costs were of the loans I signed, I made every effort to pay them, even over-pay them, to do the financially-responsible thing.

It's a good demonstration of how even people trying hard to be responsible during the housing bubble had an uphill battle.

19 October 2008

Torture

Digby assembles the story on McCain folding on torture which I've been too lazy to line up.
McCain was supposed to be the stalwart opponent of torture and he failed. He was the shiny pink lipgloss on the pig called the Military Commissions Act, and it was actually the lowest, most dishonorable betrayal of principle I've ever seen a politician make. To give him credit for being against torture when he sold his reputation as a POW to the Bush administration to help them legalize it is just mind-boggling.

Here is what happened:

After first insisting that federal law clearly and unambiguously outlaw “torture,” McCain suddenly caved to White House pressure on the MCA, allowing the Administration to insert into the law a clause that effectively allows (and, indeed, legally buttresses the efforts of) the executive branch to implement torture as a means of interrogation.

Without McCain’s pander, there would have been no bad law for the Court to strike down last week. Without McCain’s grandiloquent appeal to Democrats and moderates during that lame-duck session, there quite possibly might have been a better law ...

....
McCain then went on to vote against the legislation that would have required the CIA to follow the Army Field manual, which would have explicitly banned the agency's use of torture. And this week, we found out even more about the cover-up of these activities which the administration had already approved. McCain has not stepped up to condemn this as far as I know.

Here's how John Weaver, his former close advisor, described the fearless maverick's “negotiations” with the Bush administration on the Military Commissions Act in a Frontline interview:

....
There's one other practical side of it, though, the much-talked-about CIA loophole. Where does that come from?

When you're trying to pass something, the perfect can be the enemy of the good. And I think at the end of the day, they did the best they could on that issue. And I think that's how he sees it. I mean, he worked very hard with [Sen.] Lindsey Graham [R-S.C.] and with Colin Powell. And I can assure you that if he's president, that will be fixed immediately.

Some honor. That is all utter bullshit. The signing statement wasn't the problem, although it was odious. The MCA itself, the one that McCain allegedly negotiated, said that that detainees had no right to judicial review, thus removing any chance that anyone would ever know if they'd been tortured or if the Geneva Conventions, which prohibit torture, had been violated. Here's Jack Balkin:
Any CIA official who acts in good faith will probably conclude that waterboarding, hypothermia, stress positions, and related techniques violate one or more of these features of American law.

What the new Military Commissions Act of 2006 (MCA) did, however, was to make these legal norms effectively unenforceable. That is why Rickard's op-ed is a bit misleading. The McCain Amendment does not provide an individual remedy for violations, the MCA states that individuals cannot enforce their rights under the Geneva Conventions in judicial proceedings, including applications for habeas corpus.

The bottom line is simple: The MCA preserves rights against torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, but it severs these rights from any practical remedy.

....
I never liked McCain, obviously. He's a conservative and a jerk. But I did think he had some core principles until he sold his soul on this issue. It's true that you can't let “the perfect be the enemy of the good” but when it comes to torture, it's not about “perfect or good.” It's simply about “right and wrong.” If McCain had stood up against this bill, it wouldn't have passed. The nation would have preserved some semblance of its tattered honor. Instead, he basked in the glow of his president's approval and later went on to enable the CIA to torture even further. He deserves nothing but contempt for that craven and disreputable act.

H+

I'm old that I saw the first issue of Wired on the newsstand and decided not to pick it up. Did I really need another Mondo 2000?

What with the future looking so gloomy, maybe we do. So Chairman Sirius is back, with folks like Charles Stross, Warren Ellis, and Cory Doctrow in his posse, with a magazine they're calling H+.

I kept waiting for McCain to attack the darkness

HILARY: I mean, never mind that I'm the one with 17 Wisdom, but does anyone listen to the girl? Noooooo.

RON PAUL: Also Mitt have stupid name. Who name kid after baseball equipment?

KUCINICH: HAY YOU GUYS CHECK OUT MY HEAD OF VECNA TRICK

HILARY: This never would have happened when Tim Russert was our GM.

If you didn't get it, never mind. If you did, there's more. Via Indri.

18 October 2008

Tools

I give you the Perfect Bruce Sterling Essay: Six hundred and sixty words tying together the iPhone, Third World poverty, the Leatherman multi-tool, Eastern European collapse, fabricating prototypers, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

17 October 2008

Trendspotting

Having received a gift of bacon flavoured jelly beans, a bacon-loving acquaintance reports to me that bacon may have finally jumped the shark.

Mensch

Via Indri, an evidently true tale of gentlemanly behavior. Schmaltzy, but with a socko ending.

I don't really think this is the sort of thing that should affect any important decisions you'll be making in the next few weeks — other considerations are much more important — but it's comforting. And I have to say, not entirely surprising.

Political commentary

Today I hand the microphone to Matisse.
I did get a nice email from Bill Whittle, the guy who wrote the National Review Online article I blogged about last week. Someone told him I'd written about his piece, and we had a pleasant exchange about it. It's safe to say he and I don't agree about the overall health care issue. He says that having free health care would makes us slaves.
This is your basic Hayekian “Road To Serfdom” argument: if you become economically dependent upon the state you become its slave. I would counter that argument by talking about democratic accountability, the inherently complex interdependence of people in society, positive vs negative liberty, the role of government in solving problems that private enterprise cannot address well. But Matisse ... I should say, Mistress Matisse ... has a different critique.
I think that Mr. Whittle has no idea how difficult it is to make even one person a really good slave, let alone a nation of them. Sure, we'd all be in chat rooms and on personals sites, saying we were slaves, but in reality we'd be whining, demanding, manipulative do-me queens, who expected our government overlords to fall out of bed every morning in full fetish attire and spank our butts before they even had a cup of coffee. Trust me on this, Mr. Whittle — in six months our liberal Masters and Mistresses would be running for the exits. It's not for wimps, this slave-making business.
I defer to the Mistress' expertise on this question.

16 October 2008

Devobama

Since I know I have at least one reader in Ohio, and many Devo fan readers, I have to point to this performance by Devo at the Acron Civic tomorrow to raise money for the Obama campaign.

Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon calls this “further evidence of Devo's infinite coolness,” and who am I to argue?

Supervillainy

I recently picked up Austin Grossman's novel Soon I Will Become Invincible, but lost my enthusiasm for it midway through. The character of aging superhero Blackwolf is cool — obviously inspired by Batman, Blackwolf lacks superpowers but is smart, skillful ... and was diagnosed as slightly autistic in childhood. The chapter titles are great: “Welcome to my Island,” “Maybe We Are Not So Different, You and I.” But midway through the little witticisms about “malign hypercognative disorder” and so forth lost their sparkle, and it seemed like the novel just didn't seem to have much to say.

Instead, I offer you a little story in the same spirit: I remember when it was me who made you want to take over the world and enslave humanity

And if you like that, don't forget an oldie but a goodie, available in The Onion archives: Dept Head Rawlings' invaluable briefing transcripts:

15 October 2008

Trek

Okay, I am weak. I absolutely want to see this movie.

Via io9.

Global warming

True tales of physics class

My recent post about approximations has me thinking of a couple of funny stories from when I was in college.

Well, funny on the scale of physics stories ...


The coolest class I took in my major was Physics 10. It was only one day a week, only worth one unit. Each class session would feature a different prof talking about something they were doing in their current research. One week, a particle physicist told a story about hanging out with one of the marine biology professors over lunch.

“How do dolphins make those high-pitched sounds they use for echolocation?”

“We don't really know. They don't have anything like our vocal cords.”

“Really? That's interesting. I'm not surprised that vocal cords won't do it; I guess you'd need some kind of specially adapted mechanism, since it takes so much more energy to make a high-pitched sound than a low-pitched sound.”

“It does? Living things which conserve energy have an evolutionary advantage, so I wonder why the echolocation chirps are so high-pitched.”

“That's easy. Do you know the frequency of the chirps?”

“It depends on the species. The one I'm working with now chirps at about 30,000 Hertz.”

At this point in the story, the prof said to the class. “I happen to know that the speed of sound in seawater is about 1500 meters per second. Who knows what I said to the marine biologist next?”

There were forty students in the room, and every hand went up. (When I tell this story to other physics students in recovery they always laugh at that part, because they know the answer, too.) The prof pointed to someone at random, who said, “The smallest fish that species of dolphin eats is five centimeters long.”

“Right!” said the professor. “The marine biologist was very impressed.” Everyone in class laughed.

Secret physicist humour. (I'll reveal the secret after my next story.)


In my upper-division mechanics class, the prof would often propose a problem off the top of his head and then work on it at the board, soliciting comments from the peanut gallery as he went along. It was a tough class, but fun: we were usually all hanging on by our fingernails as the problem unfolded on the board.

One day I found myself in the weeds: I couldn't follow the problem at all. Looking around, I could see that I wasn't alone. The prof was still rolling and I was paying close attention, trying to find the thread again. Was he integrating across the angle a couple of steps back? Why?

I was feeling embarrassed to be so baffled when the prof suddenly stopped cold, staring at the board. Seconds ticked by. Nobody said anything. He took a step back from the board.

He stroked his chin.

He looked back around at the students; we all shrugged.

He looked back at the board.

He took another step back.

Without looking away from the board, he said, “You know that thing, where you're working, it all turns into a sea of Greek letters, and you realize you've forgotten what the problem was?” Chuckles all around. Oh yeah, we knew that thing.

He turned to face us. He had a spooked expression, half-feigned but half-serious. “You can get lost in there.” Students were nodding. “We have a name for those people, who get obsessed with the symbols and never ... come ... back. We call them ... mathematicians.”


For folks curious about the first story: if you divide the speed of sound in a medium by the frequency of a particular sound, you get that sound's wavelength. (1500 m/s) / 30,000 Hz = 5 cm. An object smaller than the wavelength of a sound won't interfere with the sound very much, just as the skinny pilings under a pier don't interrupt the waves coming in, so echolocation wouldn't work on a smaller fish.

14 October 2008

I'm not making this up

George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor, and Kevin Spacey are currently shooting the film Men Who Stare At Goats.

Further proof that my blog puts you ahead of the curve.

Congratulations

Paul Krugman has won the Nobel Prize for Economics. I don't have an informed opinion of him as an economist, though what I can understand of his thinking seems extraordinarily sensible ... but my opinion of him as a public intellectual could not be higher.

Daniel Davies at Crooked Timber observes:

I can’t help thinking that this is actually Krugman’s reward for being the public voice of mainstream sensible Keynesianism for the last fifteen years, starting with the use of the liquidity trap to explain the Japanese slump, going through his prediction of the Asian crises and onward to today. In which case, well done the Nobel [see note 1 again] committee — Krugman’s NYT column has been more use to the public standing of economists than more or less anything published in the journals.

And, of course, congratulations to Prof. Krugman himself, who might very well have believed that he’d done his professional status irreparable harm by taking such an aggressive line against the government of the day; he now gets the double pleasure of receiving the highest reward in economics, just as all of his detractors see their repuations ruined. There is probably some pithy epithet from Keynes or JK Galbraith to be inserted here on the general subject of honesty being the best politics, but I can’t think of it just at this instant.

DeLong responds:
Time quotes me this morning as saying that Paul is “the best claimant to the mantle of John Maynard Keynes” that we have. And I think I am more right than I knew, for I think that the “pithy epithet” is rather long, and is the opening to the preface to Keynes's Essays in Persuasion:
HERE are collected the croakings of twelve years — the croakings of a Cassandra who could never influence the course of events in time. The volume might have been entitled “Essays in Prophecy and Persuasion”, for the Prophecy, unfortunately, has been more successful than the Persuasion. But it was in a spirit of persuasion that most of these essays were written, in an attempt to influence opinion. They were regarded at the time, many of them, as extreme and reckless utterances. But I think that the reader, looking through them to-day, will admit that this was because they often ran directly counter to the overwhelming weight of contemporary sentiment and opinion, and not because of their character in themselves. On the contrary, I feel — reading them again, though I am a prejudiced witness — that they contain more understatement than overstatement, as judged by after-events. That this should be their tendency, is a natural consequence of the circumstances in which they were written. For I wrote many of these essays painfully conscious that a cloud of witnesses would rise up against me and very few in my support, and that I must, therefore, be at great pains to say nothing which I could not substantiate. I was constantly on my guard — as I well remember, looking back — to be as moderate as my convictions and the argument would permit...
Edward L. Glaeser explains briefly what he actually won the prize for.
Mr. Krugman published two seminal papers in 1979 and 1980 that made sense of the fact that Toyota sells cars in Germany and Mercedes-Benz sells cars in Japan.
....
Mr. Krugman’s trade models became the standard in the economics profession both because they fit the world a bit better and because they were masterpieces of mathematical modeling. His models’ combination of realism, elegance and tractability meant that they could provide the underpinnings for thousands of subsequent papers on trade, economic growth, political economy and especially economic geography.
And let me also offer Dr Krugman's essay Incidents From My Career. Though much of it is opaque to civilians without serious training in economics, the tale it tells of the rhythms of an intellectual career is thoroughly engaging.
I had learned about monopolistic competition from a short course given by Bob Solow in 1976, and I guess the idea of applying the new models to trade had been percolating in my mind ever since. I have, however, a typical pattern in my work: I will have a foggy idea that I play with occasionally, sometimes for years; then some event will suddenly cause the fog to lift, revealing an almost fully developed model. In this case, in January 1978 I paid a visit to Rudi Dornbusch to talk about my work, and prepared a list of possible ideas, including as an afterthought the idea of a monopolistically competitive trade model. When he flagged the idea as interesting, I went home to work on it the next day — and knew within a few hours that I had the key to my whole career in hand. I distinctly remember staying up all night in excitement, feeling that I had just seen a vision on the road to Damascus.

13 October 2008

More Palin

Norm Scheiber's article Barracuda in The New Republic explores Sarah Palin's early career and comes to this conclusion:
These days, Palin is engaged in this same fight against elites, though on a considerably larger stage. “I'm not one of those who maybe came from a background of, you know, kids who perhaps graduate college and their parents give them a passport and give them a backpack and say go off and travel the world,” she recently told Katie Couric. “No, I've worked all my life.” That hardly makes her the first politician to run on class resentments — nearly every conservative from George W. Bush to Mitt Romney has sought a bond with voters by attacking the over-educated and entitled. But more often than not these conservatives are elites themselves; hence the spectacle of Yale legacies and Harvard millionaires (and most of the Fox News executive suite) railing against wine-swilling sophisticates.

Palin, by contrast, may be the first conservative politician since Nixon to experience resentment so authentically. For her, it's not so much a political tool as a motivating principle. A trip through Palin's past reveals that almost every step of her career can be understood as a reaction to elitist condescension — much of it in her own mind.

Passage

If you have any doubt that computer games are a valid and potentially serious art form, try playing Jason Rohrer's little gem, Passage. It's free and it takes mere seconds to download, and only a few minutes to play all the way through.

Though I guarantee you'll play it at least a second time.

Joel Johnson at bOING bOING Stuff says:

Where most games tell a story, Passage is just a sentence. But what a pregnant, forlorn sentence.

From start to finish, the game can be completed in five minutes. But there's no rush.

At Play This Thing the99th calls it “The Game That Almost Made Me Cry,” saying:

I'm talking about 8-color pixel sprites making me feel something that Final Fantasy could only pull off non-interactively with cheap (read: extremely expensive) parlor tricks of CG and professional voice acting.

Anthony Burch has a long review worth your time as well.

Mr Rohrer provides a creator's statement which is worth checking out, but don't make reading it a substitute for playing the game. He starts it by saying:

Your interpretation of the game is more important than my intentions. Please play the game before you read this.

Right.

12 October 2008

The philosophy and psychology of fonts

Rands of Rands In Repose offers a Nerd Handbook for people conducting relationships with aspies, or at least folks in the foothills of Asperger's. There's a witty little aside about fonts which I really like.
He sees the world as a system which, given enough time and effort, is completely knowable. This is a fragile illusion that your nerd has adopted, but it’s a pleasant one that gets your nerd through the day. When the illusion is broken, you are going to discover that…

Your nerd has control issues. Your nerd lives in a monospaced typeface world. Whereas everyone else is traipsing around picking dazzling fonts to describe their world, your nerd has carefully selected a monospace typeface, which he avidly uses to manipulate the world deftly via a command line interface while the rest fumble around with a mouse.

The reason for this typeface selection is, of course, practicality. Monospace typefaces have a knowable width. Ten letters on one line are same width as ten other letters, which puts the world into a pleasant grid construction where X and Y mean something.

For the uninitiated:

This is an example of a monospaced font in 
action. Notice the way the letters line up; 
this is what most typewriters produced, back 
in the day. Monospaced fonts are useful for 
making ASCII art like this:
___________________ _-_ \==============_=_/ ____.---'---`---.____ \_ \ \----._________.----/ \ \ / / `-_-' __,--`.`-'..'-_ /____ || `--.____,-'

... but being significantly less readable than the proportional fonts that post-Mac computers have made us accustomed to seeing, they're not good for much else. Unless you have a certain frame of mind which requires a certain kind of order.

For the record, I held onto monospaced fonts for my email for a little while — how else could I be sure I was seeing a .sig as intended? — but I'm not geeky enough to use them any more.

)O+

Mercury goes direct on Wednesday. Not soon enough for my taste.

10 October 2008

Holiday

It seems that today is World Mental Health Day.

Uh, okay.

No greater honour

From last year's long New Yorker article about The Wire, the best television show ever made.
Once, a man pressed a package of heroin into the hands of Andre Royo, the actor who plays the sympathetic junkie and police informant Bubbles, saying, “Man, you need a fix more than I do.” Royo refers to that moment as his “street Oscar.”

Swing voters

George Packer at The New Yorker pays a visit to Ohio. His article is full of heartbreaking stories of working class struggle that remind me how thankful I am for the life I have.

But it's mostly about politics ...

Every morning at seven, Cotter and Morris had coffee at Bonnie’s Home Cooking, on Main Street across from the gas station. The menu was scrawled in Magic Marker across a whiteboard, and almost nothing cost more than five dollars. On the morning I visited, a dozen men and women came in for their coffee and eggs. One of them, a retired union coal miner, was identified to me as if he were a rare species of bird. Three people, including Morris, expressed reluctant support for Obama. The nine or ten others were roughly split between voting McCain or sitting it out.

Dave Herbert was a stocky, talkative building contractor in an Ohio State athletic jersey. At thirty-eight, he considerably lowered the average age in Bonnie’s. “I’m self-employed,” he said. “I can’t afford to be a Democrat.” Herbert was a devoted viewer of Fox News and talked in fluent sound bites about McCain’s post-Convention “bounce” and Sarah Palin’s “executive experience.” At one point, he had doubted that Obama stood a chance in Glouster. “From Bob and Pete’s generation there are a lot of racists—not out-and-out, but I thought there was so much racism here that Obama’d never win.” Then he heard a man who freely used the “ ‘n’ word” declare his support for Obama: “That blew my theory out of the water.”

A maintenance man at the nearby high school, who declined to give his name, said that he had been undecided until McCain selected Palin to be his running mate, which swung his support to Obama.

“So you’re a sexist more than a racist,” Herbert joked.

“I just think the guy Obama picked would do better if he got assassinated than McCain’s if he died of frickin’ old age in office,” the maintenance man said.

Four women of retirement age were sitting at the next table. All of them spoke warmly of Palin. “She’d fit right in with us,” Greta Jennice said. “We should invite her over.” None had a good word to say about Obama. “I think he’s a radical,” a white-haired woman who wouldn’t give her name said. “The church he went to, the people he associated with. You don’t see the media digging into that.”

“I don’t know anyone who’s for Obama,” said Jennice, a Democrat who supported Hillary Clinton and who won’t vote in November.

“If they are, they don’t say it, because it would be unpopular,” an elderly former teacher named Marcella said. That had not been true of Bill Clinton, Al Gore, or John Kerry, she added.

“I think the party-line Democrats are having a hard time with Obama,” Bobbie Dunham, a retired fourth-grade teacher, told me. When I asked if Obama’s health-care plan wouldn’t be a good thing for people in Glouster, she said, “I’ll believe it when I see it. If it’s actually happening, I’d say that’s good.” But she and the others had far more complaints about locals freeloading off public assistance than about the health-insurance industry and corporations. Dunham declared her intention to write in a vote for either Snoopy or T. Boone Pickens. “I’m not going to vote for a Republican—they’ve had their chance for the last eight years and they’ve screwed it up,” she said. “But I really just don’t trust Obama. He only says half-truths. He calls himself a Christian, but he only became one to run for office. He calls himself a black, but he’s two-thirds Arab.”

Remind me why I claim to believe in democracy?

I should say, though, that Eric Martin at Obsidian Wings reads the same article and finds hope for the better angels of our nature.

of particular concern to Obama supporters is the potential for a “Bradley Effect” on election day — or lower than expected turnout driven by racial animus
....
However, there are also indications that there might be an opposite Bradley reaction (Bradley 3.0) that could, even if not fully, at least somewhat counteract the effects of Bradley 1.0 and 2.0. The newest version, an anti-Bradley really, is based on the theory that in some regions, supporting a black candidate is so unpopular that residents and, at times poll respondents, conceal their prefernce for the black candidate.
He finds this in Mr Packer's article; the emphasis is Mr Martin's:
“I don’t know anyone who’s for Obama,” said Jennice, a Democrat who supported Hillary Clinton and who won’t vote in November.

“If they are, they don’t say it, because it would be unpopular,” an elderly former teacher named Marcella said. That had not been true of Bill Clinton, Al Gore, or John Kerry, she added. [...]

As the guests drank sodas and ate pigs in a blanket in Babe Walker’s living room, Gwinn asked for volunteers to make phone calls and go door to door. There were not many takers. “Local validators are very important,” she said, with urgency. “A lot of people are secretly for Barack, but they’re afraid to go public. You know everyone in this town. So if there’s anybody out there with misinformation, you have to find them and say, ‘It’s not true. He’s not a Muslim.’ ” Seeing an Obama sign in a neighbor’s yard could make a huge difference in a place like Glouster, she said.

Mr Martin has more to support the claim. Which really tells us that there's no saying what will really happen on election day. Cross your fingers.

09 October 2008

Eating the seed grain

Alex Steffen at World Changing frames our problem well.
One way to wrap our brains around the implications of that many people sharing a small planet is to do some math, divide up the usable part of the globe by the number of folks who want to use it. This would give us a sense of what a fair share would be for each of us.

To be really fair, though, we should probably not use up everything right away. Our kids and grandkids may want to eat, drink and breathe, too. So, we should probably only take as much as we can while allowing nature to renew itself.

It's like when people plan for retirement. You save money — build up a investment portfolio, say — and then try to live on the revenue those investments create. In this case, our natural “capital” is a gift we've inherited simply by having the good luck to evolve on such a bountiful planet. And in using that capital, we should leave enough nature undestroyed that future generations can draw upon it as well. We should leave the capital alone and live off the interest.

So, really, we don't have an entire planet to use, if we're being fair about it. We don't even have a quarter of the planet to use. What we have, if we're being fair, is that portion of the planet that we can use without trashing nature so badly that our grandkids are reduced to grubbing for withered tubers in a world of cockroaches and weeds — divided by the number of people who want to use it.

How much nature is that per person? Well, luckily, some ecogeeks have worked that out for us. They've found a way to measure the impacts of our lives on the planet, what they call our “ecological footprints.” In a fair and sustainable world, these ecological footprints would work out — in Matthis Wackernegel's equations, which really smart people seem to think are pretty accurate, if not perhaps a bit optimistic — to about 1.9 hectares per person (that's 4.7 acres). In other words, if you divided the usable part of the world up by the number of people who want to use it, we'd each have find a way to meet our needs sustainably from the bounty of a little under 2 hectares.

Unfortunately, we're already using an average 2.3 hectares per person, planetwide. To make matters worse, our sustainable share of the planet is shrinking. Part of this is a natural result of population growth: divide the planet by more people and you get a smaller piece of land.

But the planet is shrinking for another reason: we're using it up. We each get 1.9 hectares, and we're already using 2.3. Where's the extra half a hectare coming from? It's coming from nature's capital. Every year, we cut more forests, graze more cows, drive more miles, dump more trash — gobble up more stuff, and spit out more waste. And since we're already gobbling and spitting more than the planet can sustainably take, the result is that every year nature has less to offer us. To make matters worse, this spiral seems to be accelerating and the gap between sustainability and reality widening.

Here too, really geeky guys with supercomputers have gone to work, and one thing they've found is pretty shocking: as they'd put it, we're already using between 40 and 50% of the world's “net primary productivity.” What that means, for those of us whom math makes sleepy, is that humans are using about half of all the life on earth — that about half of all the plants, insects, microbes and mammals alive on the earth are being sucked into the systems that go to feed our needs.

The mighty dead

 
 
 

I lost a friend yesterday. We knew it was coming, but still ...

I can't think of anything to say in this space.

08 October 2008

Protocol

Emily Post, Etiquette, 1922.

The “Cut Direct”

For one person to look directly at another and not acknowledge the other’s bow is such a breach of civility that only an unforgivable misdemeanor can warrant the rebuke. Nor without the gravest cause may a lady “cut” a gentleman. But there are no circumstances under which a gentleman may “cut” any woman who, even by courtesy, can be called a lady.

On the other hand, one must not confuse absent-mindedness, or a forgetful memory with an intentional “cut.” Anyone who is preoccupied is apt to pass others without being aware of them, and without the least want of friendly regard. Others who have bad memories forget even those by whom they were much attracted. This does not excuse the bad memory, but it explains the seeming rudeness.

A “cut” is very different. It is a direct stare of blank refusal, and is not only insulting to its victim but embarrassing to every witness. Happily it is practically unknown in polite society.


Update: It turns out they did shake hands.

07 October 2008

Test

Robert Heinlein's juvenile novel Space Cadet has this terrific passage where teenagers wanting to join the Space Patrol are subjected to a series of tests: getting spun in centrifuges, operating faux spaceship controls while being shaken around, and so forth. This test has always stuck out in my mind:
Late in the day he was ushered into a cubbyhole containing a chair, a gadget mounted on a desk, pencil and paper, and framed directions.

“If any score from a previous test,” Matt read, “appears in the window marked SCORE, return the starting lever to the position marked NEUTRAL to clear the board for your test.”

Matt found the window labeled “SCORE”; it had a score showing in it—“37.” Well, he thought, that gives me a mark to shoot at. He decided not to clear the board until he had read the instructions.

“After the test starts,” he read, “a score of ‘1’ will result each time you press the lefthand button except as otherwise provided here below. Press the lefthand button whenever the red light appears provided the green light is not lighted as well except that no button should be pressed when the righthand gate is open unless all lights are out. If the righthand gate is open and the lefthand gate is closed, no score will result from pressing any button, but the lefthand button must nevertheless be pressed under these circumstances if all other conditions permit a button to be pressed before any score may be made in in succeeding phases of the test. To put out the green light, press the righthand button. If the lefthand gate is not closed, no button may be pressed. If the lefthand gate is closed while the right light is lighted, do not press the lefthand button if the green light is out unless the righthand gate is open. To start the test move the starting lever from neutral all the way to the right. The test runs for two minutes from the time you move the starting lever to the right. Study these instructions, then select your own time for commencing the test. You are not permitted to ask questions of the examiner, so be sure that you understand the instructions. Make as high a score as possible.”

“Whew!” said Matt.

Still, the test looked simple—one lever, two pushbuttons, two colored lights, two little gates. Once he mastered the instructions, it would be as easy as flying a kite, and a durn sight simpler than flying a copter!—Matt had had his copter license since he was twelve. He got to work.

First, he told himself, there seems to be just two ways to make a score, one with the red light on and one with both lights out and one gate open.

Now for the other instructions— Let's see, if the lefthand gate is not closed—no, if the lefthand gate is closed—he stopped and read them again.

Some minutes later he had sixteen possible positions of gates and conditions of lights listed. He checked them against the instructions, seeking scoring combinations. When he was through he stared at the result, then checked everything over again.

After rechecking he stared at the paper, whistled tunelessly, and scratched his head. Then he picked up the paper, left the booth, and went to the examiner.

That official looked up. “No questions, please.”

“I don't have a question,” Matt said. “I want to report something. There's something wrong with that test. Maybe the wrong instructions sheet was put in there. In any case, there is no possible way to make a score under the instructions that are in there.”

“Oh, come, now!” the examiner answered. “Are you sure of that?”

Matt hesitated, then answered firmly, “I'm sure of it. Want to see my proof?”

“No. Your name is Dodson?” The examiner glanced at a timer, then wrote on a chart. “That's all.”

“But— Don't I get a chance to make a score?”

“No questions, please! I've recorded your score. Get along—it's dinner time.”

Tricky!

06 October 2008

McCain

Looking for a full-throated critique of how John McCain is not the man who has been sold to us? Tim Dickinson's article Make-Believe Maverick in this week's Rolling Stone delivers the goods.
This is the story of the real John McCain, the one who has been hiding in plain sight. It is the story of a man who has consistently put his own advancement above all else, a man willing to say and do anything to achieve his ultimate ambition: to become commander in chief, ascending to the one position that would finally enable him to outrank his four-star father and grandfather.

In its broad strokes, McCain's life story is oddly similar to that of the current occupant of the White House. John Sidney McCain III and George Walker Bush both represent the third generation of American dynasties. Both were born into positions of privilege against which they rebelled into mediocrity. Both developed an uncanny social intelligence that allowed them to skate by with a minimum of mental exertion. Both struggled with booze and loutish behavior. At each step, with the aid of their fathers' powerful friends, both failed upward. And both shed their skins as Episcopalian members of the Washington elite to build political careers as self-styled, ranch-inhabiting Westerners who pray to Jesus in their wives' evangelical churches.

In one vital respect, however, the comparison is deeply unfair to the current president: George W. Bush was a much better pilot.

Seriously. Did you know that McCain has cost the US five airplanes? You've heard about the one that was shot down, I'm sure ... but then there are four that he crashed. Taking out five planes makes you an ace, right?

Approximations

The post Assume a Spherical Physicist at The First Excited State brings back happy memories of when I was in school. I never mastered thermogoddamics, but I was a whiz at rapid approximations.
  • It’s on the order of…
This is the jargon that physicists use when we are doing really rough estimates. Often, you don’t care what the actual numerical value of something is, you just want to know whether it’s about a meter, a nanometer, or a kilometer. This gives us free license to be sloppy. Pi is equal to 3, or 1 if we really feel like it. We don’t have to remember whether the equation has a factor of 2 in it, or the exact values of constants, and we can feel free to make any of the other approximations as we see fit. These calculations are sometimes called “back of the envelope calculations,” since we might work them out on any scrap of paper lying around, as the answer will not be quite worth saving. This is not to say that the answer is unimportant, however, as the calculation can give us a conceptual understanding of how the system in question behaves.

The new blog Shores of the Dirac Sea has a nice list of how such approximations are called in the jargon of technical papers:

  • “Toy model”: hopefully this model has something to do with the original problem that I couldn’t do.
  • “This is a very rough approximation”: We are calling a spherical cow a spherical cow. If you are lucky the order of magnitude is right.
  • “An approximation”: One can probably do better, but this is all I can do now.
  • “To zero-th order”: This suggests that there is a systematic way to improve the calculation: these are called first order, second order, etc.
  • “An uncontrolled approximation”: Something that seems to work even if I don’t know why.
One of my profs used to say, “The most important thing is physics is to make an even number of sign errors, so that you are right about whether the result is positive or negative.”

04 October 2008

Spoooooky

Since I know I have readers who dig that sort of thing (including myself, for later reference) I offer this handsome set of alchemical symbols.

03 October 2008

Exactly what I saw

On dKos, via Veleda.

White Dahlia

Ganked entire from Warren Ellis:

Lucius Shepherd's Larisa Miusov

A peculiar, manic-depressive little story about Hollywood, the way men think about women, and being Russian. In three parts. 1 2 3. Shepard remains a gloomy, drunken wizard with language.
If you liked that, I strongly recommend his novel A Handbook of American Prayer.

02 October 2008

Education

William Deresiewicz writing at The American Scholar reflects on what elite universities produce.
There is something wrong with the smugness and self-congratulation that elite schools connive at from the moment the fat envelopes come in the mail. From orientation to graduation, the message is implicit in every tone of voice and tilt of the head, every old-school tradition, every article in the student paper, every speech from the dean. The message is: You have arrived. Welcome to the club. And the corollary is equally clear: You deserve everything your presence here is going to enable you to get. When people say that students at elite schools have a strong sense of entitlement, they mean that those students think they deserve more than other people because their sat scores are higher.
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An elite education not only ushers you into the upper classes; it trains you for the life you will lead once you get there. I didn’t understand this until I began comparing my experience, and even more, my students’ experience, with the experience of a friend of mine who went to Cleveland State. There are due dates and attendance requirements at places like Yale, but no one takes them very seriously. Extensions are available for the asking; threats to deduct credit for missed classes are rarely, if ever, carried out. In other words, students at places like Yale get an endless string of second chances. Not so at places like Cleveland State. My friend once got a D in a class in which she’d been running an A because she was coming off a waitressing shift and had to hand in her term paper an hour late.

That may be an extreme example, but it is unthinkable at an elite school. Just as unthinkably, she had no one to appeal to. Students at places like Cleveland State, unlike those at places like Yale, don’t have a platoon of advisers and tutors and deans to write out excuses for late work, give them extra help when they need it, pick them up when they fall down. They get their education wholesale, from an indifferent bureaucracy; it’s not handed to them in individually wrapped packages by smiling clerks. There are few, if any, opportunities for the kind of contacts I saw my students get routinely—classes with visiting power brokers, dinners with foreign dignitaries.
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In short, the way students are treated in college trains them for the social position they will occupy once they get out. At schools like Cleveland State, they’re being trained for positions somewhere in the middle of the class system, in the depths of one bureaucracy or another. They’re being conditioned for lives with few second chances, no extensions, little support, narrow opportunity—lives of subordination, supervision, and control, lives of deadlines, not guidelines. At places like Yale, of course, it’s the reverse. The elite like to think of themselves as belonging to a meritocracy, but that’s true only up to a point. Getting through the gate is very difficult, but once you’re in, there’s almost nothing you can do to get kicked out. Not the most abject academic failure, not the most heinous act of plagiarism, not even threatening a fellow student with bodily harm—I’ve heard of all three—will get you expelled. The feeling is that, by gosh, it just wouldn’t be fair—in other words, the self-protectiveness of the old-boy network, even if it now includes girls. Elite schools nurture excellence, but they also nurture what a former Yale graduate student I know calls “entitled mediocrity.”
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For the elite, there’s always another extension—a bailout, a pardon, a stint in rehab—always plenty of contacts and special stipends—the country club, the conference, the year-end bonus, the dividend. If Al Gore and John Kerry represent one of the characteristic products of an elite education, George W. Bush represents another. It’s no coincidence that our current president, the apotheosis of entitled mediocrity, went to Yale. Entitled mediocrity is indeed the operating principle of his administration, but as Enron and WorldCom and the other scandals of the dot-com meltdown demonstrated, it’s also the operating principle of corporate America. The fat salaries paid to underperforming CEOs are an adult version of the A-. Anyone who remembers the injured sanctimony with which Kenneth Lay greeted the notion that he should be held accountable for his actions will understand the mentality in question—the belief that once you’re in the club, you’ve got a God-given right to stay in the club. But you don’t need to remember Ken Lay, because the whole dynamic played out again last year in the case of Scooter Libby, another Yale man.

He also points out something I realized when I was a high school kid. People were surprised that I, a pretty sharp cookie, was not motivated to want to pursue admission to a famous Ivy. I had already caught on that the college admissions process is not only a test of intellect, it's a test of temperament.
There’s a reason elite schools speak of training leaders, not thinkers—holders of power, not its critics. An independent mind is independent of all allegiances, and elite schools, which get a large percentage of their budget from alumni giving, are strongly invested in fostering institutional loyalty.
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Being an intellectual begins with thinking your way outside of your assumptions and the system that enforces them. But students who get into elite schools are precisely the ones who have best learned to work within the system, so it’s almost impossible for them to see outside it, to see that it’s even there. Long before they got to college, they turned themselves into world-class hoop-jumpers and teacher-pleasers, getting A’s in every class no matter how boring they found the teacher or how pointless the subject, racking up eight or 10 extracurricular activities no matter what else they wanted to do with their time. Paradoxically, the situation may be better at second-tier schools and, in particular, again, at liberal arts colleges than at the most prestigious universities. Some students end up at second-tier schools because they’re exactly like students at Harvard or Yale, only less gifted or driven. But others end up there because they have a more independent spirit. They didn’t get straight A’s because they couldn’t be bothered to give everything in every class. They concentrated on the ones that meant the most to them or on a single strong extracurricular passion or on projects that had nothing to do with school or even with looking good on a college application. Maybe they just sat in their room, reading a lot and writing in their journal. These are the kinds of kids who are likely, once they get to college, to be more interested in the human spirit than in school spirit, and to think about leaving college bearing questions, not resumés.

01 October 2008

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Today's quote

Alaska politician Andrew Halcro, describing what it's like to debate Sarah Palin, quotes her saying this:
Andrew, I watch you at these debates with no notes, no papers, and yet when asked questions, you spout off facts, figures, and policies, and I'm amazed. But then I look out into the audience and I ask myself, “Does any of this really matter?”
That's contemporary American politics in a nutshell, ain't it?