Tuesday, August 30, 2005


Hurricane blogging

The most comprehensive collection of images from New Orleans that I've seen is here (it's only 8 pictures, but it does a good job of conveying the extent of the flooding). If I find a good collection of images from southern Mississippi, I'll post a link to those as well.

Not images, but video. (h/t brendan loy who is doing an excellent job tracking the situation - In fact why are you even reading this site? Go to Loy's site now.)


Still busy

I've promised the blog a couple of posts that I haven't gotten to yet but will this week.

In the interim, I've been preparing for my prelim tomorrow and was busy wiring my basement this weekend (which was enough fun that I'm thinking of getting licensed and doing some electrician work on weekends).

For those who have a desire to see how game theory and wireless (particularly cognitive radios) fit together, I'll post a link to the slides from the prelim tomorrow. Unfortunately, I can't post the prelim report as most of that document will appear in a textbook on cognitive radio due out this winter or early spring and I don't want to violate copyrights. (I only wrote a chapter, not the whole book).

In the mean time, if you really have a burning desire to see how game theory and cognitive radios fit together, I had an article published in this week's EE Times. As a little background to the article, the EE Times was doing a feature on my advisor and they asked for figures illustrative of our research. I submitted a brief writeup of a diagram of a "cognitive radio game" which the EE Times liked enough that they asked me to turn it into a "Tip of the Week" (a brief article that gives you a pointer on something that might be useful in EE work).

If I may kvetch a little (this is a blog - and what would blogs be without kvetching?), I'm used to conference/journal publications where the author has the last say on wording and figures, but I guess the EE Times works more like a newspaper as that's that's not my lead-in sentence and I submitted a different graphic.

If you're curious, the original lead-in was: "The focus of an emerging field of research in wireless communications, a cognitive radio is a radio that can learn about and adapt to its environment." and the original graphic was this. Read the article to see how those got edited.


Gravity's Rainbow

For some reason I find this footage of model rocket launches to be oddly compelling. I think the weird whistling noises the rocket makes are part of it. I used to launch estes rockets back in the day & I would have gone apeshit if I'd been able to put a camera in the rockets. If you've never launched a model rocket, at the end of the engine burn, a charge fires up into the body of the rocket, ejecting the nose cone and parachute. That's the popping noise you see halfway through the footage, about the time the camera starts spinning around. The best footage, I think, is the one labeled "Look out! Corn!"


Saturday, August 27, 2005


Government Schwag

The eleven most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government and I'm here to sell you drugs." John Tierney has the details on the farce that is government marijuana cultivation. Money quote:
But Mr. Alden said only some kinds of marijuana worked - not the weak variety provided by the federal government, which he smoked during a research study.

"It was awful stuff," he said. "They started out with a very low-grade plant, rolled it up with stems and seeds, and then freeze-dried it so that they probably ruined any of the THC crystals. All it did was give me headaches and bronchitis. The bronchitis got so bad I had to drop out of the study."
I'm sure that the crappy quality of government marijuana has nothing at all to do with any vested government interest in showing that marijuana has no medicinal uses. Not only is this a case where private industry clearly outperforms government, it's a case where high school students with bad mustaches do better than government scientists.


Friday, August 26, 2005


Stewart v. Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens was Jon Stewart's guest on the Daily Show last night; witness the carnage here. I think Stewart is a bit disingenuous about his own feelings about the president. But no one who saw his monologue on the first show back after September 11 could ever think he was anything but a patriot. In any event, Stewart does an excellent job of articulating one of the reasons Bush is so often so infuriating to me. Money quote:
HITCHENS: The people who say that the violence with these people is our fault are masochistic and capitulationist and they should be ignored.

STEWART: The people who say that we shouldn't fight in Iraq
aren't saying it's our fault. That is the conflation that's most disturbing to me.

HITCHENS: Don't you hear people say that we've made them nasty to us...

STEWART: I hear people say a lot of stupid shit, okay, but what I'm saying here is...

HITCHENS: Just promise me you'll never say that.

STEWART: ...is that there is reasonable dissent in this country about the way this war has been conducted that has nothing to do with people saying we should cut and run from the terrorists, or we should show weakness in the face of terrorism, or that we believe that we have in some way brought this upon ourselves. They believe that this war is being conducted without transparency, without credibility and without comments

HITCHENS: I'm sorry, sunshine, I just watched you ridicule the president for saying that he, he wouldn't give a..

STEWART: ...no, you misunderstood why...

HITCHENS...a timetable.

STEWART: ...that's not why I ridculed the president. Why I ridiculed the president was he refuses to answer questions from adults as though we were adults, and falls back upon platitudes, and phrases, and talking points that does a disservice to the goals that he himself shares with the very people he needs to convince.

Obviously Stewart's last point could be better phrased, but I agree with him 100%.When questioned about anything, Bush seems contemptuous of anyone that disagrees with him. And if you show me the question, I can pretty much figure out which stock phrases he's going to put in his answer. That's his right, and people who agree with him tend to forgive him that attitude, but it inspires a lot of loathing.


A Prepackaged Flamewar

Men are smarter than women (h/t gnxp)

[Based on the BBC writeup, I suspect that the researchers only studied the right hand side of the distribution and are indirectly restating the quasi-conventional wisdom that IQ means are similar, but the male distribution has a higher variance].

There's actually a flame war of sorts on the BBC site, and slashdot is well into it.

So to quote the human torch [who has become part of an repeatedly told inappropriate joke between my brother and I]: Flame On!


Wednesday, August 24, 2005


The Evolution of the Instruction of Evolution

In this comment, Scott asserts that
it was the Scopes trial (with the creationists winning) that embarrassed the nation enough to spur the teaching of evolution in schools nationwide.”
While this is a common belief, it’s not true - the opposite occurred. Quoting Eugenie C. Scott:
“since 1925 and the Scopes trial, the discussion of evolution in textbooks decreased rapidly. By the late '50s and early '60s there was virtually no evolution in high school biology books.”
Yet now, evolution in the classroom is the rule. So what caused the change? To quote one of my favorite Game Show Network advertisements – SPUTNIK! (Skylab? *buzz* Sorry. The answer was Sputnik. We also would’ve accepted the “moops”)

Now, I’m not saying that the year after Sputnik launched that evolution was in every classroom in America. Rather, Sputnik convinced the powers that be that the US was falling behind the Soviet Union in science and compelled the US to action. That’s right, before the missile gap, there was the Darwin gap (not to mention the dogs in space gap, but in the 70s we sure showed those commies when we got Pigs…in… Spaaaace!!!!).

Anyways this compulsion to action led to the NSF attempting to jumpstart science education in America. In 1958, the NSF founded the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) which was tasked with creating “State-of-the-art science textbooks .. as part of a plan to cultivate top-notch homegrown scientists”. In BSCS’s words:
"In 1958," begins BSCS Executive Director Rodger W. Bybee "BSCS set out to change the way biology was taught in American high schools. We accomplished that with the leadership of noted biologists and dedicated biology teachers. The science education community now has the fruits of this early period firmly recorded in its history."
However, most schools didn’t have evolution textbooks in school for a while still. Indeed, 'twasn’t until 1975 that 50% of schools used the BSCS program. Of course, the introduction of a federally funded biology textbook that taught evolution created some pushback, e.g., Creation Research Society which was founded in 1963 and has its own peer reviewed journal – the CRS Quarterly! (somehow my previously stated displeasure with a jury of one’s peers seems relevant). However, this pushback wasn't what was limiting the instruction of evolution in the classroom - rather it was still against the law in most states.

Yes, the fact that Scopes lost the case actually contributed to the prolongation of schools not teaching evolution in the schools (Or perhaps more accurately the TN State Supreme Court vacating the Dayton decision kept the case from proceeding to the US Supreme Court, but no matter - I doubt that the pre-New Deal 1928 Supreme Court would've interfered in state matters.). These laws remained on the books until 1968 when the Supreme Court heard Epperson vs Arkansas.

While I think the ruling is crappy jurisprudence (specifically, under this ruling you couldn’t fire a teacher for teaching Flying Spaghetti Monsterism), Epperson did get evolution into the class room as it held that a state prohibition against instructing evolution violated the 1st and 14th amendments because the law wasn’t religiously neutral.

This of course opened the door for the Creationists (or Flying Spaghetti MonsteristsPastafarians) to demand equal time in the class room less the state be accused of violating Epperson – a tactic that they’ve been doing ever since. In fact alot of the anti-evolution-instruction tactics that you see today have been used regularly since the 70's.

For instance the putting "evolution is just a theory" stickers on textbooks recently in vogue in Cobb County, Georgia, were used in New Mexico in the 70's (New Mexico also banned the instruction of evolution in 1997). California, which required the instruction of creationism until 1972, also removed references to "evolution as fact" in 1989.

The "both sides of the debate" approach is typified by Arkansas and Louisiana which passed laws in 1981 and 1986, respectively, that required that both Creationism and Evolution be taught, just like we just saw in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Of course, Creationism morphed into Intelligent Design in response to the Edwards vs Aguillard ruling (another crappy ruling in my opinion) (to those a little up on the history of evolution in school but not insanely up on the history - that's the Louisiana case)

1) In brief, this has been going on for decades. However, with a little historical perspective you can see that the state of instruction has "evolved" from a state of all fundamentalist creationism/no evolution instruction just fourish decades ago to virtually all evolution with a little ID on the side today.

2) To those who think that the US is about to enter some technological Dark Age because Creationism is ready to sweep away Evolution, know that this result would be very much counter to the prevailing trends of the last 4 decades. (I'm not trying to pick on Scott here - if he had been the first person I had heard express this sentiment, I wouldn't have bothered with this blog post. However, I need some reference to make clear that I'm not responding to a strawman, and Scott's comment required no effort to look up.)

3) If a single event can be credited with getting evolution in the classroom it wasn't Scopes - it was Sputnik. And it wasn't a groundswell thing, rather it was a top-down imposition on the states by the feds.

Since the blog seems to be on an evolution kick, if I have time tomorrow I'll explain how Jacob Weisberg is wrong about his claims on evolution contradicting religion and how public figures like him (*cough* Dawkins *cough*) have seriously retarded and are continuing to retard the popular acceptance of evolution.


Tuesday, August 23, 2005


Intelligent Design Roundup

The great thing about Intelligent Design, apart from the embarassment of having a President who thinks Intelligent Design is one of two "sides" of a "debate" in the scientific world, is that it's inspiring some great writing. Here's some of the best:


Fanning the Vioxx flames

An interesting tidbit for the polyscifi Vioxx debate and then another proposal for the legal system.

The particular side effect that got Vioxx pulled from the market was an increase in the number of blood clots that formed in the heart and brain (link):
Vioxx® was withdrawn from the world market because of an increased occurrence of blood clots in heart and brain observed in a long-term study (more than 18 months) of the preparation’s preventive effect on patients with polyps in the colon. Other summaries, which have comprised data from several previous studies, have also proved an increased risk of blood clots when using Vioxx®.
It also appears that any threat of getting such a blood clot eventually goes away (and the problem appears to apply to the entire NSAID class of drugs) and thus does not produce chronic problems:
The risk of developing adverse reactions from the use of Vioxx® disappears within a short period after termination of treatment. For traditional NSAID preparations (arthritis medicine such as ibuprofen, naproxen, etc.), a few studies have shown that there is a slightly higher risk of getting blood clots within the first two months after termination of treatment. It is uncertain whether the same applies to Vioxx®, but if that is the case, the risk is expected to have passed after a maximum of two months.
When the clotting agent is eventually pissed away, the chance of a blood clot returns to normal. For Merck, this means that it's unlikely that there will be any successful suits outside of the ones already filed.

Now here's the nugget to mull over in the $253 million dollar verdict. The man who died - Robert Ernst - didn't have a blood clot:
On Ernst's death certificate, Araneta [the coroner] did not mention a blood clot or a heart attack, only the irregular heartbeat, or arrhythmia....

Last week, expert witnesses for Merck pointed out that Araneta's autopsy had not found a blood clot, even though she said she had carefully examined Ernst's heart and coronary arteries...
On the flip side:
"Expert witnesses called by Lanier [plaintiff's attorney] have offered several potential explanations, including the possibility that a clot had dissolved after Ernst died or that resuscitation efforts had caused it to become dislodged....

[Araneta] said in a deposition played before the jury that a blood clot had probably caused the irregular hearbeat that led to Ernst's death.
If they had found a blood clot, that would've satisfied a preponderance of evidence from my perspective, but based on what's in the papers, it sounds like the personal injury verdict was wrongly decided (as an aside, particularly for technical cases, I think we should have professional juries).

Lots of people have heart arrhythmias for lots of different reasons. I had a friend die of one a few years back, and I'll occasionally have a heart flutter when I drink a shload (that's a metric unit) of caffeine during my up-all-several-nighters (but nowhere enough to kill me from caffeine toxicity), so absent a clot it seems to be a stretch to assume that Ernst's arrhythmia was caused by Vioxx.

This leads me to another point, one that I hope will spark a debate.

Why not separate out punitive civil trials and personal injury civil trials? (Note to trilobite - this is another example of a normative argument, i.e., an argument on how things should be, not an argument on what is legal or what is Constitutional.)

Specifically, I think that any "punishment" that is meted out should be the result of a case brought by the government (whether by the states like in the somewhat recent tobacco cases or by the feds as is done in anti-trust cases).

In addition to the nice intellectual appeal (to me at least), divorcing the two cases should have the following effects which I deem to be positive results:
1. A company or person can be punished for the crime or misdeed without relying on someone to be injured. Like a fine. While I am doubtful that Merck made a major misdeed in this case, others are more certain. But what happens to the punishment when this ruling is overturned as I suspect it will? And more generally what happens to the punitive damages when we agree that there was wrong-doing even if it didn't cause harm to the plaintiff?

2. Any punitive damages would actually go to the state. The aggrieved party would still receive any compensation coming to them, but not the punitive damages. If we want to treat punitive damages like a fine, then I think the government should be the one levying (and receiving) the fines not Robert Ernst nor Jody Neel.

3. There's a reduced incentive to bring the ginormous lawsuits (which most people agree is a problem), but at the same time people would still be compensated for actual injuries and caps may not be needed.


The Questionable Wisdom of Markets

In the comments to this post about tort reform, Jody writes "if the market wants a thousand varieties of Viagra, then that's what the pharmaceuticals should produce," and his idea seems to be that markets will demand (and companies should produce) objects with high utility. I don't know enough about utility theory in economics to argue about this theoretically, but I think he's assuming consumers are more rational and better informed than they actually are. I can offer one concrete counterexample from personal experience, and that's the HDTV market.

I bought an HDTV about three months ago, and did a reasonable amount of research before buying. I ended up getting a Toshiba 52HM84, which is in the midlevel of DLP televisions (it had to be DLP, because I wanted to play games on it without getting burn-in; a risk with plasma and LCD screens). In any event, I didn't know everything there was to know about HDTVs when I bought it, but I did know more than most people. Three months later, I know a lot more than I did, and it's led me to the conclusion that markets, at least for high-end consumer goods, absolutely do not select for utility, at least not when the object has already been purchased. Instead, they select for the best qualities of the object when it is being sold. These are not the same thing by a long shot.

Show rest of post

In the television market, consumer TVs are built incorrectly in a way that is very specific to how they are sold. Most people, when buying a television, look at a lot of TVs on display and look for the sharpest, brightest picture, whatever looks right to them. As you probably know, video signals, from DVDs to video games, are supposed to be mastered to a particular color space; the NTSC standards (in theory) define what that space is. In a properly designed television, the hue and saturation of, say, red, will exactly match the red on film or whatever the original source material is. To put it simply, the colors should look the same from television to televison. However, when a television is sitting in a row of twenty TVs, the lighting conditions (the fact that the other TVs are also spitting out light and color) mean that a correctly designed television will look a little washed out. It will look a little washed out not only because it is surrounded by light-emitting televisions, but because the televisions that surround it have all been designed to overemphasize reds and wash out greens. That's right, they're deliberately designed to incorrectly interpret color signals because they look better that way in the showroom. And once one television manufacturer started building their decoders incorrectly, the other manufacturers had to follow suit, or they'd be building the dull looking TVs in the display row. This is an example of the market selecting for a bad thing. Unless you define anything markets select for as a priori good, and that seems silly to me.

In most cases, the incorrect color decoder is limited to a particular "mode" of the television--on mine it's called "SPORTS MODE." Which, in theory, is designed to make sporting events look better on TV. In practice, however, it pushes the reds way out and screws up greens and blues something awful. There's nothing wrong with having a display mode for selling TVs, as long as it's something you can turn off. And you can; by setting the Toshiba to "Warm" color temperature and "Cinema" color mode, you get to something closer to NTSC standards. However, the red levels are still too high; whether this is because Toshiba wanted to be sure that their TV would look better in showrooms even if the video store guys configured it correctly or what, I don't know, but it's no good.

The market in this case has also selected for a uniform set of controls and adjustments on every TV. This makes sense from a utility standpoint; learrn to adjust one TV, and you can understand them all. However, the picture controls on a color television set were designed to match the peculiarities and limitations of CRT technology and early television broadcasts, and having the same controls on a DLP, LCD, or plasma screen sacrifices usability for familiarity. Having only one color and hue adjustment, for example, instead of separate controls for red, green, and blue levels is not very useful on televisions in which these colors can be treated separately. And having a sharpness control doesn't make any sense at all--on most screens, it should be set to zero, since it artificially sharpens the image, adding data and artifacts as it goes. Of course, some TVs have been designed to make the sharpness control seem more like the sharpness control on TVs of yore: set to zero, the TV artificially softens and blurs the image. So on those tvs you've got to find where they've set the real zero point, where the image isn't processed further.

What I want, and what it seems to me that a rational market would select for, is a combination of DVD and television equipment that allows me to see movies in the color space at which they were mastered, with a minimal amount of further image processing and the artifacts that introduces. But thanks to the peculiar way televisions are displayed in stores, that is much harder than it looks--and in this case, the market has selected for things that would not make sense if televisions were sold differently. From what I can find, the last consumer-grade color televisions to correctly decode color to NTSC standards were very nearly the first, built sometime around 1955.

I think, at least when dealing with goods that are bought once and rarely, markets tend to make much poorer decisions than one would want, because the evolutionary process of consumer goods has more to do with the process of buying them than with their use once purchased. It seems to me that this is probably also true of high-end medical goods, which makes me skeptical of market-based solutions for, say, finding the best artificial heart.

Side Note: I'm not an expert in HDTV by any means, and if any of you are and can give me advice in the best possible configuration for my equipment, please let me know. Specifically, I'd like to know whether I should send color information from my DVD player to the TV as
  1. YCbCr (4:2:2)
  2. YCbCr (4:4:4)
  3. 0-255 RGB
  4. 16-235 RGB
I'm sending the video over HDMI at 720p--the scaler on the DVD player seems slightly better than the one in the TV, so I'm sending it at native resolution. What I want is to process the image as minimally as possible and have it match the source material. So which format are DVDs mastered in?


Monday, August 22, 2005


New Criterion Contraption

Time Bandits, now at the Criterion Contraption.


Saturday, August 20, 2005


A normative argument on tort reforms

I imagine you've read about the ginormous Vioxx ruling. While I think that judgement is grossly out of line, that's not the purpose of this post. Rather I'm responding to an argument against caps on punitive awards in lawsuits that MarcC typifies in the comments at Ballon Juice.
"The problem with most tort reform I’ve seen discussed is that it limits dollar awards severely. Consider a $1M limit. To a company like Merck, GM, Microsoft, etc. – that is such a small amount that losing a case causes no harm. If lawsuits are no longer a threat, companies will act to maximize profits at the public’s expense with impunity.
Not good!
Leaving the assertion that companies that maximize profits will act at the public's expense for another day, the central assertion of this argument is that the larger a company is, the larger the fine should be.

I know Finland does something similar, but I thought a central tenet of the US legal system was equal treatment before the law. Just as the rich shouldn't be afforded special privileges before the law, neither should the rich be treated more harshly simply for being richer. To argue aphoristically, the punishment should fit the crime, not the person (or corporation).

Of course, it is possible to set up a legal system where all people are equal but with some more equal than others, but I don't think that's the one we want.

To me, this post on Andrew Sullivan seems related.


Friday, August 19, 2005


Counterfeit Chips

Every time I'm in Las Vegas, I've wondered idly about the possibility of counterfeiting casino chips. It certainly seems easier than counterfeiting money (plastic! With a stick-on label advertising "Mama Mia!" How hard could it be?), and I don't think that you'd violate federal law by doing so. (Of course, the kinds of things that the casinos could arrange to have "accidentally" happen to you in the Las Vegas City Jail are probably more unpleasant than Federal prison anyway). I suspected it wouldn't be as easy as it looked, however, and it turns out I was right. Here's an article from silicon.com about some of the systems in place to catch theives and cheats, from the obvious (pit bosses) to the anal-retentive (chips from the Wynne have RFID tags in them!). In any event, it seems that chips in Las Vegas would be considerably harder to counterfeit than good old U. S. currency. I mean, really: RFID tags?

I'd argue that Las Vegas has, on its own, come up with the most secure ways of dealing with large sums of money; that there is no bank that can account for every penny that flows into it as precisely as casinos. (This ignores the fact that casinos have been known to fudge their own math to hide money coming from, shall we say, less reputible sources than gambling). A government looking to, for example, control access to nuclear materials could learn a lot from the Mirage. Two lessons:
  1. To quote Bruce Schneier, "good security has people in charge." Pit bosses, dealers, and floor bosses are the most important parts of Las Vegas's cheat detection systems, mostly because they can act on intuition. For more on this, see here, for an excerpt from Beyond Fear about profiling.
  2. You can't be too paranoid about your own employees. It appears that it would be easier to become an FBI agent than become a dealer at a casino, if you had anything questionable in your past.
I don't think casinos provide a working model for policy decisions regarding citizens in an open society; but if I were designing a bank vault I'd spend a lot of time in Las Vegas. I'd also visit there pretty regularly if I were trying to design a society in which privacy violations were routine, but citizens were mostly unaware of them--note that the other thing that's been guiding Las Vegas security design is making their guests feel welcome and not under suspicion. So perhaps if Ashcroft weren't such a stickler about gambling, he would have been able to expand the Executive branch even further.

Also, one possible hole to exploit: you can play, cash in, and change chips from other casinos in most cases. If the Wynne relies exclusively on RFID to identify counterfeits, and other casinos don't have this technology, they can't detect fakes. (Actually, when I was at one of the divey casinos, the stickman had to ask his boss whether he could accept chips from the Wynne--he was able to--but actually, at that time, no one knew what a chip from the Wynne looked like, which has limitless counterfeiting potential). And although chips are examined pretty closely at the cages, at the table, chips from a losing bet are just swept into a dump box. I'm not sure if you can bet, say, a $100 chip from another casino, but I know you can bet a $20. If you had 50 fake $100 chips from one of the big casinos, and you wandered the strip betting on single number roulette spins, you might get lucky. If you did, you'd get to keep your fake chip (ensuring that that specific bet wouldn't receive much post-spin analysis) and you'd get 36 real ones. Alternatively, you could bet the fake chip on a single hand of blackjack and hopefully get a real $100 in return, so that a large number of fake chips wouldn't show up all over Las Vegas on the same night. As we learned in Ocean's Eleven, if you've got a foolproof scheme to beat the casinos, you're sure to win. So who's with me?


Hmmm, I must be trying to identify peace...

Visiting West Virginia as part of their tour around the 50 states, ESPN noted that West Virginia is the birthplace of John Nash, "winner of the Nobel Peace Prize."

I'm anal with the facts on TV to begin with. Add to this my quizbowler desire to get trivia correct. On top of all of this, I'm up late writing on Nash equilibria in wireless networks.

To use a Glenn Beck conceit, it's a good thing I duct tape my head. Typically this is just to keep the evil Star Trek rays out of my head, but duct tape is multifunctional.


Thursday, August 18, 2005


Don't let her touch your wand, Jim!

You might remember Jody's post about the curious fondness that pedophiles seem to have for Star Trek. Today Ellen Ladowsky offers something of an explanation. I don't know if it entirely explains the link, but she certainly makes a persuasive case that the original Star Trek has some pretty bizzare sexual politics. Money quote:
On the Enterprise, aggressive impulses aren't battling it out with libidinal ones as they are here on earth. In the Star Trek universe, every "bad" impulse is attributed to an external force. When it comes to sex, for example, it's always an outside influence that takes possession of the crew's minds and bodies, causing them to behave in erotically driven ways. Child molesters have a similar mechanism at work. They deny having any sexual impulses themselves; they frequently claim that it was the children who seduced them.
I was never much of a fan of the show, but I'd be interested in hearing from people who are: how convincing is Ladowsky's argument? And can a similar case be made for the later versions of the show?


Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

Today, two articles on the front page of CNN caught my eye. The first introduced me to a proposal which I think is a bad, bad, bad idea. The second highlighted why I think the proposal is such a bad idea.

Article one: Scientists want to introduce lions to the Great Plains.

Article two: Lion attacks up 300% in Tanzania.

Does KLo frequent polyscifi? Or was that connection so blindingly obvious that we made it around the same time?


Flash Earth

OK. Something new to play:
  1. Pretend you're a martian looking to crash-land somewhere specific on earth.
  2. Pick an address where you used to live, or that's otherwise significant to you.
  3. Go to this site.
  4. Find the house or building you chose without using any labels or other reference materials. You lose points if you have to zoom out to readjust.
I found my dorms at Williams in short order, and the Chinese Theater, and Neyland Stadium (where you can clearly see the yard lines). Other locations in Knoxville were difficult to find because it's been so long since I've been there and the geography of the place is on such a large scale compared to Los Angeles (because you can actually make decent time driving from one place to another there). Anyway, anything on a university campus is pretty easy to find because they tend to have distinctive architecture and a lot of green space.

Also, a question. I noticed that the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles has its name embedded into the watermark in the Google Maps at the highest possible zoom. Do other landmarks in Google Maps share this quality? Nothing else I could see in Los Angeles seemed to be labeled.


Wednesday, August 17, 2005


British Justice

Something to keep in the back of my mind in the back of my mind if I ever have a chance to move to Britain - if I break the law, I might be sentenced to drink... (h/t Oxblog)
It was when the 15-year-old miscreant was hauled into court that the problem was first noticed.

Angered by his unruly, boozed-up behaviour, police had hoped magistrates would punish the youth for breaching his Asbo [Anti-Social Behavior Order]. He hadn't.

Closer examination revealed that he had mistakenly been ordered not to be in public "without" alcohol and that he was also duty bound to act in a threatening manner likely to cause harassment, alarm and distress to others.

After the boy escaped punishment as a result of the misprint, the officials behind the mistake were asked to deliver a new Asbo with more appropriate wording, the Daily Mirror reported.


Tuesday, August 16, 2005



That's my one word description for the actions of the New London Development Corporation (NLDC).

They're looking to charge rent to the plaintiff families in Kelo. (h/t coyote)
In June 2004, NLDC sent the seven affected residents a letter indicating that after the completion of the case, the city would expect to receive retroactive "use and occupancy" payments (also known as "rent") from the residents.

In the letter, lawyers argued that because the takeover took place in 2000, the residents had been living on city property for nearly five years, and would therefore owe rent for the duration of their stay at the close of the trial. Any money made from tenantssome residents' only form of incomewould also have to be paid to the city.

With language seemingly lifted straight from The Goonies , NLDC's lawyers wrote, "We know your clients did not expect to live in city-owned property for free, or rent out that property and pocket the profits, if they ultimately lost the case." They warned that "this problem will only get worse with the passage of time," and that the city was prepared to sue for the money if need be.

Elsewhere in the article, I see grounds for another trial.
Moreover, the homeowners are being offered buyouts based on the market rate as it was in 2000 .
I'm not certain that this buyout arrangement satisfies "just compensation." Maybe it does, maybe it doesn't. I'll have to think on the subject some.

I've thought about it some and I've decided the legality of the compensating based on 2000 valuations and the charging of rent is actually a procedural question that I am ill-equipped to answer. Specifically, I believe the NLDC actions are legal if ownership is transferred as soon as eminent domain is asserted.

However, if ownership is not transferred until the owner is justly compensated (which seems like the way the law ought to be constructed, but this is a legal question not a Constitutional question so I don't really know), then NLDC has no grounds on which to sue for rent or to compensate on anything other than present market value.


Shooting Fish in a NCAA Barrel

After this announcement, do you think the NCAA will be ending their relationship with Pontiac - one of 3 NCAA Corporate Champions? Currently, Chief Osceola is not ok, but Chief Pontiac is ok. I doubt that the NCAA has official permission from the Ottawa to use Pontiac.

Closer to home, I wonder if the Tennesse Volunteers (and Tennessee Tech, and MTSU, and UTC) are screwed as well. Might offend the Cherokee appropriating a team name from their old capital. Following Jay Mohr's lead and expanding the list of aggrieved classes, perhaps virgins (or the unmarried) take offense at Virginia Tech or UVA so we need to change those names as well.

Or perhaps the movement to ban all Indian references in sports is silly.


Monday, August 15, 2005


Sounds like a good invention

for me to PEE on! (h/t Dean)


Friday, August 12, 2005


The man bounces a mean quarter

Back in the day, I thought I was pretty good at quarters, but this guy would CRUSH me. Then again, quarters is more fun when you lose a little... (h/t Jonah who calls it a "Winning NRO intern video")


Obituary Madness

Jack Shafer takes a brief break from complaining about meth mouth coverage to make a passionate case for hiring book reviewers with an axe to grind. And that's good, but better still is this obituary from 2002 he links to, for Graham Mason, a middling journalist but an exceptional drunk. I think struggling newspapers should get on the arch obituary train and fast; I'd subscribe to a newspaper if it had obituaries like this in it every morning. The first sentence is also the best:
GRAHAM MASON, the journalist who has died aged 59, was in the 1980s the drunkest man in the Coach and Horses, the pub in Soho where, in the half century after the Second World War, a tragicomedy was played out nightly by its regulars.
Read the whole thing.


Lego My Lego

There's a free Lego quarterly magazine for adults out now: Brick Journal.

It has lots of cools stuff like how to make the spaceships from 2001 and 2010 (Discovery and Leonov), an interview with the creator of the Brick Testament, a history of Legos in North America, and ads for BrickFest.

Brickfest starts today and is conveniently located for our DC readership. Public exhibitions are on Sunday (Aug 14) at GMU. I have to wire my basement/finish my prelim so I don't think I can make the drive up.

Previous Lego Posts
GTABrick City
Lego chicks, with guns
StarWars: The Lego Videogame


Thursday, August 11, 2005


Able Danger

I don't have much to add as I'm not in a good position to verify the claims and haven't cogitated on the subject much, but the Able Danger story will be one to follow over the coming weeks.

In brief, according to the story put forward by Curt Weldon, the military identified Atta and some of the other hijackers in 1999 and decided they should be deported via their Able Danger program, but couldn't give the info to the FBI for legal reasons. The military reported this information to the 9/11 Commission who decided (not for security reasons) to not include this information in their report.

If the news does pans out over the coming days, we should really reexamine
  1. the Total Information Awareness program,
  2. the Prague connection between Atta and Iraq,
  3. having Goerlick on the 9/11 commission, and
  4. the 9/11 commission report in detail.
Curt Weldon's statement to Congress on Tuesday is here.

There's been some walking back on this subject as Time notes a change in Weldon's story (no Atta?). So at the moment, it looks like the Weldon sensationalist version of Able Danger may not pan out.

Update 2
Walk back on the walk back? Shaffer is anonymous no more.


Video Game Addictions

No, not addicitive flash games, the kind that come on a CD.

Via Harry, I come across the story of a man who played StarCraft to death.
The 28-year-old man collapsed after playing the game Starcraft at an internet cafe in the city of Taegu, according to South Korean authorities.

The man had not slept properly, and had eaten very little during his marathon session, said police.


The man, identified by his family name, Lee, started playing Starcraft on 3 August. He only paused playing to go to the toilet and for short periods of sleep, said the police.
If Lee had only been a Civ4 addict (coming in November), he could've followed polyscifi's advice and enrolled in Civanon. They've already helped several "addicts" with their "12 step program". In their video of the recovering Civ4 addicts, there's one guy - Rob T. - who was in even deeper than Mr Lee.
[Rob T.] "By the time I got to the Industrial age I was a full blown junky. There were times when I woud play the game 2, 3 days straight. Wouldn't get up to eat. Wouldn't get up to go to the bathroom.

[Off camera] "You wouldn't go to the bathroom?"

[Rob T.] "I said I didn't get up."
The "cameo" by the major political figure in the video is also quite choice.

Some personal StarCraft Notes:
Back in 98-99 I too, was a StarCraft addict. Enough so that I told people I majored in StarCraft my senior year at VT. Enough so that friends in the dorm referred to my playing as "smoking crack" because I would emerge after days of playing pale and dissheveled and with an odd dorm funk. Enough so that I sorta gave up showering for Lent. However, I did get up to go to the bathroom.

I played under the screen name "retarted_stan" (yes I know that's not how you spell "retarded" - that's the point). My M.O. was to constantly type in messages like, "My mommy has brown eyes", "I wipe myself", "mommy says I'm special", "do you know Mr Bear?" and type in newbie sounding messages. This online character was made all the more satisfying when I crushed my opponent, which was quite frequent - I would lose approximately 3 or 4 times a month playing like 50 games a day (yes that means about 16 hours of StarCraft a day).

The joy of envisioning someone getting crushed by someone who they think is a complete moron was also my motivation for my attempt to talk a tennis team I coached into using the name "The Fluffy Bunnies." Nothing quite like having to tell your friends that you got beat down by some Fluffy Bunnies.


Lost in the Translation's Translation

Much hilarity ensues when a blogger happens upon a copy of The Revenge of the Sith that was translated into Chinese and then directly translated back into English captions.

Turns out Obi-Wan was working for the Presbyterian Church and there's apparently a lot more cursing. Lots of translation gems here.

Oops. Matt posted on this before.

Related Polyscifi Post
Crappy DVD Bootleg Art


On Adultery and the Military

I had more to say than would fit into a comment to this post, and Matt wanted to be told that there was more to the story, so I'm commenting as a post.

First, a little background on adultery in the military.

Adultery has been a dismissable crime in the US military since 1779 when von Steuben wrote "Regulations for the Order and Discipline of Troops of the United States" which was later adopted by Congress as the first version of the UMCJ.

As currently codified (Article 134, paragraph 60) adultery is prosecuted if the following three conditions are satisfied:

(1) That the accused wrongfully had sexual intercourse with a certain person;

(2) That, at the time, the accused or the other person was married to someone else; and

(3) That, under the circumstances, the conduct of the accused was to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces or was of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces.

(3) brings a little subjectivity to the situation. Sleeping with a prostitute is permitted (otherwise I doubt we would have a military), but a long term affair with a Private's civilian wife is not. Article 134 also deals with a whole list of subjects that brings dishonor to the military or disrupts good order and discipline from lying to straggling to abusing public animals.

Now, the something more Matt asked for.

The Tribune includes the following line in its writeup of this story:
"Pentagon spokesman Paul Boyce said the now-concluded investigation, conducted by the Army inspector general's office, began several months ago and involved activities at Ft. Monroe."
Ft. Monroe was the base that Byrnes ran and if this affair was carried out on base, then I think it would rise to the level of "conduct ... to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces or ... of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces."

Now for the misleading aspects of the WaPo article and the presentation of the article.

First, it is not the "public line" that the Army views prosecuting Byrnes as a way of restoring integrity after being "hurt over the past year by detainee-abuse cases and has been accused of not going after top officers allegedly involved in such abuse."

That Matt draws this conclusion is a result of editorializing by the staff writer (Josh White) who inserts his own opinions in the story (irrelevant opinions at that) [Editorializing, in a straight news story? I though that was what blogs were for. - ed]. If nothing else, the third graph belies the interpretation that this reasoning is the "public line."

"The Army released few details about the decision to relieve one of its 11 four-star generals, with spokesmen saying only that Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army's chief of staff, relieved Byrnes of his command on Monday as the result of an investigation by the Defense Department's inspector general. A spokesman said Army officials could find no case of another four-star general being relieved of duty in modern times."

The far more plausible interpretation is that a) adultery has always been a dismissable offense in the military - see the preceding discussion, b) that there's been a movement (since the late 90s) to not differentiate treatment between ranks for adultery charges, and c) there's been some bad sex related activities in the Army recently which the Army feels compelled to show that it is attempting to uphold its integrity.

This view is buttressed by quotes throughout the article, but most directly via these two graphs.
Byrnes's case comes after two prominent Air Force generals [who Josh White also wrote about - at least he remembers his own writing, but not the beat in general - a point I'll come to next] were accused publicly of sexually harassing subordinates, and as the Defense Department is restructuring its sexual harassment policies.

"It must have been the sort of thing where they felt they had no choice, given the recent history of personnel scandals in the Army," said Michael E. O'Hanlon, a defense expert at the Brookings Institution. "They're trying to make it clear that four-stars don't get special treatment. They must feel they have a need to send that message."
I believe that in this context, the "recent history of personnel scandals" refers to such things as the rape of PFC Susan Upchurch and the sex parties and mud wrestling that went on at Camp Bucca.

Second, the article is misleading when it repeatedly harps on the rarity of a 4-star general being dismissed for adultery. While I believe that has not been another case of a four-star Army general being relieved of duty in modern times, this is just one of many cases where prominent members of the military have been dismissed or denied posts because of adultery.

In 1997, Gen Joseph Ralston (himself a 4-star Air Force General) had to withdraw his name from consideration to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff because of an affair with a civilian (it went on 13 years earlier, but adultery is the reason he was denied his post).

Also in 1997, 1st Lt Kelly Flynn, not a general, but the poster girl of the Air Force (she was the first female B-52 pilot), was brought up on charges of adultery with a civilian (and lying and disobeying an order of a superior).1 . There was also lot of criticism of the Flynn case at the time that focused on women being tried for adultery at a higher rate than men. Then it came out that women made up 17% of the airforce, but 10% of the adultery cases [I can't find this number again at the moment], so this criticism morphed into a more intelligent one of unequal treatment of higher ups in the military.

Major General Longhauser [same link as Flynn] was also removed from command of a base for an affair with a civilian.

And these are just the ones I remember [ok, Longhauser I didn't remember, but he showed up with my search for a link for Flynn who I did remember]. Slate says that there were 67 military tried cases of adultery brought the year Flynn was tried (1997) so I'm surmising that similar numbers continue to this day.2

So the takeaway points from this longish post.
  1. Prosecuting adultery in the military is nothing new.
  2. The Trib report implies that Bryne engaged in an affair on the base he commanded.
  3. It is not the "public line" that the Army is prosecuting Bryne to restore integrity lost via the detainee abuse scandals.
  4. High rank/visibility adultery cases occur more frequently than the WaPo article implies.
1. I believe Flynn's case was "ripped from the headlines" to become the subject of episode 159 of Law & Order. Of course some artistic license was taken with the story, like making Flynn a Navy fighter pilot and having her kill her lover, but I'm fairly certain the character is Kelly Flynn.

2. Numbers were lower in the 80s, but there was not as much gender integration then so there was less opportunity for adultery such that "the conduct of the accused was to the prejudice of good order and discipline in the armed forces or was of a nature to bring discredit upon the armed forces."

A completely unrelated aside - I decided to try out Blogger's spell check feature on this post and it didn't know the word "blogs".



Just saw the first episode of Extras; it looks like it might be as good as The Office, if a lot less relatable. The episode features Ben Stiller (as himself) directing some sort of epic about Bosnia; he blows up at the guy the story he's filming is based on ("Will you shut up about your fucking dead wife for once?") and fires an extra who says he shouldn't yell at the guy. Ricky Gervais's character Andy Millman comes to her defense, which prompts the following exchange:
Ben Stiller: And who are you?
Andy Millman: Nobody.
Ben Stiller: What?
Andy Millman: Nobody.
Ben Stiller: Exactly. And who am I?
Andy Millman: Either Starsky or Hutch, I can never remember.
Ben Stiller: Was that supposed to be funny?
Andy Millman: You tell me, you were in it.
Which isn't as observational or realistic as The Office but is still pretty damn funny. I'm looking forward to seeing the rest of it. (And yes, there's plenty of Office-style incredibly painfully awkward stuff as well).


Wednesday, August 10, 2005


More DoD Weirdness

Tell me there's something more to this story than there seems. Are we firing 4 star generals for adultery? Was he sleeping with a student? With a man? Whatever this was, I'm hoping the DoD didn't let Kevin Byrnes go three months before retirement hoping to avoid a scandal, because if there's anything scandalous about what Byrnes was up to it's sure to be a big PR mess now. Here's the public line, which seems so mind-bogglingly stupid that it might be true:
The Army has been hurt over the past year by detainee-abuse cases and has been accused of not going after top officers allegedly involved in such abuse. Army officials said relieving Byrnes was meant to show the public that the service takes issues of integrity seriously.
I was worried that the Army wasn't taking charges of torture seriously, but now that I know they're taking a hard line against adultery, my qualms are all gone. Seriously, if Byrnes was good at his job (supervising most if not all Army training, to judge from the article), I couldn't possibly care less who he's sleeping with (usual disclaimers about consenting adults apply, of course).


Exciting Times

After all the fighting over the 9/11 memorial in New York City, the United States has finally found an appropriate way to commemorate those who lost their lives. And that way is... the "America Supports You Freedom Walk!" Its purpose, according to the Department of Defense, which is sponsoring the event, is "to honor the victims of 9/11 and America's military personnel, as well as to celebrate freedom." It's a march from the Pentagon to the Mall, ending with a Clint Black concert. Is it just me, or is there something kind of creepy about the Department of Defense organizing a march to show support for the Department of Defense? And is is more or less creepy that they're holding it on September 11? And who on earth came up with the awkward name "America Supports You Freedom Walk"?

Never let it be said that this administration uses 9/11 whenever support for its military adventures is flagging. O brave new world, that has such people in't!

Department of Defense Press Release.
Official website of the "America Supports You Freedom Walk."


Tuesday, August 09, 2005


News at Tech

Andy McCarthy in the Corner thinks this is horrible news:
About 60 faculty members from a Saudi Arabian university are taking courses on Virginia Tech's campus this summer. But the program's setup is a bit different than a typical Tech class.

Men and women from King Abdulaziz University are taking identical faculty development courses at Tech, but meet in gender-specific classes. Tech officials said administrators from the Saudi university separated the sexes to mirror classroom settings at their home institution, which operates separate campuses for men and women.

This is the way they teach their courses over there, and this is the way they wish their courses to be taught over here," said Tech spokesman Larry Hincker. The university chose to respect the Saudi culture "rather than impress our culture on them," he added.

Tech faculty are instructing the Saudi professors in such areas as English instruction, communications, development of online courses, distance learning and Web site development. The program is being offered through a contract arrangement between the two schools and not with state money, Hincker said.

"They're not coming over here and enrolling. These courses were designed for them to meet their needs," he said.

While I'm sensitive to the aphorism "When in Rome..." I also subscribe to the aphorisms "The customer is always right" and not "cutting off your nose to spite your face."


Shuttle landing

As I watch the shuttle reenter and land, I'm struck again by how much easier and cheaper this process would be if we had space elevators.


Monday, August 08, 2005


GTA Brick City

Just a quick link to an excellent version of the Grand Theft Auto: Vice City trailer, starring lego characters.


Sunday, August 07, 2005


New Criterion Contraption

Wages of Fear, now at the Criterion Contraption.


Unreasonably addictive Flash games.

Stackopolis is an unreasonably addictive flash game that's taken much more of my time than it should have over the last few days. I'm stuck on level 8. Also, for some reason the game is projected on a drive-in movie screen, and among the cars at the drive-in are the batmobile and a bumper car driven by a panda bear.

Also fun is Grow 2. Drag the icons to the center in the right order to see a little RPG play itself out.


Saturday, August 06, 2005


New Criterion Contraption

Diabolique, now at the Criterion Contraption. Also, I'm back to blogging. More soon!


Thursday, August 04, 2005


Hooray Beer!

Hooray Alcohol!
"A study of 7,000 people in their early 20s, 40s and 60s found that those who drank within safe limits had better verbal skills, memory and speed of thinking than those at the extremes of the drinking spectrum. The safe consumption level was considered to be 14 to 28 standard drinks a week for a man and seven to 14 for a woman.

Questions ranged from verbal reasoning problems to tests of short-term memory. Surprisingly, perhaps, teetotallers were twice as likely as occasional drinkers to achieve the lowest scores."
Also via the Corner comes the Cliff Claven explanation which sounds a lot like the Alex Jamal theory previously posted on Polyscifi.

Previous Good News for Alcohol Consumers
Beer makes you smarter
Beer fights aging
Drink beer, get thin


Wednesday, August 03, 2005


One more animal related item before I get back to real work

In what seems like a natural line of research, the Koreans have cloned a dog.

After all, we've been cloning cattle since the 80's.



I'm no fan of PETA. Even when I might otherwise be sympathetic to a cause of theirs, I find their tactics to be grossly over the top (plus they kill puppies. No, really.).

So it is with gleeful schaudenfreude (is there any other kind?) that I read this headline:
"PETA protest draws extra customers to KFC in Logan"

The article clarifies this headline with the following statistic:
"During the first four hours of business, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., on Monday, the store had 211 customers compared with 130 the Monday before, supervisor John Simmons said Tuesday."
So if you're in the mood for a little schaudenfreude as well, click through to the article where you'll also find this quote:
''I think there's a place in this world for all of God's creations ... right next to the mashed potatoes''
(h/t KLo)


Life Imitates Weekly World News (Again)

Weekly World News Article: Californians surfing mudslides.

Real News: Hawaiian Tom "Pohaku" Stone surfs lava flows and rock slides.

Previous Life Imitates Weekly World News Posts
The Impending Toilet Paper Crisis
Da Gay Bomb


Tuesday, August 02, 2005


Why no meekrob?

Eugene Volokh has up a nice discussion on why he thinks curse words are curse words. However, I think there is a serious hole in his theory as it fails to address meekrob.


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