30 April 2009

Stan Lee nicknames

If every time you see Tom DeFalco's name somewhere, it throws you that he's not referred to as “ ‘Two-Fisted’ Tom DeFalco” (which I respect requires a triple dose of geekiness to see Mr DeFalco's name a lot, to recognize it, and to expect the epithet) then you will surely like Paul Cornell's proposed new Stan Lee nicknames for folks in the comix biz. My favourites:
  • Garth The Menace Ennis
  • Worrisome Warren Ellis
  • Tremendous Brian Bendis
  • Neil The Shaman Gaiman

Today's quote

For some reason, this turn of phrase gave me a chuckle.
Occurring only 630 million years after the Big Bang, GRB 090423 detonated so early that astronomers had no direct evidence that anything explodable even existed back then.
This thing was also bright enough that we could see it from thirteen billion lightyears away. Zowie.

29 April 2009

Tea partisans

Via Infinite Perplexity, I learn that Andrew Levison at The Democratic Strategist reflects on the ordinary citizens who attended “tea party” protests on tax day and concludes that they aren't the Movement Conservatives that the Republican party would hope for.
For Democrats, the key to understanding the outlook of this “small-town traditional” group is to recognize that it is not the expression of the standard, “institutional” conservative ideology of the Heritage Foundation and University of Chicago. On the contrary, it is an authentically “grass roots” perspective rooted in a “common sense” understanding of economic affairs that arises from practical experience in the world of small business. The Americans who embrace this view have never read Milton Friedman or attended any formal lectures in their lives. Their philosophy is sustained by the informal exchange of ideas with friends, neighbors and co-workers and is derived from daily life in “the real world” as it appears to many average Americans.

At the core of this view are a cluster of ideas that can best be summed up as “pre-Keynesian.” It is an approach that is unified by the idea that that government should be run according to the same principles that apply to running a small business.

28 April 2009

Videodrome

Via Warren Ellis, I see that Variety reports:
Universal Pictures will remake the 1983 David Cronenberg-directed thriller Videodrome
What, are you kidding me? As Variety goes on to explain ...
The original Videodrome starred James Woods as the head of Civic TV Channel 83, who makes his station relevant by programming “Videodrome,” a series that depicts torture and murder that transfixes viewers.
That's not the half of it. It's also one of the most surreal, phildickian films ever made. There's a character who's a sort of insane messianic Marshall McLuhan: “The television screen is the retina of the mind's eye. Therefore, the television screen is part of the physical structure of the brain. Therefore, whatever appears on the television screen emerges as raw experience for those who watch it. Therefore, television is reality, and reality is less than television.” The central conceit is that watching the nihilistic torture-porn program “Videodrome” drives you violently insane. Midway through, the film enters the subjectivity of a character who is starting to have hallucinations as a result of watching this show, and as things progress you go from thinking you're seeing hallucinations interrupting reality ... to thinking that you're now seeing only hallucinations but can guess what's going on in the reality behind them ... to being completely consumed in hallucinations with no referent in reality at all ... which makes you suspect that everything you thought was reality early in the film was probably also some kind of hallucination. It's full of gross, disturbing imagery that has since been ripped off by countless scary movies. It has the most unsettling music of any film I've ever seen, composed by Howard “The Lord of the Rings” Shore.

It's one of my all-time favourite films: strange, brilliant, and horrifying. But it should also be obvious why it is a film that I do not recommend to people. So why is it being remade?

The new picture will modernize the concept, infuse it with the possibilities of nano-technology and blow it up into a large-scale sci-fi action thriller.
Of course.
Cronenberg has no role in the film as yet.
Surprise, surprise.

27 April 2009

Influenza

Jim MacDonald at Making Light has smart things to say about the flu.
What with headlines reading “U.S. prepares for possible swine flu epidemic as global cases rise” and “Swine Flu Confirmed in New York Students,” it’s time to talk about the disease a little more.

We’ve addressed flu before:

Why is “How To Wash Your Hands” a flu post? Because hand washing is the #1 public health measure you can take.

I especially commend to readers' attention the link about the Flu Pre-Pack.

22 April 2009

Prosecutions

Charles P. Pierce via Making Light:

I have now lived through three major episodes in my life where the political elite have told me quite plainly that neither I nor my fellow citizens are sufficiently mature to suffer the public prosecution of major crimes committed within my government. The first was when Gerry Ford told me I wasn’t strong enough to handle the sight of Richard Nixon in the dock. Dick Cheney looked at this episode and determined that the only thing Nixon did wrong was get caught. The second time was when the entire government went into spasm over the crimes of the Iran-Contra gang and I was told that I wasn’t strong enough to see Ronald Reagan impeached or his men packed off to Danbury. Dick Cheney looked at this and determined that the only thing Reagan and his men did wrong was get caught and, by then, Cheney had decided that even that wasn’t really so very wrong and everybody should shut up. Now, Barack Obama, who won election by telling the country and its people that they were great because of all they’d done for him, has told me that I am not strong enough to handle the prosecution of pale and vicious bureaucrats, many of them acting at the behest of Dick Cheney, who decided that the only thing he was doing wrong was nothing at all, who have broken the law, disgraced their oaths, and manifestly belong in a one-room suite at the Hague. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I’m sick and goddamn tired of being told that, as a citizen, I am too fragile to bear the horrible burden of watching public criminals pay for their crimes and that, as a political entity, my fellow citizens and I are delicate flowers encased in candy-glass who must be kept away from the sight of men in fine suits weeping as they are ripped from the arms of their families and sent off to penal institutions manifestly more kind than those in which they arranged to get their rocks off vicariously while driving other men mad.

Hey, Mr. President. Put these barbarians on trial and watch me. I’ll be the guy out in front of the courtroom with a lawn chair, some sandwiches, and a cooler of fine beer. I’ll be the guy who hires the brass band to serenade these criminal bastards on their way off to the big house. I’ll be the one who shows up at every one of their probation hearings with a copy of the Constitution, the way crime victims show up at the parole board when their attacker comes up for release. I’ll declare a national holiday—Victory Over Torture Day—and lead the parade right up whatever gated street it is that Cheney lives on these days. Trust me, Mr. President. I can take it.

Yeah. What he said.

And: MoveOn is doing a petition on this very subject, if you do those.

Earth Day

21 April 2009

Smelling something fishy

Yesterday Tim O'Reilly, the very smart tech book publisher, tweeted Andy Kessler's Weekly Standard article Putting the Toothpaste Back Into the Tube.

It starts out with a clear, simple description of what economists mean when they're talking about the “money supply,” but then suddenly says something very surprising.

As we have all been taught, too much money chasing too few goods creates inflation, the price level goes up above and beyond what it should. That's bad, because you get less stuff for the same unit of work.

Uh, no. That's just not true. Inflation does not necessarily mean you get less stuff for the same unit of work. Consider this thought experiment: A capricious djinni suddenly doubles the money supply uniformly everywhere. Instead of $10 in your pocket, you have $20. Instead of $1000 in your bank account you have $2000. And likewise for everyone holding dollars everywhere. The djinni also telepathically informs everyone that this has happened. So what happens?

It's not hard to figure out. Five minutes later, there's a cardboard sign at the grocery store saying that all prices will be doubled. By the next day, all the stores have re-labeled everything to change their prices. But does that mean you're going to have trouble buying cheese and paying your suddenly doubled rent? No, because you've also gone to your boss and demanded double your salary, and she's given it to you; she can afford it because the widgets your company makes are selling for twice the price they used to.

Real inflation is of course messier than this simple thought experiment. F'rinstance, it rewards debtors and punishes savers: if I owe you $100 at 10% interest but that year there's 15% inflation that increases my income then I've come out ahead, while if I've kept $100 in the bank at that same interest rate I've fallen behind. But at its most fundamental level, currency inflation has nothing directly to do with rising or falling real wages.

I believe that Kessler understands this, because he immediately follows with an aside about deflation and why it isn't the party you'd imagine it would be, making my exact point.

On the flip side, with too little money chasing too many goods you get deflation, the price level goes down below what it normally would. Hey, you actually get more for your dollar. Woohoo! Except eventually someone is either going to cut your salary or you'll lose your job ...

So why is he BSing about inflation? Because he's criticizing the Federal Reserve's policy and making the argument that it is inflationary, and therefore bad. Now inflation is a problem, and I even share Mr Kessler's concern that Fed policy is indeed inflationary. See, for instance, Infamous J. Brad Hicks' analysis of the situation. But Mr Kessler is going out of his way to exaggerate the problems from inflation, including raising the spectre of hyperinflation in the subtitle of his essay, which is an entirely different kettle of fish from the ordinary high inflation we may be facing with the dollar. So sorry Mr Kessler, you've already lost my trust.

This makes me think of Julian Sanchez' terrific recent blog post Climate Change and Argumentative Fallacies, talking about the ways folks with an agenda can fool you when debating complex subjects.

Come to think of it, there’s a certain class of rhetoric I’m going to call the “one way hash” argument. Most modern cryptographic systems in wide use are based on a certain mathematical asymmetry: You can multiply a couple of large prime numbers much (much, much, much, much) more quickly than you can factor the product back into primes. A one-way hash is a kind of “fingerprint” for messages based on the same mathematical idea: It’s really easy to run the algorithm in one direction, but much harder and more time consuming to undo. Certain bad arguments work the same way—skim online debates between biologists and earnest ID afficionados armed with talking points if you want a few examples: The talking point on one side is just complex enough that it’s both intelligible—even somewhat intuitive—to the layman and sounds as though it might qualify as some kind of insight. (If it seems too obvious, perhaps paradoxically, we’ll tend to assume everyone on the other side thought of it themselves and had some good reason to reject it.) The rebuttal, by contrast, may require explaining a whole series of preliminary concepts before it’s really possible to explain why the talking point is wrong. So the setup is “snappy, intuitively appealing argument without obvious problems” vs. “rebuttal I probably don’t have time to read, let alone analyze closely.”

If we don’t sometimes defer to the expert consensus, we’ll systematically tend to go wrong in the face of one-way-hash arguments, at least outside our own necessarily limited domains of knowledge. Indeed, in such cases, trying to evaluate the arguments on their merits will tend to lead to an erroneous conclusion more often than simply trying to gauge the credibility of the various disputants. The problem, of course, is gauging your own competence level well enough to know when to assess arguments and when to assess arguers. Thanks to the perverse phenomenon psychologists have dubbed the Dunning-Kruger effect, those who are least competent tend to have the most wildly inflated estimates of their own knowledge and competence. They don’t know enough to know that they don’t know, as it were.

Apropos of Sanchez, then, I have to admit that I cannot claim a lot of qualifications to talk about this. I don't have any proper economics education, I'm just a pretty smart guy with enough of an interest in economics to read economist Brad DeLong's blog and to have have thought that reading William Greider's 800-page tome The Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country was fun.

But who's Andy Kessler? Does he have an agenda? The article identifies him as “a former hedge fund manager turned author who writes on technology and markets.” I don't know about you, but “former hedge fund manager” certainly reads as a sign that the guy just might have an agenda that isn't in line with the concerns of an ordinary bloke like me. Then, checking his blog, I see that he's done a number of pieces for the Wall Street Journal opinion page. Whoa. The news section of the Journal is arguably the best newspaper in the US, but the opinion page is a notorious propaganda organ of right-wing plutocracy.

So no, I don't trust anything this article has to say. Indeed, per Mr Sanchez' argument, the more sensible Mr Kessler sounds, the more I discount what he says as potentially fishy. And I'll be very suspicious from now on of anyone who echoes Mr Kessler's proposal that the Fed needs to promise to raise interest rates in the near future; I have no idea what's wrong with that proposal, but I smell a rat.

19 April 2009

Ballard

J G Ballard
1930-2009
Writer

I find myself having a hard time describing his work, or how the loss of him makes me feel. Which I suppose is a bit Ballardian. I read and was hugely impressed with his writing, though I never fell personally in love with it. My favourite of his novels was Concrete Island, sort of a retelling of Robinson Crusoe in which a man crashes his car at a highway interchange and finds himself trapped in the forgotten space between ramps.

Who else could inspire film adaptations by both David Cronenberg and Steven Spielberg? The former, Crash, Ballard called a better version of his novel than the novel itself, which may be why at Cannes they had to invent an “Audacity Prize” to accommodate how such a bad film could also be a great film. The latter, Empire of the Sun, is to my mind Spielberg's best film ... and is of course almost forgotten.

Lots more about him and his work at JGBallard.com.

17 April 2009

Talent

If you recall my earlier post about Paul Potts, I have a sort of a sequel in the form of Susan Boyle. Not Puccini, but still worth seeing.

16 April 2009

Snikt

Hugh “Wolverine” Jackman has found a way to use Twitter and his celebrity for charity.
I will donate 100K to one individual's favorite non profit organization. Of course,you must convince me why by using 140 characters or less
He's re-tweeting the pleas he gets on his Twitter feed, so that while only one charity gets his $100,000 lots of folks get a bit of free publicity for their work. It's a cunning way of leveraging his fame.

Smart, handsome, famous, tech-savvy, and a stand-up guy; Mr Jackman gives George Clooney a run for his money. And unlike Clooney, the guy can sing ...

15 April 2009

Ping

Via Aza Raskin, I find ToneMatrix, a be-your-own-Brian-Eno music tool. Why didn't I think of this?

13 April 2009

Compassion

Kacie Kinzer has performed a fascinating experiment with robots which depend on the kindness of strangers.
Tweenbots are human-dependent robots that navigate the city with the help of pedestrians they encounter. Rolling at a constant speed, in a straight line, Tweenbots have a destination displayed on a flag, and rely on people they meet to read this flag and to aim them in the right direction to reach their goal.

Given their extreme vulnerability, the vastness of city space, the dangers posed by traffic, suspicion of terrorism, and the possibility that no one would be interested in helping a lost little robot, I initially conceived the Tweenbots as disposable creatures which were more likely to struggle and die in the city than to reach their destination.
....
The results were unexpected. Over the course of the following months, throughout numerous missions, the Tweenbots were successful in rolling from their start point to their far-away destination assisted only by strangers. Every time the robot got caught under a park bench, ground futilely against a curb, or became trapped in a pothole, some passerby would always rescue it and send it toward its goal. Never once was a Tweenbot lost or damaged. Often, people would ignore the instructions to aim the Tweenbot in the “right” direction, if that direction meant sending the robot into a perilous situation. One man turned the robot back in the direction from which it had just come, saying out loud to the Tweenbot, “You can’t go that way, it’s toward the road.”

Robots, like people, benefit from being cute.

09 April 2009

Critical thinking

Julian Sanchez has been thinking about why discussions of climate change rely so heavily on “countless experts agree” type arguments, and makes a good point about evaluating experts' arguments.

Come to think of it, there’s a certain class of rhetoric I’m going to call the “one way hash” argument. Most modern cryptographic systems in wide use are based on a certain mathematical asymmetry: You can multiply a couple of large prime numbers much (much, much, much, much) more quickly than you can factor the product back into primes. Certain bad arguments work the same way—skim online debates between biologists and earnest ID afficionados armed with talking points if you want a few examples: The talking point on one side is just complex enough that it’s both intelligible—even somewhat intuitive—to the layman and sounds as though it might qualify as some kind of insight. (If it seems too obvious, perhaps paradoxically, we’ll tend to assume everyone on the other side thought of it themselves and had some good reason to reject it.) The rebuttal, by contrast, may require explaining a whole series of preliminary concepts before it’s really possible to explain why the talking point is wrong. So the setup is “snappy, intuitively appealing argument without obvious problems” vs. “rebuttal I probably don’t have time to read, let alone analyze closely.”

If we don’t sometimes defer to the expert consensus, we’ll systematically tend to go wrong in the face of one-way-hash arguments, at least our own necessarily limited domains of knowledge. Indeed, in such cases, trying to evaluate the arguments on their merits will tend to lead to an erroneous conclusion more often than simply trying to gauge the credibility of the various disputants. The problem, of course, is gauging your own competence level well enough to know when to assess arguments and when to assess arguers.

To that last point, knowing that in consequence of being a pretty smart cookie I tend to overestimate my competence for this sort of thing pretty frequently ... and noticing that folks significantly less competent than myself commonly have a tendency to overestimate the value of their judgment much more than I do ... this is a disconcerting observation.

07 April 2009

RFC

A New York Times editorial by Stephen D. Crocker marks the recent 40th anniversary of the first RFC.
... fearful of sounding presumptuous, I labeled the note a “Request for Comments.” R.F.C. 1, written 40 years ago today, left many questions unanswered, and soon became obsolete. But the R.F.C.’s themselves took root and flourished. They became the formal method of publishing Internet protocol standards, and today there are more than 5,000, all readily available online.
....
The early R.F.C.’s ranged from grand visions to mundane details, although the latter quickly became the most common. Less important than the content of those first documents was that they were available free of charge and anyone could write one. Instead of authority-based decision-making, we relied on a process we called “rough consensus and running code.” Everyone was welcome to propose ideas, and if enough people liked it and used it, the design became a standard.
This bit particularly spoke to me:
It probably helped that in those days we avoided patents and other restrictions; without any financial incentive to control the protocols, it was much easier to reach agreement.
Mmmm. Transparency and open standards.

02 April 2009

Garden

James Wimberley at The Reality-Based Community offers yet more reasons why the new White House garden is awesome.
Washington, Adams, and Jefferson were all keen gardeners, and cows grazed round the White House building site. The message then was sturdy self-reliance, and in Jefferson's case, progress through science, in the form of genetic modification through plant breeding.
....
Washington and Jefferson did not of course plant, muck and weed their lettuces personally, as the Obamas plan to do. Plantation-owners had slaves for that. So Michelle's garden is part of a reclamation by the slaves' descendants of the entire polity, of which the garden is an ancient if conservative image. (Enclosed Scottish estates are actually called policies.)
....
There's an even older echo. Plantation slaves kept their own gardens to feed themselves.
....
So the White House kitchen garden marks a full stop at the end of a long line of gardens of slaves and gerdens tended by slaves. Eleanor Roosevelt launched victory gardens. Michelle's is a liberation garden.