Monday, February 28, 2005


SciFi and Polyscifi Roundup

There's just too much scifi and polyscifi out there and I just have too much real work to do so here's a summary of a bunch of interesting articles I saw...

SFSignal is posting book reviews. At the top is a review of one of my all time favorite: The Mote in God’s Eye by Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven. Among other things, it looks at what happens when an entire species evolves according to division of labor logic…

The planning for the upcoming alien invasion of Earth for nitrogen harvesting is described in My Little Golden Book about Zogg (if you click through on nothing else in this roundup, read this book)

Peter Jackson is remaking King Kong for a December release.

Here’s an article on Intelligent Design, not on evolution, but on the value of doing good production design for scifi movies

Here’s a site that’s collecting soft copies of sci fi scripts. Just pulling a few of the first few notables from their alphabetical listing, here’s Space Odyssey 2001, Alien, Army of Darkness, and Back to the Future. They've also got a google search interface.

Star Wars stuff
There’s a Star Wars Lego video game coming out.

On a related note, you can also see all the Lego Star Wars stuff I’ll be buying over the coming year at this site.

According to the starwars website, this April you’ll be able to buy Darth Vader and Yoda cakes at your local bakery.

Ever want to rotoscope a light saber into a movie? Learn how here.

Are you an evil genius who’s having a little genius block? Well to help you out, here’s "A How To Guide for Destroying the Earth"

Want to play the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy text based game? Then click here

Here’s a brief writeup of Dead Meadow, a band that seeks to incorporate Tolkein and Lovecraft into their lyrics.

The Babes of Battlestar Galactica. Need I say more?

Colocated with the Experience Music Project, the Science Fiction Hall of Fame is scheduled to have its first induction in May. Even without an induction, there are already 36 members in the Hall of Fame.

In this post, Gail at The Right Coast compares the Senate filibusters of judicial appointees to the episode of Star Trek episode “A Taste of Armageddon.”

Room twelve notes that Ron Moore included a smoking character in Battlestar Galactica as part of an anti-PC backlash against the global anti-smoking movement.

Many of these stories found by reading these great sites
Big Dumb Object
The Mumpsimus
Scifi Wire


Calvin Snowmen

Today is the first big snowfall of the year in southwest Virginia (school was actually delayed for a couple hours - a pretty big thing in a town where there is approximately one plow per road).

I'm looking forward to making some snowmen this afternoon. Maybe some Calvin snowmen like these. Back my Freshman year, I made the cannon ball snowman. I'm thinking this year I'll make the car accident snowmen...

This seems related. In a single book, every Calvin and Hobbes strip ever made.


Saturday, February 26, 2005


Congrats Jeremy and Jen

While this isn't news to most of the polyscifi readership, Jeremy just got married to Jen McGonigle on Saturday. Welcome to the married couples club!

Also any rumors of my involvement with shaving cream and Jeremy's SUV are just idle speculation...


Friday, February 25, 2005


Oscar Nominated Shorts

Three of the Animated Short nominees and two live action shorts are available, for today only, at Salon. So far, I've only watched "Guard Dog," on my roommate Eric's recommendation (Disney animation, for some reason, wants their employees to see good animated films). It's pretty great. Check them out here--they're only available for 24 hours. (Oh, and odds are good you'll have to get one of those Salon Day Pass things). Anyway, it should be nice to not feel completely out of the loop when the shorts get their awards.

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Romance Novel Covers

These are pretty fantastic.

H/T Screenhead.

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Thursday, February 24, 2005


The Pope, Godwin's Law, and Jumping the Shark

Via email, Michael Parks suggests that the Pope has violated Godwin's Law in his newly released Memory and Identity where the Pope compares the millions of children killed every year via abortion to the millions of Jews killed in the Holocaust.

So according to tradition, the Pope has now lost the abortion debate by introducing a Nazi comparison. Of course, by tradition Mike has now also lost the debate by explicitly pointing out the violation...

As a little aside, my favorite example of a violation of Godwin's Law in a movie is in Office Space where Peter says the following: "You know, the Nazis had pieces of flair that they made the Jews wear. "

Godwin's law is really intended to head off hyperbolic emotional comparisons that can be detrimental to having rational debates. In this case, the Holocaust comparison is actually an understatement if your views of the beginnings of human life coincides with the Pope's. Per Catholic teachings (and I hear the Pope is Catholic), life begins at conception. Thus from the Pope's perspective the 40-80 million annual abortions worldwide constitute 40-80 million murders - a number that exceeds the 12-26 million who were murdered in the Holocaust.

Of course most, but apparently not all, abortion supporters don't think life begins at conception so others can reasonably disagree with the Pope about the magnitude of the problem and if there is a problem at all.

Personally, rather than worrying about the Pope violating Godwin's Law, I'm concerned that he may have jumped the shark. In particular, today in a very special episode, the Pope had a tracheotomy. I hear that if the ratings for The Real World: Vatican don't improve, they've already filmed a scene where the Pope recreates the scene where the Fonz really did jump the shark.

Ok, I'm going to Hell for this post.

Roger on Nanothoughts has compiled a table of instances when the Pope may have jumped the shark...


Wednesday, February 23, 2005


Carnival of the Vanities

This week's Carnival of the Vanities is on punditguy.

Of local interest: polyscifi's Habib investigation is a proud participant in the Carnival.


Donkey Porn

Stephen Green of vodkapundit links to this TCS article by Orrin Judd which is intent on reassessing who's the "Stupid Party." Read it if you like. I don't think it'll change any minds.

The thing in the article that really piqued my interest was the picture in the corner of Orrin's article.

Is that some sort of donkey porn?

All I'm saying is that guy sitting down better watch out for the teeth.

Thason liked the picture enough that he suggested we have a caption contest. So if you're interested, leave a comment below to caption this picture. The winning entry will get a high-res signed copy of "The Bill Gates." I'll announce the winner next week.

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The "Bill Gates"

After seeing these parodies, I decided to make my own. I call it the "Bill Gates"

Park image taken from here. Bill Gates image taken from here.


New Criterion Contraption

The 400 Blows, now at The Criterion Contraption.

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Tuesday, February 22, 2005


A Scanner Darkly Teaser

I think Jody posted earlier about the film versi0n of A Scanner Darkly. I didn't know it was rotoscoped, or that Richard Linklatter was involved! From the trailer, it looks to me like if nothing else, it will be as visually impressive as Waking Life (which, incidentally, I really loved). You can see the trailer here.

H/T Screenhead.

Update: I should note that the trailer has Keanu Reeves saying, "Two hemispheres of my brain...are competing?" Now there's a race I'd hate to handicap.

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All the Presidents' Hair

Jody posts below about a presidential hangman game. I played it, and I liked it. I'd like to introduce you to my own favorite presidential trivia game; by Dorothy Gambrell, who writes "Cat and Girl." Prepare for...All the Presidents' Hair!

Bonus: Here's the comic strip that introduces the game.

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AARP, supporting our troops, and gay marriage

What do these three have to do with each other?

Nothing as far as I can tell.

Via QandO I see where USA Next claims that AARP is pushing an anti-troop, pro gay marriage agenda.

Way to go USA Next. You just set back the social security reform movement and discredited your organization. Idiots.


Paul is Dead

No, not McCartney. Paul/Saul of Tarsus. But you already knew that. What you might not have known is archaeologists think they may have found the body of Saint Paul.
A sarcophagus which may contain the remains of St. Paul was identified in the basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, reports Giorgio Filippi, an archeology specialist with the Vatican Museums. The sarcophagus was discovered during the excavations carried out in 2002 and 2003 around the basilica, which is located in the south of Rome. Having reached what they believe is a positive identification of the tomb, Vatican experts will soon make a public announcement of their discovery.
(h/t Donald Sensing)


Presidential Hangman

is at this link. If you know the Presidents, it's not very hard. Still, it's fun to play through once. (h/t KLo)


Monday, February 21, 2005


The Wrong Idea

It won't be available for anyone but Onion Premium subscribers until Wednesday (so for now, no link), but they have a great editorial headlined "I Support The Occupation Of Iraq, But I Don't Support Our Troops." The opening paragraph:

The U.S. went to war in Iraq to remove an evil and dangerous political adversary from power. Now that we have done that, the American troops must remain in Iraq until the country is a fully functioning democracy, able to spark change throughout the entire Middle East. While I find this obvious, there are still a lot of people in our country who fail to grasp it. I support Bush-administration foreign-policy goals, but I stand firmly against the individual men and women on the ground in the Persian Gulf.

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The revolution will be digitally photographed

My roommate Eric sent me two links of note tonight. The first is here; A9 has added photographs of the businesses in their yellow pages for several major metropolitan areas. They did it by driving every road with a truck with mounted cameras; much tougher than the bridges of Königsberg (and that's impossible!). Anyway, it's cool. I imagine my apartment building is somewhere in their system but it's raining buckets and I can't remember the name of the Italian restaurant down the street to look.

The other link he sent me is the Wilhelm Scream, which is a snippet of sound that you've heard a million times, whether you know you have or not.

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Sunday, February 20, 2005


Region 5 Stats

For the quizbowl readers of polyscifi who weren't in Blacksburg this weekend (I may be the only one as I was here), here's a link to the results and stats from this weekend's CollegeBowl tournament.


Gates parodies

Here's one upside to the Gates that I hadn't considered before - parodies. (h/t boingboing)

The Crackers

Somerville's Gates

Batman, Famous Bear, and Andy Warhol visit the Gates


Friday, February 18, 2005


I'd like to thank the Academy.

I got to hold an Oscar for the first time this morning; the studio's Best Picture award for Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. I'd always heard they were really heavy. They are heavy, but they're not really heavy. Anyway, here's hoping the next time I get my hands on one of those it's got my name on it.

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New Criterion Contraption

Shock Corridor, now at The Criterion Contraption.

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Thursday, February 17, 2005


Past Master

Not to be confused with Bass Master or Thigh Master, Past Master is a cool little online history trivia game from the History Channel. (via email from my brother - Dave)


Origami Boulder

I wooed my wife with Origami I made during class. However, I wasted my time learning Origami as I could've just bought great Origami online - like the Origami Boulder for the low low price of $10.

It also comes in Haiku and in performance art versions. (h/t Dean)


Wednesday, February 16, 2005


Unusual patents

Totallyabsurd.com claims it documents actual patents. Most of them are pretty funny.

Like the gerbil shirt (did Stephen Lynch invent this?) the toilet snorkel, and the shotgun driver.

Now I know totally absurd says they change the patent numbers to protect the innocent, but when I do a patent search on the subject matter, I don't get the patents for anything listed.

My question, is totallyabsurd a hoax?


Mamdouh Habib

I had said I would do my research on Habib and report back, so here it is.

Brief overview
In short, there may be merit to Habib's charge that the US had him transferred to Egypt from Pakistan and there may be merit to the charge that the US didn't take the required precautions to ensure that Habib wouldn't be tortured. (In comparison, I don't think we did anything wrong with Arar.) The first charge hinges on an interview with a Pakistani Interior Minister and the second is made in the absence of evidence to the contrary. However, while there is the possibility of the US doing an extraordinary rendition here, I'm currently giving the US the benefit of the doubt pending the discovery of new evidence.

Habib is probably a bad man
In 1980 or 1982 (I've seen both - I could research this fact further, but it's immaterial to the discussion), Habib moved from Egypt to Australia. In 1993, shortly before the World Trade Center bombing, Habib visited sheik Omar Abdel Rahman (the blind sheik) which got Habib on various watch lists. I'm unclear what happened with Habib over the next several years. There's a charge that Habib trained the 9/11 hijackers in karate, but that seems unlikely.

On July 29 2001, Habib left to Pakistan on a 3 month Visa for the stated reason of looking for schools for his children (a claim I find dubious in light of the following). Shortly before 9/11 (I don't know the exact date and I doubt it's public domain), the Aussies intercepted a phone call from Habib to his wife in which he told her the something big was about to happen in the US. This doesn't mean that he was in on the planning, but it probably means he was moving in al Qaeda circles. The Aussies also claim (I don't know what the evidence is) that Habib was training in the camps in Afghanistan during this time.

To me, there's enough here to justify picking him up.

Habib's run-in with "the law"

On October 5, in the town of Khuzdeh, in Baluchistan province bordering Afghanistan, Mr Habib was arrested by Pakistani security officials (not from a watchlist but from being where his Visa didn't allow him to go). Habib alleges that over the next three weeks he was interrogated by Americans (I don't doubt this claim - I would hope we would) and that he was tortured in the presence of an Australian official. (I doubt this claim, however. Not just because Australia has denied it, but because it would be stupid to watch with other witnesses there.) Habib also claims he was roughed up by some Americans in Pakistan shortly before the transfer to Egypt. This may be true, but I don't really care about this claim because:
"Mr. Habib started to fight with the Pakistanis, he recalled, and "then the Americans came and started beating me.""
(Nor do I care if they next stripped him because a strip search prior to boarding a plane seems appropriate, particularly when a prisoner had just started a fight with his guards . Nor do I care about them taking pictures of Habib because if his custody was about to be transferred, it's probably a good thing to document what kind of shape he was delivered in.)

Then Habib was transferred to Egypt where he alleges very bad things happened to him. Egypt denies this, of course (I lost my link for this), but I don't think they have a lot of credibility in this department.

After 6 months Habib was transferred to Bagram for a short stay before being transferred on to Guantanamo. At Guantanamo, Habib alleges that he was fake menstruated on (which I don't really care about), lied to about the death of his family (which I don't care about), shown photoshopped pictures of his family (which I don't care about), and had his head struck against the ground (the circumstances determine whether or not I care about this).

Eventually the US decided it didn't want to try Habib, nor transfer him back to Egypt (who had petitioned to get him back) and sent him back to Australia where he is preparing a lawsuit against Australia.

Some general comments
There are two real issues here as far as the US is concerned.

1) Did the US request the transfer of Habib from Pakistan to Egypt?
2) If so, did the US get promises from Egypt that they wouldn't torture Habib?

Most of the claims in this case rest solely on the claims of Habib and his cell mates. While prisoners don't make for credible witnesses (and Habib in particular has some credibility issues), that's immaterial as there's no way a prisoner could have first hand knowledge of who requested his transfer, so I completely ignore his charges with respect to these two issues.

The two pieces of evidence cited in the New Yorker with respect to these two issues are also useless.
1) The New Yorker cites other Guantanamo detainees who could be useful for determining mistreatment, but they would not be useful for determining the details with regard to a request for Habib's transfer from Pakistan to Egypt.
2) The other piece of evidence cited by the New Yorker is flight logs showing that the US transfered Habib from Egypt to Pakistan in April 2002. This is just silly. How does a transfer (acknowledged by everyone) into US custody by a US plane have any bearing on any possible transfer between Pakistani and Egyptionan custody six months earlier? That we transfer prisoners around is no big secret (how else did we get all those people to Guantanamo) and, again, his transfer to Bagram from Egypt is denied by no one.

However, there's one credible piece of corroborating evidence that I found beyond what's typically reported. That's a July 2004 interview with Pakistani Interior Minister Makhdoom Syed Faisal Saleh Hayat in which the following exchange occurs:
REPORTER: Did the Australian Government ask to have Mamdouh Habib deported to Australia?


REPORTER: And who sent Mamdouh Habib to Egypt?

MAKHDOOM SYED FAISAL SALEH HAYAT: You see, now you are transgressing into some very sensitive areas, you know. This is an area, unfortunately, we cannot simply share the outcome of the investigations with anyone.

REPORTER: Was it a Pakistani decision?

MAKHDOOM SYED FAISAL SALEH HAYAT: Obviously it's a Pakistani decision initially, because if anyone is caught on Pakistan soil, it's Pakistan's decision, it's Pakistan's prerogative, certainly.

REPORTER: So, just to clarify, it was a Pakistani decision to send him to Egypt?

MAKHDOOM SYED FAISAL SALEH HAYAT: It's not exactly a Pakistani decision. You know, a person who is caught in Pakistan - let me also clarify this. If he or she is of Pakistan origin, certainly they do not go out of Pakistan. If that person is of foreign origin, then if he or she is wanted by a foreign government - any government - they put in a request to Pakistan and the arrangements which we have on a reciprocal basis, on a bilateral basis, even with some countries on a multilateral basis, if we feel that their request is valid and genuine, then we do accede to that request.

REPORTER: Which country are you talking about?

MAKHDOOM SYED FAISAL SALEH HAYAT: I'm talking about all the countries. The US, the European Union, Egypt, you know, all these countries.

REPORTER: So are you implying that Egypt request...

MAKHDOOM SYED FAISAL SALEH HAYAT: No, Egypt did not request us.

REPORTER: Egypt definitely did not request Mamdouh Habib?


REPORTER: So did the United States request him?

MAKHDOOM SYED FAISAL SALEH HAYAT: Yes, they did request it, yes.

REPORTER: The United States requested that he be sent to Egypt?

MAKHDOOM SYED FAISAL SALEH HAYAT: The US wanted him for their own investigations. We are not concerned where they take him.

REPORTER: You don't see it as Pakistan's issue?

MAKHDOOM SYED FAISAL SALEH HAYAT: No. As far as we are concerned, we were satisfied with our own investigations at that point in time. Once that was over, once we were satisfied with our own investigations, certainly we had no problem handing him over to another ally of ours.

REPORTER: The Americans?

A couple comments on the interview (the transcript never comes back to Hayat after that line).

1) We gotta sign up that reporter (Bronwyn Adcock) for the CIA. For a "sensitive area" that the Pakistanis "cannot simply share the outcome of the investigations with anyone," Hayat sure crumbled quickly under questioning.

2) Where are the obvious follow-up questions? a) What is the name of the US official that requested this transfer? b) What evidence do you have to back up this claim?

I don't particularly fault Adcock for not following up as she was pursuing the Aussie angle, but where are the American journalists with these questions? It's been half a year since this interview and I can't find any follow up interviews.

I think these two follow questions are important for the following reasons.

1) If you want to actually get to the bottom of this case and not just demagogue the issue *cough* New Yorker *cough* we need to follow up with the only person who can credibly claim to have first hand knowledge of who authorized the transfer.

2) The US government and the CIA (although I've read where this may have been the FBI) in particular are highly compartmentalized. Unless you have a good name to begin with, you'll never get anywhere. If official after official denies knowledge, you'll never know if they're denying knowledge because the US really didn't authorize the transfer or if they're covering up.

3) Hayat should produce evidence (forms or taped phone calls which should presumably exist if we were actually taking the trouble to photograph Habib as Habib claims) so a) his credibility on this claim and b) there's an angle to go after whatever official Hayat names. [You say you didn't authorize this transfer? Isn't this your signature? Isn't this your voice on tape?]

Of course none of this addresses my second issue of whether or not the US requested that Egypt not torture Habib. But that's only relevant after we establish that the US made the transfer to Egypt.

Bottom line
For the moment, I'm giving the benefit of the doubt to the US as there's only one person (Hayat) who could credibly claim to know that the US requested the transfer and the interview where this comes out is rather odd. Call this a 65-35 belief that the US did nothing wrong with Habib versus my 99-1 belief that the US did nothing wrong with Arar Of course both assessments are subject to revision if additional information becomes available and I would very much like to see a follow up interview with Hayat.


Hitchhiker's Guide Trailer

A real (non-teaser) trailer for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is now up at Amazon.com. On the main page. I haven't even watched it yet, just saw it exists. Watching now. Or as Drudge would say, DEVELOPING! POLYSCIFI EXCLUSIVE MUST CREDIT POLYSCIFI!!!!!

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A Different Social Security Proposal

Don't age. He's not alone in this idea (the not aging part).

Actually, this is a subject I've touched on before where I briefly discussed ending social security as one of the possible upsides to ending aging.


Tuesday, February 15, 2005


Brian Binnie Review

As I mentioned earlier, Brian Binnie spoke at Tech today. The following are some notes I took during his talk (while finishing up my 3rd presentation of the day at the same time).

The most important stuff first - SpaceShipTwo
Binnies said the first flights are 3-4 years out as they're basically having to do a complete redesign to meet government regulations and make the cabin a bit more commercial (more on that in just a moment). The first flights should cost in the range of $500,000 – $600,000/person with economies of scale hopefully dropping the cost to around $50,000/person later.

Interesting tidbits on SpaceShipOne (SS1)
There's no real heating in the cabin. All the heating comes from the nitrous-oxide tank (used to oxidize rubber in the rocket) which is about room temperature. As a consequence, Binnie's toes went numb during the flight.

Rutan likes to call NASA "Nay Say"

Binnie was also quite down on NASA and said that if NASA did aviation, then the only airplane flying today would be the B2-Bomber.

The crew hatch (two carbon discs and an O-ring) for SS1 cost about $20 which Binnie contrasted $35 million for the space shuttle's hatch. Binnie attributed the big savings to having the hatch open in instead of out making pressurization alot easier.

Because the cabin is a sealed system, a lot of moisture builds up inside the cabin fogging up the windows. To solve this problem they brought along (in effect) a giant Q-Tip.

Just for fun, they built a rocket bike.

Burt Rutan averages better than one new airplane design a year. Scaled has built 38 planes over 32 years.

They put no throttle on the rocket so it was either all on or all off.

They almost added Sidewinder engines to SS1 when Melvil just got into space. Eventually they just pushed the original rocket a little harder to the point where the fuel switched over from liquid to gas.

Their flight simulation philosophy is let the flight simulator get ~90% of it right and the pilot (with a little help from adrenaline) will figure out the remaining 10%.

Scaled Composites built remote control mockups of SS1, but used no wind tunnels.

That approach ran into two problems: 1) The 4th flight almost had a fatal stall due to an unforseen lift issue. They identified the problem, made a new design and fabbed it in two weeks. 2) When they added a dampener to the aileron control system, it caused some unforseen stability issues leading to a crash on the landing first powered flight of SS1 (flown by Binnie).

Attributed relative safety of SS1 to a handful of factors
  1. White Knight provides the safest possible first stage
  2. White Knight also provided a nice flying testbed (nearly identical cockpit)
  3. Simplified flight controls (no computer controlled flight) - big reliance on the pilot's skills
  4. The feather reentry scheme greatly reduced the chance for things to go wrong on reentry
  5. Use the simplest possible rocket motor (no cryo, no exotic fluids or hardware, high safety margins, no throttle)
General Impressions
There were quite a few nice videos in the presentation from Discovery special.

Binnie was rather self-effacing and appreciative of his opportunity to fly into space.

Spacecraft has posted his reactions to Binnie. He's particularly down on the gratuitous NASA bashing.


Bruce Schneier

Bruce Schneier, author of Secrets and Lies, has a great piece today in his Cryptogram newsletter. He's on a government work group that is studying "Secure Flight," the U.S. government's new terrorist watch list program. The good news is, they're making improvements to the system that will make it less of a waste of money. The bad news is it's still kind of a waste of money. Here's Schneier:

Imagine for a minute that Secure Flight is perfect. That is, we can ensure that no one can fly under a false identity, that the watch lists have perfect identity information, and that Secure Flight can perfectly determine if a passenger is on the watch list: no false positives and no false negatives. Even if we could do all that, Secure Flight wouldn't be worth it.

Secure Flight is a passive system. It waits for the bad guys to buy an airplane ticket and try to board. If the bad guys don't fly, it's a waste of money. If the bad guys try to blow up shopping malls instead of airplanes, it's a waste of money.

If I had some millions of dollars to spend on terrorism security, and I had a watch list of potential terrorists, I would spend that money investigating those people. I would try to determine whether or not they were a terrorism threat before they got to the airport, or even if
they had no intention of visiting an airport. I would try to prevent their plot regardless of whether it involved airplanes. I would clear the innocent people, and I would go after the guilty. I wouldn't build a complex computerized infrastructure and wait until one of them happened to wander into an airport. It just doesn't make security sense.

If you don't subscribe to Schneier's monthly security and cryptography newsletter, Cryptogram, what are you waiting for?

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Today's New York Times editorial page had a nice summary of torture, prisoner abuse, and extraordinary rendition. Money quote:

What's been going on here is not what supporters of the administration's policies depict: an awful but necessary and skilled inquiry reserved for the worst terrorists, who hold secrets that could cost innocent lives. That's the stuff of 21st-century fiction, where Kiefer Sutherland saves mankind with a well-placed pistol butt. This is about a system that was hastily conceived, ineptly formulated, incompetently administered and now out of control. It lowers the humanity of the people who practice it, and the citizens who condone it.

I'd say "read the whole thing," but that's the part that's spot-on. It's here.

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Simpsons, Family Guy, or Futurama

Pejmanesque is running an informal poll in his comments.

My ranking:

1. The Simpsons at their peak
1a. Family Guy (side note: After seeing an episode of American Dad, I fear we may be splitting the rankings of Family Guy in the future)
2. Futurama (rarely great, but consistently very good)

A big gap

3. The Simpsons now.


Star Wars Valentines

I know it's a day late for Valentine's Day (but not too late to be Glenn Beck's couple of the year bit), but if your sweet heart was really dying for a wookie potato valentine [ed - yeah, that's what I got my sweet heart. Dork. - Hey, I resemble that remark.], here's the link for you. (h/t sfsignal)


Speaking of Billboards

And while we're talking about billboards, it seems someone has defaced one of those "Citizens United" billboards. I think CU has a really bad idea here; one of the things that sucks most about Hollywood is there's a general attitude of condescension towards middle America. I saw a memo a few years ago arguing that, although a particular director was out of touch and kind of slow on the pickup, he was right for the project because "it takes someone who's behind the times to connect with middle America." Which is the kind of thinking I'd like very much to get rid of out here. Of course, by the same token, it would be nice if the rest of America stopped thinking of Hollywood as the root of all evil; buying billboards to deliberately try to spoil "Hollywood's biggest night" seems kind of rude.

It would, of course, be ruder if they'd managed to by billboards anywhere near the Kodak theater. To get from the Kodak to the nearest billboard, you have to go here. And it's facing the wrong way.

Meanwhile, Matt Drudge seems to be running a one-man-campaign to get Chris Rock off the Oscars. Because Steve Martin, Whoopi Goldberg, and Billy Crystal never did anything off-color in their stand-up routines.

H/T Defamer.

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Culture Jam

Generally speaking, I find the kind of vandalism practiced by the Adbusters crowd to be pretty puerile. From time to time, though, they make me laugh:

This is at 3rd and Fairfax, on my commute . The original read "Like Heaven, it's a gated community."

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SpaceShipOne pilot at Tech tonight

I don't have much time today (lots of slides to make - such is the life of a viewgraph engineer), but I will be making time to go hear Brian Binnie talk tonight.


New Criterion Contraption

The Silence of the Lambs, now at The Criterion Contraption.

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Sunday, February 13, 2005


Christo in NYT

I don't get Christo. Never have. Probably never will. Wrapped Reichstag, Running Fence, Surrounded Islands, Wrapped Kunsthalle, Wrapped Monuments. Now the Gates.

I secretly suspect that it's all one big joke on the installation, the public, and the thousands of volunteers who help put these things together.

Or maybe I get it a little too well.

Roger adds that the Christo doesn't take volunteers while NYC does. A distinction made more confusing by news articles that mention paid volunteers.


Death of a dramatist

Arthur Miller died on Friday.


There he goes again.

Jody's post below about the case for extraordinary rendition has a lot of information about Aher I didn't know. Which is illuminating, certainly, but it doesn't change my basic point, which is that the United States is sending people to other countries to be tortured. I do think that's the primary purpose of extraordinary rendition, not deportation. In many cases, (Mamdouh Habib, for example), the United States
That's not deportation.

And Yoo and Gonzalez and Bybee and others at Justice and the White House have jumped through all kinds of loops to provide legal justifications to the executive branch for this kind of bad behavior, which by any application of the Plain Meaning Rule, violates international law, United States law, treaties we're signatory to, and U.N. resolutions. If you doubt that, read the Bybee memo. It's bad logic, bad policy, and bad law, all in one messy package.

What happened to the last leader who defied U.N. resolutions?

From Brazil:

Don't you know the sort of thing that
Information Retrieval does?

What do you mean? Would you rather
have terrorists?

We've got both.

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Is it .... a booby?

(link) (h/t Jonah)
(For those who don't understand the reference, watch this.)


Saturday, February 12, 2005


Star Trek Apartment

What would it look like if you made you decorated your apartment to look like the Federation Starship Enterprise? It might look something like this. (h/t tangoman @ gnxp)


Mahmad Arar

or Arer or Aher (you'll see different spellings in different places)...

Matt is shocked that I was not as taken back by this story of the Special Removal Unit as Matt was. Partly, it's a function of apparently having known about this story for better than a year and partly because I'm aware of the other side of the story which goes as follows:

Arar (Arer) is traveling from Tunisia to Canada and stops over in the US. Arar's name pops up on the computer as he was put on a watchlist several years ago based on information passed along to us from Canada:

The name of Ottawa software engineer Maher Arar name was entered on a U.S. border watch list because of intelligence that came originally from Canada, U.S. sources say.

Mr. Arar, who was deported from New York last year to Syria, where he was tortured, was unknown to U.S. law-enforcement agencies until the RCMP passed his name along as a terrorist suspect, the U.S. sources said Friday.

The information passed along is the following: Arar (a former employee of Mathworks - a fact not relevant to the story, but as a big Matlab fan, I find it interesting) has ties to Abdullah Almalki and is suspected of being part of a Canadian al Qaeda ring. Almalki (who earlier had been arrested by the Syrians after the Canadians watchlisted him) and Arar had both been implicated by Ahmad Abou El-Maati.

Now for a quick discursion into the baddies here.

El-Maati's brother Amer had previously been put on a watch list when "border guards found a map of Ottawa marking government buildings and nuclear research facilities [in his truck]." (Note that El-Matti's employer has claimed the map belonged to another driver but this still doesn't explain why those items were marked. Recall the story of the ring broken up in Canada that appears to have been planning attacks on a Canadian nuclear power plant - something that is disputed by activist groups).

Ahmad El-Maati's name turned up in documents (you now have to buy the original article, but google cached it - God bless google) in a Kabul safehouse that noted El-Maati had just gotten his Canadian citizenship. Coupled with his brother's border incident (and some stuff I'll mention in a moment), El-Maati was most likely involved planning some very bad things and got watch listed by the US and Canada.

Ahmad El-Maati then got picked up by the Syrians in Damascus where he named names, in particular Arer and Abdullah Almalki. Abdullah Almalki also had some activities in his background that look quite bad when put in context of El-Maati.

Abdullah Almalki had travelled to Pakistan in the early 1990s to work in the Islamic charity camps of Ahmed Said Khadr. The Khadr's appear to have been rather nasty folk. While Khadr maintained an apparently upfront charity (other than the thousands of dollars it funneled to al Qaeda), Khadr directied its charity workers various terrorist training camps. An interesting aside,
Among the Canadians who attended the camps were Amer and Ahmad El-Maati of Toronto, a Vancouver man he knew as Amer, who was killed in a 1998 U.S. missile strike, and a Canadian named Idriss, who was arrested for plotting to blow up an embassy in Azerbaijan, Mr. [Abdurrah - one of Ahmed's sons] Khadr testified.
Ahmed Said Khadr had a long standing relationship with Bin Laden (Bin Laden attended the wedding of Khadr's daughter Zaynab and the Khadr family attended the wedding of Bin Laden's son Muhamad). Omar Khadr (Ahmed Said Khadr's youngest son) was picked up on the battlefield of Afghanistan.

To beat a dead horse, the conclusion that Khadr was a terrorist running a terrorist camp seems all the more likely in light of his death. Khadr died in the big firefight in Warzistan - the one where we thought Bin Laden was at. After his death, Khadr's family made statements along the lines of:
"We believe dying by the hand of your enemy because you believe in… you're doing it in the way of Allah, that it's the best way to die," Zaynab told CBC. "My father had always wished that he would be killed… he would be killed for the sake of Allah. I remember when we were very young he would say, if you guys love me, pray for me that I get jihaded, which is killed."
Abdurrah cut to the chase when he said: "We are an al Qaeda family."

So when Abdullah Almalkiacknowledges that he travelled to Pakistan in the early 1990s (for about a decade) to work in the Islamic charity camps of Ahmed Said Khadr, it's pretty safe to assume that Almalki is a terrorist as well. In particular, I believe the authorities were also interested in Almalki for funneling computer equipment to the Taliban/al Qaeda.

Quick summary of known bad dudes:
Said Khadr: Acknowledged long time Bin Laden associate, gave financial aid to al Qaeda, sent charity workers and his sons to train in the Afghanistan terrorist camps, died with a gun in his hand fighting the Islamist fight, scion of an al Qaeda family.

El-Maati: trained in terrorist camps with Khadr's kids, documents linking El-Maati to al Qaeda discovered in a safe house in Afghanistan, brother stopped on US border with maps marking location of Canadian government and nuclear facilities.

Abdullah Almalki: worked in Said Khadr's "charity" camp for about a decade, probably funneling computers to the Taliban. Picked up in Damascus.

Now back to Arar.

Recall that Arar was fingered by both Almalki and El-Maati (picked up first) for involvement involvement in a plot to blow up Canadian government buildings and nuclear installations. How El-Maati came to finger Arar is rather curious as Arar doesn't appear to have been on anyone's radar before El-Maati brought him up and Arar and El-Maati deny knowing each other. El-Maati also fingered Almalki.

Almalki, however, had a history with Arar. Almalki's and Arar's families had been long acquaintances of each other beginning when they moved from Syria at the same time. Contact between the families continued through the present day with Abdullah Almalki cosigning Arar's lease and with documented meetings in restaurants. When Arar denied having anything other than a casual relationship with Almalki, the US investigators (I believe rightly) assumed Arar was lying to them. According to David Warren (I have no corroboration of the flight information)
His international movements (to Pakistan and possibly Afghanistan, with indirect flight routes through Tunisia) were suspicious, and he met under suspicious circumstances with Abdullah Almalki (a fellow computer expert being tracked as a supplier of hardware and software into Talibani Afghanistan, and as a link to financing through a Pakistani "charity"), as well as with others unnamed. Mr. Arar left Canada suddenly, and his family cleared house and moved, in both cases immediately after Canadian security searched or interviewed a colleague; then seemed to be returning to Canada only after the dust had settled.
So with this info and Mr Arar's selective memory of Almalki, the INS agents were quite suspicious. Not having enough to actually hold him but believing him to be a part of a conspiracy with El-Maati and Almalki, they looked to deport Arar.

The US government then asks the Canadian government if it's ok to deport Arar:
"However, U.S. government officials we spoke to say they told Canadian intelligence that they were sending Arar to Syria – and the Canadians signed off on the decision."
The US government then double checks with Syria to make certain that Arar won't be tortured, a fear as we list Syria as a torturing state:
Before deporting Arar to Syria, American officials involved in the case told 60 Minutes II they had obtained assurances from the Syrian government that Arar would not be tortured –- that he would “be treated humanely”
So with the blessing of the Canadian government and assurances from Syria, the suspicious dual Canadian-Syrian citizen is packed off to Syria (by way of Jordan) where Arer says he was tortured (like Warren, there's no corroborating source of info here, but it seems plausible in Syria).

Flash forward to the present day and Arar currently has lawsuits filed against Syria, Canada, and the US.

In light of this knowledege, I left the following in the comments today:
While Aher may or may not have been detained erroneously (and if he was detained erroneously, then he deserves every dollar he can get out of the government), in general I don't get too worked up about deporting Syrian citizens back to Syria...(admittedly he was dual Canadian-Syrian - but they give out dual Canadian citizenship like candy)

Consider the general case where there is a foreign national who we feel is a threat. Can we not deport them? Can we only deport those that come from European countries? Or do we just pick them up and hold on to them indefinitely?

Maybe we can hold them in Guantanamo... There doesn't seem to be any public outcry over that...
To which Matt replied:
Give me a break. Aher left Syria when he was a teenager. He'd lived in Canada for twenty years. He went to McGill! The Syrian government didn't want him; they didn't give a damn about him. We sent him there so that he could be tortured. We didn't "deport" him. We sent him to Syria for torture and interrogation. Maybe you think that's the right thing to do, but at least defend what we're actually doing: disappearing people and giving them to tinpot dictatorships to be tortured.

If you'd like to defend *that*, be my guest.

And "he deserves every dollar he can get out of the government?" How much would you want, to spend a year being tortured, honest-to-god tortured, by Syrians? How much could I pay you to do that? You say these things but I don't think you believe them. I hope you don't, anyway. But look, it's not all about Aher, it's about a pattern. Did you read the whole article? Why are you defending this?
Now reponding to these questions in turn:

Give me a break. Aher left Syria when he was a teenager. He'd lived in Canada for twenty years. He went to McGill!

And the 9/11 hijackers attended universities and grew up in Europe. Almalki who I am pretty damn certain is a terrorist left Syria at the same time. Ultimately these points are inconsequential to the facts of the case.

The Syrian government didn't want him; they didn't give a damn about him. We sent him there so that he could be tortured. We didn't "deport" him. We sent him to Syria for torture and interrogation.

I concur on the Syrian government not wanting him. No government wants to have to deal with a suspected terrorist with flimsy evidence. We didn't want him and Canada didn't want him. That's why we got rid of Arar and why he went to Syria (who was apparently more ambivalent). And as best as I can ascertain, no, we did not send him to Syria for torture. In fact, according to that noted Bush adminstration sympathizer 60 Minutes II, we got assurances from Syria that Arer wouldn't get tortured.

And "he deserves every dollar he can get out of the government?" How much would you want, to spend a year being tortured, honest-to-god tortured, by Syrians? How much could I pay you to do that? You say these things but I don't think you believe them. I hope you don't, anyway.

Financial recompensension for wrongdoing has a long and proud history and is ultimately the best we can do for Arar as we can't undo what was done. Why are the abused suing the Catholic church? Should we not hope that they get every dollar they can get out of the Church? Should we not hope that the Goldmans get every penny they can out of O.J.?

Really, I don't understand this indignation over my statement, "if he was detained erroneously, then he deserves every dollar he can get out of the government."

But look, it's not all about Aher, it's about a pattern. Did you read the whole article? Why are you defending this?

Yes, I did. However, I disagree on the interpretation of the facts of virtually all of the article and thus disagree with the assessment of a pattern.

Why are you defending this?

1) Cause the portion on Arer is the only coherent part of the New Yorker piece
2) I don't have a problem with rendition unless it's done for torture or the person is wrongly detained (both of which are alleged in Arer's case).

Specifically I feel that deporting suspected terrorists is the way to go if we only have weak evidence against them and I don't think we should limit our deportions to Europe.


Friday, February 11, 2005


No run for Stuart Smalley

Turns out Franken won't be running for the Senate in 06.

Such a bummer. I heard they already had campaign flyers ready to go...


Information Retrieval Doesn't Make Mistakes

Only in Guantanamo...

...and any number of other exciting destinations! If you haven't read Jane Mayer's article about "extraordinary rendition" in this week's New Yorker, please do so now. I am inordinately skeptical of the police state ideas about the Bush administration. But this seems well-researched, carefully documented, and, if I can say it once again, a really stupid thing for us to be doing.

To sum up, it looks like waterboarding wasn't the only thing a prisoner at Gitmo could look forward to. The extremely lucky might win an all-expenses paid trip on a G4 (that's a Gulfstream 4, for the non-private-jet set) to Egypt, Uzbekistan, or other torture-friendly countries, in the care of our very own "Special Removal Unit." Did you know we had a Special Removal Unit? I didn't. They even show inflight movies. Perhaps this softens the blow of being whipped with electrical cords, made to lie in electrified beds, and in some cases being executed (since people can be sentenced to death in absentia in many of these countries).

In a lot of ways, of course, it's neater if the prisoners are executed, because once they've been tortured, they're an embarassment to the United States, and nobody knows what to do with them. Mayer alleges that as many as one hundred prisoners at Gitmo are being carefully hidden from Red Cross investigators because of what they might reveal. At least one is being kept away from the Red Cross at the personal orders of Donald Rumsfield.

I could go on, but the article is better. Read the whole thing, and honestly ask yourself if this is the sort of thing the United States should be doing. The Bush Administration has spent an inordinate amount of time and energy on splitting legal hairs to be able to torture suspects; they have, as I see it, three main justifications for this:

All three arguments can be found in the article. You could argue the finer points of this for months. Personally, I think they're all hogwash. But my point is, why on earth are we tolerating a government that goes through these kinds of gyrations to justify torture? Not even waterboarding, which Jody doesn't feel is torture, but honest to god, current-to-the-genitals torture. I don't want my government to do this on my behalf, now, or ever.

It kind of reminds me of this screenplay I read once...

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Reality TV

I'm not that much into reality shows. But I'd watch this one. (H/T Wonkette).

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North Korea

While I haven't spent much time researching the North Korean situation in any traditional sense, I do have a foolproof plan to solve the problem. Details here. (This particular non-diplomatic solution, I've spent hours and hours working on).

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In related news...

Yesterday North Korea confirmed that it has nukes...

In related news, two other startling admissions were made today...
Today, a spokesman for the Pope announced that the Pope is indeed a Catholic. On the heels of this announcement, a spokesman for North American bears announced that bears actually do poop in the woods.


New Criterion Contraption

The Naked Kiss, now at The Criterion Contraption.

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Thursday, February 10, 2005


Extreme Sport

I've discovered the new Sport of Kings. H/T Meredith Erdmann.

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Punching above our weight class

As we mentioned when it first started, Punditdrome is a RSSS aggregator that allows you to quickly skim the headings of a bunch of different major blogs. Kinda like the headlines for a blog newspaper.

Well today (or I at least learned about it today), Polyscifi's RSSS feed got picked up by Punditdrome today. So we're now like a "column" in the blog newspaper. We're listed in the elsewhere portion of Punditdrome (as opposed to the Left or the Right), a categorization that seems appropriate.

But look at all the heavy libertarian hitters we're listed alongside. Like Virginia Postrel (former editor of Reason), Reason's Hit & Run, Vodkapundit, and Dean's World. Each of these sites get thousands of visitors a day and each takes their blogging seriously (ads, real commenting, and their own servers - none of which I ever want the hassle of dealing with).

While we do have some serious political discussions (like Jeremy's social security discussion), I think they're generally drowned out by our beer and poop jokes (and fake novels). But that's ok. Life is really more about beer and poop than politics.

Anyways, go check out Punditdrome where we're punching WAY above our weight class.


Let's Solve Social Security

Having a job, a family, a house, a commute and what passes for a life has shown me that taking on responsibility takes up increasingly larger amounts of cognitive ability. In short, the more sh!t I have to do, the stupider I feel.

Anyway, seeing everyone nicely discuss Social Security and interest rates got me thinking: I've a few unconnected ideas about social security, so maybe I'll throw them up here and let you tear me to shrdes.

Here goes.

1 - I read George Will's endnotes in Newsweek this week. It talks about Federal employees retirement options and how well they've done. They've done better than I have (and WAY better than my company stock).

2 - It seems to me the biggest downside of private accounts of any type is that they take money out of the current system.

3 - right now, you can elect to receive 80% of your benefit at 62, or wait until you're 65 and receive 100%. If you elect to get money at 62, you stay at 80% forever. I like choices.

What if you could elect to put 2% worth of your salary into manageble funds/securities and 4.4% of your salary into the fund. You take a hit on your guaranteed benefit, but now you're running some money in something that has potentially higher return. The percentages could be variable for different ages. This reduces future entitlements.

4 - biggest benefit of private accounts to me - the money is potentially invested in companies, not the government. Hopefully, this capital helps the economy boom. Bigger boom = rising tide = boats floating.

Anyway, some random half formed ideas.


New Criterion Contraption

The Killer, now up at Criterion Contraption. The Criterion edition of The Killer? Not so easy to find.

Next is Samuel Fuller's The Naked Kiss.

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Wednesday, February 09, 2005


Atlanta Nights

Today, I've seen a few sites noting how a collection of scifi writers got together one weekend and wrote what they consider to be the worst book ever under the pseudonym Travis Tea: Atlanta Nights. Why? The stated reason is to poke fun at PublishAmerica:

Travis Tea is a pseudonym for a group of (mostly) science fiction and fantasy authors who were amused by PublishAmerica's claim (at their authorsmarket.net site) that SF & F authors are "writers who erroneously believe that SciFi, because it is set in a distant future, does not require believable storylines, or that Fantasy, because it is set in conditions that have never existed, does not need believable every-day characters."

So about thirty writers banged out a novel over a long weekend, writing it as ineptly as they could. Plot, characterization, theme ... none of them are to be found in ATLANTA NIGHTS. Grammar and spelling take a drubbing. The book was submitted to PublishAmerica -- and it was accepted.

Ha ha. They sure pulled one over on PublishAmerica.

However, there's a few things that seem odd to me. One, they're selling T-shirts. Kinda odd. Two, the book isn't actually got the book published at PublishAmerica. Go to PublishAmerica's online bookstore and enter in "Atlanta Nights," "Travis Tea," or the ISBN: 1-4116-2298-7. You'll get nothing.

Instead, it appears to have been done through Lulu. Lulu is a do it yourself publishing outfit with on-demand publishing. However, it doesn't appear that Lulu has any real screening process (unlike Publish America). You give Lulu a manuscript and if someone orders a copy, they'll print it.

In fact, I bet you could publish a book through Lulu that says nothing but "I am the very model of a modern major major, Yossarian" over and over.

Which in fact, I did. Lulu will sell you a printed, bounded version of "I am the very model of a modern major major, Yossarian" for the low, low price of $4.95.

Here's a professional button like thing, which you can click on to buy the book.
Buy my stuff at Lulu!

So the selling point of the Atlanta Nights - look at what a bunch of scifi writers pulled on a publishing house that criticized scifi writers - is a hoax.

Oh, yeah, buy "I am the very model of a modern major major, Yossarian." I get nothing out of it.

Or you could just download a soft copy for free from here. Check out the killer "cover art" for "major major, Yossarian"

Update 2
In the comments, Roger requests a local download. I may be voiding the terms of "publication" of "I am the very model of a modern major major, Yossarian" but you can also get a copy (sans cover art) without logging into lulu from here. (It's a pdf.)

Update 3
Based on the ledes on Tim Blair's site ("What happens when a group of writers sets out to write the worst novel ever? It gets published") and Dean's site ("A group of Science Fiction and Fantasy authors have conspired to write a genuinely horrible book and have it published.") I read this story as the authors of Atlanta Nights portraying their book as having actually been published by PublishAmerica or some traditional publisher, which isn't the case.

Wikipedia (via PW) reports that this was a sting operation to show that PublishAmerica will accept anything (which they did) and is just another vanity publisher. The Atlanta Nights authors announced their hoax before the book went to press and PublishAmerica dropped the contract so PublishAmerica never published the book. The authors then released Atlanta Nights on Lulu (which as I've demonstrated will publish anything) and are using the proceeds to fund a charity.

So it's not so much the authors misrepresenting the publication status of Atlanta Nights, it's the way the story is being reported (or my interpretation of that reporting).


BK Toys

Via boingboing, I see where Burger King is reportedly giving away classic Activision games with their kids' meals.

I think this is something for the crack investigative reporting team at polyscifi to investigate during lunch today.

Thason and I visited BK today. No Activision toys... Further they didn't even know what we were talking about.

Why BK? Why must you tempt me so only to dash my dreams of Kaboom on the cliffs of franchise uncoordination?


A little social security fun

This is not my promised "Why I hate social security" post. That'll come later (not tonight).

Rather, I thought I would have a little fun...

Previously Matt had commented, "I also think it would be less disingenuous of Bush if he were at all upfront about his desire to dismantle social security and as many other FDR social plans as possible. I think that would be a tough (read: impossible) sell, but at least it would be honest."

Thanks to oxblog, I was made aware of this quote:
"In the important field of security for our old people, it seems necessary to adopt three principles: First, noncontributory old-age pensions for those who are now too old to build up their own insurance. It is, of course, clear that for perhaps 30 years to come funds will have to be provided by the States and the Federal Government to meet these pensions. Second, compulsory contributory annuities which in time will establish a self-supporting system for those now young and for future generations. Third, voluntary contributory annuities by which individual initiative can increase the annual amounts received in old age. It is proposed that the Federal Government assume one-half of the cost of the old-age pension plan, which ought ultimately to be supplanted by self-supporting annuity plans." [emphasis copied from oxblog]
Sounds like something Bush would say. However, he didn't say it. FDR did.

Bush isn't dismantling FDR's social plans. He's fulfilling FDR's vision. Though almost 30 years after FDR thought the transition would occur.

A pox upon the previous adminstrations for not fulfilling FDR's vision earlier.


Be careful what you promise

like giving your testicles if your team wins a game. You just might get drunk and follow through on your promise (story).
"A Welsh rugby fan cut off his own testicles after his team beat England, police confirmed today...

It was reported that the man told his friends: 'If Wales win I'll cut my own balls off
In light of the last two articles like this I've posted, take this one with a grain of salt. But it's still pretty amusing.


Maybe he didn't piss his way out of the avalanche

J.P. emailed me this snopes article which casts doubt on this prior post.


Tuesday, February 08, 2005


Laffer, interest rates, and inflation

It seems whenever I find some free time to post, so does Matt, so we run dry for a bit and then blog splooge all over the place...

In the comments of the "George Bush is a Socialist" post, J.P. had written,
"Also, like every supply-sider since Laffer, you are conveniently ignoring the increase in interest rates that will result from this massive new debt, and the additional costs that will levy on businesses."

I had replied "I'll address this in a post as I need space to plot the deficit/debt versus interest rate."

This is that post.

The basic theory that J.P. is espousing is the following (correct me if I'm wrong). When the government increase its debt, it increases the market demand for loans. Simple macroeconomics says that if demand increases, price must also increase assuming all else is equal. In this case, the price of a loan is the loan's interest rate (ignoring closing costs and what not).

This theory is theoretically sound. However, the problem comes when the theory is applied to the real world, as all else is never equal.

For instance, if the incurred debt is accompanied by economic growth, then the amount of available capital increases (loan supply) and the price of a loan can fall. Or in my personal favorite factor, if inflation falls at the same time (perhaps through deregulation, trade liberalization, and productivity gains), then market forces work to push down the interest rates that can be charged (the inflation rate is the break even point for a loan).

As the government is but one of the borrowers in the market, and only occupying a relatively small portion of the capital market (~$400 billion/year of new borrowing a year in a $11 trillion/year economy), the effect of government borrowing on the price of a loan is relatively small compared to the economy wide effects of economic growth and low inflation.

So, you say, that's great and all. In theory. But what about in practice? Might not those effects I describe be drowned out by other effects I've not considered and might I be incorrectly weighting those effects?


But let's look at the data. Taking historical interest rate data from this site, historical debt numbers from this site, and inflation numbers (CPI) from this site, we can produce the following plots. [Email me - jodyneel@yahoo.com - if you want a copy of my spreadsheet.]

To judge the effect of Laffer economics (really only one aspect of it), let's plot national debt and the federal fund rate as shown below. The two look negatively correlated to me. So while we agree that when all else is equal, increasing debt should increase interest rates, this effect was apparently drowned by something else.

Well, what about inflation and debt? Inflation is an extra cost imposed upon business. Again as we see below, there's little correlation.

Just for fun, let's see what happens when we look at inflation and interest rates and see if my supply-sider hypothesis is correct...

Looks like the interest rate follows the inflation rate. Almost as if changes in the inflation rate were largely determining the interest rate. Of course, this makes sense by my explanation above wherein the inflation forms a natural floor for interest rates and market pressures keep interest rates close to that floor.

Just in case I get accused of choosing a favorable time period, let's look over the entire data set I have for the fed rate. Inflation and interest rates still look strongly correlated with interest rates still generally lagging inflation by a little bit.

(Click image for a higher res view of plot)

So why was the government able to float so much debt? Well looking back in history, Reagan was a huge deregulator, the Bush (41 and 43) and Clinton Presidencies were big trade liberalizers, and we've had massive productivity gains (God bless you Walmart - 25% of the US's productivity gains in the 90's). All of these factors brought down inflation and kept it low.

My bottom line: Debt only has a secondary effect on interest rates. If you're concerned about interest rates, then keep an eye on the inflation rate.

For a little fun for the Laffer enthusiasts in the audience, here's an interview with Laffer conducted last week. (h/t Poor and Stupid)

In the comments, J.P. suggests that the fed fund rate isn't a good measure of the economy's interests rates. So here's the 3 month T-Bill rate (an interest rate actually being paid by the government) plotted along side the fed fund rate.

And here's a plot of mortgages, corporate bonds (Aaa rated), the fed rate, and inflation.

I'll say it again, interest rates follow inflation (lag by a little - gotta have an expectation that they're not going to pop right back up), not debt.


Gamers of the World Unite!

Sorry for the protracted absence, and I don't have that promised post on SOTU or the Oscar pool (though I'm working on that). But I do have something really spectacular. Really spectacular.

Spectacular like...


Right here. Too good to be believed, you have to check them out yourself. Two quotes:

"Red Alert is 100% pure grade ruling class propraganda and serves as an excellent example as such. The ruling class perspective is the only education this game will provide. "

"All in all, the Cossacks/Knights of the Old Republic is one of the most manipulative pieces of software ever devised. It leeches morality of young minds and prepares them to kill their peers to prevent a revolution. After all... the strong fascist knight shall always win. "

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Friday, February 04, 2005



I just rediscovered a blog I used to read and comment on a lot. Gusalmighty.

I had gotten distracted with the folks on Winning Argument (which posted more regularly and had a bigger readership) and then polyscifi got going and there's always work and the wedding...

Anyways It's written by an American from Idaho working in Japan. It's a little left of center libertarian leaning site and tends to post some well thought out essays. Check it out. I've also added it over on the blogroll (really that just makes my life a lot easier when I want to visit the site).


Thursday, February 03, 2005


More Kafkaesque Goings on

Recently, Matt noted a Kafkaesque situation down at Guantanamo (though perhaps it's more of a Catch-22 that typifies the military/government/bureacracies). Well, here's a situation that appears Kafkaesque at first glance.

James Taranto has a schtick wherein he gives a different reading of the day's headlines. Normally, they're good for a chuckle. Anyways, this headline particularly caught my eye: "Central Fla. Officer Charged With Posing As Officer"

The actual story appears to be that officer Hill is indeed a law enforcement officer, but was pretending to be a state attorney investigator. However there appears to be no specific law on the books for impersonating a state attorney investigator, just with impersonating a law enforcement officer.

Thus "[law enforcement officer] Hill is charged with impersonating a law enforcement officer and extortion."

I believe he is now a prisoner impersonating a prisoner.


Georgian PM Dead

Apparently from a gas leak. Am I the only one who is wondering if this wasn't an accident?
Security guards broke through a window early Thursday when they heard no signs of life inside the apartment several hours after the prime minister arrived, Merabishvili said. Zhvania's host, Zurab Usupov, deputy governor of Georgia's Kvemo-Kartli region, also died.
Why wasn't the security detail with Zhvania? If you're that high up the food chain, I don't think they ever leave your side. In light of Yuschenko and the fact that Zhvania was another reformer, I'm a little curious as to what's going on in the former Soviet Republics.

Well I feel like less of a nut now that the Guardian is reporting that some in Georgia had the same thought (you're not crazy if others' agree with you. You may still be wrong, but you're not crazy.).
Georgia's interior minister said there was no reason to suspect foul play, but a lawmaker reportedly pointed the finger at ``outside forces.'' His remarks were aimed at Russia, which has ties with Georgia's separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and prompted a terse response from Moscow.

The lawmaker, Alexander Shalamberidze, noted that the death of Zhvania, 41, came days after a car bombing that killed three policemen in Gori, the city nearest to South Ossetia. Zhvania, considered a moderate influence in the government of this former Soviet republic, had been trying to negotiate settlements with the separatist regions.

"The explosion in Gori and Zhvania's death have dealt strong blows to our state. Now our neighbors are going to take advantage of that, they are saying we are almost savages living in the cold," Shalamberidze said.

Asked whom he meant, he replied: ``Russia. They are trying to prevent Georgia from getting stronger. The entire Russian diplomatic activity regarding our country confirms that."
In the comments, J.P. joins me on the grassy knoll.


New Criterion Contraption

Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island now posted at The Criterion Contraption.

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Looking for work? You should check out Indeed. It's a search engine for jobs that scans all kinds of lisitings, from newspapers to Craig's List to who knows what else. (I don't know what else). But you search by zip code and you can get results as an RSS feed. Be the first one to apply when Paramount fires Brad Grey! H/T Lifehacker, one of Nick Denton's new blogs. Many of the things on Lifehacker, you will already be familiar with. Some, you will not. Mark my words on this: Nick Denton will control the universe in five years.

Update: Corrected the hyperlink. It is, of course, http://lifehacker.com. Thanks, Jody!

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Wednesday, February 02, 2005


Kriswell Predicts!

I'll be posting about the SOTU later (just got home from work, long day, also just got The Killer on DVD so I wanna check that out). But I'd like to point this out: the day after I posted about the KeyKatcher, a student in Houston is being charged with a misdemeanor for putting one of these devices on his teacher's machine and selling answers to tests. That's what's troubling about these; they're very easy to install, and don't require admin rights or any computer skills, unlike traditional software keyloggers. I guess the one plus is that they force home the idea that information security is linked to physical security, but I'm afraid nobody's doing much intelligent thinking about either one these days. H/T Slashdot.

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