moldybluecheesecurds 2

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Building freedom, or just a better building?

Replacing the fallen World Trade towers, the newly redesigned Freedom Tower in New York City features many new terrorist-thwarting measures including a “heavily reinforced concrete core, steel bars on every floor and a lobby set back from the street and draped in protective panels of titanium and stainless steel.”

I’m not questioning that this building is more likely to withstand terrorist attack than the WTC did. But are we going about this the right way?

The Bullseye Problem
Seriously, if we are so sure that this building is going to be the target of truck bombs or airplanes, then why are we building it? To open a new front in the war on terror? To say we can build the unbreakable building? Does anyone recall the Titanic?

The “Just One Better” Principle
No matter how well the Freedom Tower is equipped, the surrounding buildings will not be so terrorist-proof. Nor will the surrounding people. Building something so defensible will just shift terrorists to softer targets. Like malls.

The War on Terror
So we build this enormous monument to freedom with massive defenses against truck bombs, etc. What does this imply about our progress in the war against terror? If we’re winning, shouldn’t I feel more secure? After all, it’s one kind of security to install a home alarm to make my home safer; it’s quite another sense of security to feel like I can leave my doors unlocked. If we’re not fighting a war to win the peace (i.e. security option two), then what are we doing?

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

A cyberspace debate on Friedman

Okay, so "debate" might be streching it a bit, but this guy did link to my commentary on Friedman's most recent geo-green post. His assessment is rather different from mine (quote: "Thomas Friedman is a jackass"). He takes issue with Friedman's supposed obsession with the Toyota Prius.

I feel like he missed the point. Energy independence isn't as difficult as it's made out to be and a number of very accessible technologies can make it happen. Friedman is arguing that we shouldn't be talking about nuclear plants, oil exploration or wars in the Middle East and should instead invest in conservation. You don't have to drive a Prius. You can drive a go kart or a Ford Expedition for all I care, just stick a hybrid, flexible fuel engine in there so you can get 300 miles to the gallon. Or have the government kick in the money, because the money we spend there will prevent us from having to spend money here.

An ounce of prevention

Three strikes and you’re out! Lock ‘em up and throw away the key!

Tough on crime? Not so much. Nicholas Kristof looks at how the politics of crime-fighting are often far removed from the discussion of what actually works (similar to the use of arthroscopic knee surgery).

For example, an new automobile anti-theft device has reduced car thefts in Boston by half. But insurance companies offer no rate discount. Same for burglar alarms for homes. The most effective are silent alarms that would result in the capture of burglars. But again, there’s no financial incentive (not to mention the scary fact of having a burglar hanging around for a while longer. And one more example: hiring cops is more effective at crime reduction than building prisons. But we spend money on prisons instead of cops or education.

It’s time for politics to get to where we can have a serious discussion about what works. It’s one thing to act tough for the masses; but once you get elected, do your job. In other words, give people incentives to act in a way that benefits the public by installing crime preventing alarms. And hire more cops to prevent crime instead of locking up offenders. Let's start spending our money on prevention instead of just talking tough.

I'm sure crime victims would agree.

(Look for an upcoming post on how this scientific/results look at abortion could drastically lower abortion rates without having to overturn Roe v. Wade. Which would be bad anyway).

A nerd can still love Star Wars

I finally saw Star Wars Episode III this weekend and I have a III point summary:
  • Seeing movies along is fun.
  • Great movie.
  • George Lucas has been redeemed (mostly).

K was in Los Angeles this weekend and with nerd friends unavailable I decided that the wait had gone on long enough. I took off for the 9:45 showing at my local cinema, got my “small” size popcorn and pop and headed to my seat. Did I mention I planted my butt in the seat exactly 10 seconds before “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” crossed the screen?

It was a good omen. Because this movie was good.

I had this nervous anticipation about Revenge of the Sith. After all, I was one of those lifelong Star Wars nerds (my college first-year dorm named our corridor the Mighty Wookies) and I had been disappointed by Episodes I and II. Were those critics right? Was my childhood reverence simply overriding my ability for fair judgment?

No. Because Episode III proves that Star Wars can still kick ass. I laughed at inside jokes, I bit my nails during tense scenes, and I felt drawn to the characters. Yes, there was actual character development. Hayden Christenson was good. Not just un-bad, but actually good.

So I forgive George Lucas. Well, mostly. Because Episode III shows that Star Wars can still be good 28 years after the original. Of course, it also demonstrates that Episodes I and II didn’t have to suck.

Oh well. Harry Potter 6 comes out in July, Goblet of Fire comes to theaters this winter, and book “4” of George R.R. Martin’s A Feast for Crows is out in November. We nerds will be plenty busy.

Personal responsibility

What, have I gone to the dark side?

No, but over at a Business of Ferrets, my friend has a good point on the stalemate of the Minnesota Legislature. He points out that legislators aren't getting the job done because they don't have to pay. I have a solution.

To avoid having the poor, the ill, and the average citizen pay for the crap they call legislating at the capitol, I say we do the following. If the legislators fail to adjourn the session within the alloted time, we put a hold on all their paychecks. Each day, we deduct $100 from their pay until the day they finish. Each day the legislature is in session after July 1, we subtract $1000. This way, we penalize those who are responsible and we make headway in solving our $700 million budget shortfall.

Some say that junior legislators have no say in the budget negotiations, but this guy disagrees. I have trouble having much sympathy. Your inaction will result in critical shutdowns of state government services. And you're missing your family vacation? Boo fuckin' hoo.

Monday, June 27, 2005


Monty Python had a great sketch on having an argument, in which one character requests to start an argument and then proceeds to start an argument over it. It would be hilariously funny if it wasn’t such an accurate picture of how Republican leaders “debate” political issues these days.

In today’s paper, Paul Waldman nails the Republicans for their consistent “change the argument” strategy. From John Kerry’s “flip-flops” to the current overreaction to Sen. Durbin’s comments about Guantanamo Bay, many of the Republican leaders prefer “meta-arguments” – arguments about the arguments. This keeps the media coverage and political discussion well outside the bounds of substantive dialogue.

Waldman has two great examples. When Kerry was accused of flip-flopping, he responded with, “I made a mistake in how I talk about the war. But the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?” To the Republican leadership (and the news media), Kerry’s verbal gaffe was worse than the war that has caused 13,000 American casualties.*

And then there’s Durbin’s comment on the FBI’s Guantanamo report where he remarked that the abuses “sounded like something from the prisons of a dictatorial regime.” Waldman’s description of the Republican response deserves full quotes:
Republicans beat their breasts in outrage, saying Durbin had compared every man and woman serving in uniform to the Nazis, even that with his Senate speech he put Americans' lives at risk and gave succor to Osama Bin Laden

Maybe someday we’ll return to debating political issues (if in fact we ever really did), but for now, stay tuned for the latest right-wing spin on Waldman’s piece!

*Naturally, I now hate the troops, America, and give aid and comfort to Osama, Nazis and the devil for mentioning that any American lives have been lost. “Would I rather have Saddam back – he gassed his own people”

Friday, June 24, 2005

Tyranny of the majority

You’ve got a house. You’ve put a lot of hours painting, redecorating, repairing, and remodeling. It’s an emotional as well as financial investment.

You’ve got kids. It’s the only house they’ve known. They grew up finding Easter eggs in the corners of rooms and playing games in the backyard.

But the town council has decided that your land is a prime location for a “new urban” development, complete with upscale condos, a fru-fru coffee shop, and a clothing “boutique.”

You’ve got property rights on your side, but according to the Supreme Court, they’ve got eminent domain.

Apparently, it’s up to elected officials whether or not there’s a better public use for your land than you using it. While there’s a long history of using this power for railroads, highways, and other mass projects (even privately owned ones), the decision leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

in a minority opinion, Sandra Day O’Conner wrote that, “The beneficiaries are likely to be those citizens with disproportionate influence and power in the political process, including large corporations and development firms.”

In Minneapolis, a largely poor, African American community was razed to make way for Interstate 94 several decades back. At least that was a public works project. The development in this decision was to be primarily for the benefit of private companies (even if it does raise the tax base).

I’m sure there’s someone with a snappy rejoinder that sums this up, but I’ll just stay this decision stinks.

Star spangled blanket

Would putting shaving cream on an SUV be more harmful when it has a Support Our Troops magnet on it? Does a brick wall become inviolate when you inscribe the word “freedom” on it?

When does a symbol become so valuable that even the material it’s printed on becomes sacrosanct?

When it’s the American Flag, of course.

Congress is working on another attempt to constitutionally ban flag burning. Proponents argue that the flag represents all of the key principles that so many revolutionaries and Americans have shed their blood defending. Thus, the flag should become a protected symbol.

Then again, there’s Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., who said, "If the flag needs protection at all, it needs protection from members of Congress who value the symbol more than the freedoms that the flag represents."

In other words, flag burning should remain legal because there are times when we need to be reminded that we are burning down our own house of freedoms.

There’s probably a pretty close correlation between supporters of extending the Patriot Act and supporters of a flag burning ban amendment. I’m more interested in seeing star spangled banner flying than wrapping it around me as a security blanket.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

A blogger’s bad day is in ALL CAPS

A fellow blogger and non-digital-world friend apparently had some software trouble today at work. His blog post transmitted his anger digitally via the magic of ALL CAPS, which naturally caught my eye on my RSS aggregator page on Yahoo.*

I sympathize with him, since I’ve had about 27 things to do every day pretty much since school let out in May. Instead of starting summer, I seem to have started the season of NoFreeTime. Ironically, I’m playing ultimate Frisbee and softball with many friends (and some not-friends), seeing my family regularly, and getting outdoors. But everything is scheduled.

And then the weekend rolls around and there’s no free time since I’m moving, switching jobs, and trying to keep up with yardwork, etc. Maybe things will calm down in July…

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Just say it louder, then it's true

We’re in Iraq right now with no discernable exit strategy, a president and administration constantly in denial of that fact, and a rising body count. I believe very strongly in the mission to democratize Iraq and to stabilize the country for the good of its inhabitants and the Middle East. But shouldn’t we have planned better?

E.J. Dionne looks at why American post-invasion plans for Iraq were (and are) nonexistent. He quotes Vice President Cheney from a Meet the Press interview in March 2003:

Tim Russert: "If your analysis is not correct, and we're not treated as liberators, but as conquerors, and the Iraqis begin to resist, particularly in Baghdad, do you think the American people are prepared for a long, costly, and bloody battle with significant American casualties?"

VP Cheney: "Well, I don't think it's likely to unfold that way, Tim, because I really do believe that we will be greeted as liberators.”

It’s astounding, disappointing, and disgusting that our leaders continue to believe that assertion, given strongly, can overcome fact. Good luck.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Follow-up on social security / working retirement

John Tierney follows up on his editorial last week opining that sending seniors back to work is the best way to save Social Security.

Human Rights and the War on Terror

Pakistan’s prime minister is coming to the White House in July and once more President Bush will take every opportunity to praise army general and self-styled “president” Pervez Musharraf for his “bold leadership” in opposing terrorism. He’ll greet the prime minister cordially and then sit down to discuss how the United States will sell F-16 fighters to Pakistan; fighters capable of carrying nuclear missiles.

While Mr. Bush will talk of “freedom” and “security,” he won’t mention that Mr. Musharraf took power in a coup d’etat in 1999. And while Mr. Bush will probably praise the general for his opposition to Al Qaeda, he’s unlikely to even mention that Pakistan suffers from domestic terrorism against women – with one being raped every two hours.

Nicholas Kristof notes that rape in this Muslim country is particularly atrocious because women who are raped are encouraged to kill themselves to maintain their honor. Those who do not must have four male witnesses to prove their innocence (or risk a whipping for committing adultery), and even then they might be considered dishonored and unclean. When a woman such as Mukhtaran Bibi decides to crusade against this inhuman practice, she is vilified and her passport is taken away so that she cannot attend an international human rights conference.

During the Cold War, America frequently made allies of unsavory sorts in order to contain communism. For a glorious ten years after the fall of the USSR, we could almost pretend to act on principle. And now, once again, we are back supporting dictators who profess their hatred of terrorism.

I understand diplomacy well enough to know that we can’t always have the ideal allies, but I’m just disappointed that we seem to have lost the moral authority to speak forthrightly about human rights. Even if we didn’t want to scold Pakistan for its atrocious treatment of women, we’d have trouble addressing other potential abuses because of our treatment of prisoners in Iraq and at Guantanamo.

All I can say about U.S. human rights is that it’s a sad day when our attorney general releases memos to study how much torture we can do without violating international treaties. Disgusting.

Student Driver

The commute has been interesting these past three weeks. My main highway route is under construction, which has meant single lane driving, random ramp closures, and general headaches. Today there was an interesting twist on the commute, as traffic slowed down about 2/3 of the way there. At first I gave my customary epithet and then I saw the cars on the shoulder. Bummer, it’s an accident.

No just any accident, though. The SUV pulled over seemed completely normal – I didn’t even see a scratch. The little white Taurus was remarkable, though. The front right corner was smashed in, the white paint chipped. But fortunately, the black lettering on the hood – student driver – was undamaged. Unlike that poor kid’s pride.

I have some vivid memories of driver’s education behind-the-wheel. Memories of the passenger side brake being stomped, of being yelled at for stopping at a green light to let people turn right on red. And of course my driver’s test, where I failed parallel parking and rolled every stop sign, such that my instructor said that he “didn’t want to pass me, but he had to.” But at least I didn’t get in an accident.

I wonder what happens to student drivers who get in accidents. Do they have to do more driver’s training? Take the written test again? Wait six months?

At the very least they should check out this page about what to do when you get in an accident. I’m always fascinated by the road flares piece. Does everyone carry road flares or reflective triangles? I almost never see them. And maybe this is why: “Take caution however with road flares in the event of gas spills and leaking fuel tanks.” Why take chances?

Friday, June 17, 2005

Gifts from the web

I almost entitled this post “Learning from the internet,” but I tend to hold the term “learn” in high enough esteem that I’m skeptical of using it to describe the process of acquiring information from the internet.

For example, while I browsed a Slashdot forum today, a member ended a rather idiotic post with the acronym OMGWTFBBQ. Those of you with some savvy will recognize this as the merger of three separate, common acronyms. OMG = Oh My God, WTF = What The Fuck, and BBQ is of course what we do with tasty meat.

For some reason, though, I had a feeling that this compilation was not simply random and I was almost disappointed in my sense of humanity to discover that I was correct. The Urban Dictionary has ten entries for OMGWTFBBQ. This exciting acronym is surprisingly multifaceted and is used to describe or illustrate inane comments or to highlight a victory over an online game opponent. Apparently, there is nothing more demeaning than to follow up the system’s victory message than with a technically meaningless acronym:

*after starcraft win*
Loser : Wtf?


But really, let's keep subsidizing oil

Imagine a world where Americans are no longer dependent on foreign oil. Where our energy supplies are domestic and secure from terrorists and undemocratic governments. Where new energy technology liberates us from the wackiness of today’s energy debate.

Are you thinking of hydrogen fuel cells? Super-efficient solar power? Nuclear fusion?

Sorry. Think three field-tested and inexpensive technologies. By combining hybrid car technology, flexible fuel engines, and pluggable electric motors, America can achieve cleaner, safer, and more secure energy. Thomas Friedman’s new energy policy of geo-green means less influence peddling in the Middle East and the end of false tradeoffs like radioactive waste for energy independence. Instead, we’ll be saying: “as Toyota goes, so goes America.”

Hybrid engines already enable us to get 50-70 miles per gallon of gas. Add in a plug so that the hybrid’s battery can charge overnight and you can drive 20 miles (a distance less than half of Americans drive each day) without using any gas. Throw in flexible fuel technology (an upgrade of around $100 allowing a car to use a fuel mix of only 20% gasoline) and you can now get 500 miles per gallon of gas. That’s 20 times more fuel efficiency than the average American car.

Basically, being geo-green means recognizing that energy independence does not depend on cutting edge technology (hydrogen fuel cells), reviving old technology (nuclear fission) or paying $5 a gallon for gas. Instead, it takes a few upgrades under the hood.

How fast could geo-green work? Check this out:

Warning! Nerdy math ahead.

Cut gasoline use by one-fourth... We currently import half our oil. 2/3 of our oil is used for transportation. If we cut oil use in transportation by 1/4, we will achieve oil independence. getting enough 500mpg vehicles to market... There are 221 million autos in the United States averaging 24mpg (pdf link). To quadruple efficiency to an average 96mpg, we’d need 33 million of these 500mpg cars. Since Americans buy 17 million new cars a year, it would only take 2 years to achieve oil independence if we required these technologies in every car.

...and get energy independence for $170 billion. Assuming the US government paid for upgrades for every new vehicle sold, it’d cost $170 billion. That’s less than we’ve spent on the Iraq War so far, without the 15,000 casualties to US armed forces.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Bane of Baked Goodness

And to top it off, I’m at work.

Mornings are typically slow-paced and relaxing. I’m a putterer and I spend a good hour “getting ready” before I head to work. It’s a good method of mental preparation for whatever the day has to bring.

Not today.

I broke my promise to never, ever touch that damn gas oven again. After the infamous Torched Birthday Cake incident in March, I kept the embargo in place for three months. But I love baked goods. I couldn’t resist trying to bake some banana bread. I even asked KR to set the oven temperature, since the ancient dials are a complete mystery.

There’s only one conclusion: this oven does not like baked goods.

I’ve successfully broiled things in there on two separate occasions. The advantage there is that you tend to watch things when you are cooking. Baking is more of a “leave it alone” business. There’s the busy assembly phase, but once the buns are in the oven, you leave ‘em to bake.

Do not leave this oven unattended.

I have this indignant anger. I will successfully bake something in this oven. I will discover the secret temperature setting that does not burn. I will have baked goodness.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

You gotta have faith

Thomas Friedman says we need to double troop strength in Iraq. Is it really that bad?

All typical moaning about pre-war intelligence and strategy aside, Iraq is in trouble. Despite President Bush’s insistence that things are improving, people keep dying. The elections happened two months ago and it seems Iraqis are no closer to peaceful rule of law by democratically elected officials.

Friedman hits the main point: “we are training Iraqi soldiers by the battalions, but I don't think this is the key. Who is training the insurgent-fascists? Nobody. And yet they are doing daily damage to U.S. and Iraqi forces. Training is overrated.”

The problem, he says, is leadership. The terrorists have al-Zarqawi. The American forces have a sense of purpose and a passionate belief in democracy and freedom (and an elected president). What do those Iraqi soldiers have to motivate them?

This is the crux of Mr. Bush’s “democracy by brigade” SNAFU. Democracy isn’t established by fiat or by force. Without a galvanizing leader backed up by overwhelming force and the trust of the people, Iraq will not “work.”

Democracy takes flight much like Peter Pan – it takes a happy thought and an unwavering belief that it will work.

Aside from Mr. Bush, I don’t see a whole lot of belief out there.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Get off your duff, Grandpa!

“Is it possible that people [in their 60s and 70s] are still physically capable of putting in a full day's work at the office?”

Every day the political radar is splattered with blips of debate on Social Security and we’re still no closer to making it solvent. The debate runs endless circles around private accounts and incremental changes. And then someone like John Tierney – who is this guy? – writes a column for the NY Times that solves the whole problem. In 735 words.

I can summarize it in five - send them back to work.

President of the United States who talked about that once.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Man Wins Competition By Trumpeting Cooperation

In its annual Great American Think Off, the New York Mills Regional Cultural Center asked people to debate whether society benefits more from cooperation or competition. The winner of this year’s contest, Blaine Rada, successfully argued that cooperation is more valuable than competition, driving home all those lessons we learned in kindergarten.

I just love that Mr. Rada won the competition between cooperation and competition by successfully competing. Congratulations, Mr. Rada, you're the only man who could have defeated himself.

Cooperation and competition are both powerful motivators in their own right. Arguing that one is more important than the other is rather silly. After all, the Minnesota Twins successfully out competed their Central Division opponents three years running through excellent teamwork. I doubt you could say which was more important.

The Need for Speed

I saw an article today about stepped up speed limit enforcement in my hometown. Apparently, authorities regularly excuse speeding up to 10 mph over the limit, focusing on the most egregious speeders. That squares with my experience, which usually involves tacking the cruise control to 10 over on the interstate. I've never been pulled over.

But the issue of speed limits un-enforced begs a question. Why a limit at all?

The state of Montana eliminated daytime speed limits several years back before re-imposing them to prevent out of state drivers from coming to test their maximum speeds. A follow-up analysis shows accident rates were lower when the freeways were limitless. The very libertarian Cato Institute noted the same effect nationally. "The injury rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled fell to its lowest level ever recorded in 1997," two years after the national 55 mph speed limit was repealed and many states raised their limits.

Furthermore, other studies show that decreasing or increasing speed limits by as much as 15 mph has little effect on motorists actual speed. In other words, people drive the speed they feel comfortable going. The German Autobahn experience shows that this works - accident rates in Germany are even lower than in the United States.

So why do we have limits? The Minnesota Department of Transportation says (link to pdf) that it's to maintain traffic flow to prevent accidents. But studies show that no limits means fewer accidents.

I'd say the traffic engineers are losing the battle to human experience. When the average speed on a given highway exceeds the posted limit by 10 mph, the collective experience of the millions of annual drivers knows better than an engineer. Furthermore, speed limits actually cause more traffic flow problems than they solve because slow drivers feel entitled to be in the passing (left) lane as long as they are going the speed limit (because obviously no one should be going faster).

Speed limit enforcement is a waste of time and money. If we nab those who drive recklessly or are impaired, we'll get the baddies. Going fast is no offense.

Friday, June 10, 2005

“Volunteer” Army

Even though things are always “improving” in Iraq, the military services are getting fairly desperate for recruits. A Seattle newspaper columnist has discovered that Marine recruiters are going way beyond the call of duty in trying to get new recruits. She details how one young man was taken to training exercises miles away without parental permission and who had to be “rescued” by his mother.

You’d better be a conscientious, but firm, objector when they come to the door.

Things that make you say “Dude!”

I consider myself close to the cutting edge of computer and internet technology. I piece together my own computer hardware, fully customize the software, and have had a webpage since 1997. I tend to be the go-to guy for computer support in my social and family circles. But I’ll freely admit that today was the day I finally understood RSS.

RSS, or really simple syndication, is one of two competing technologies that allows news stories, blog posts, and other online content to be delivered as it is posted to anyone who wants to receive it. It can be delivered like an email via an RSS reader, delivered to email, or aggregated on a news page like My Yahoo (which is what I decided to do).

At any rate, the brilliance is customization. Google, Yahoo, MSN, and other web portals have all tried some level of customization to let users rearrange, add, and subtract content from their portal homepage. But there have always been limits. RSS removes the limits. Now I can have any content I want on My Yahoo. I can receive exactly the news stories I want – Minnesota Twins game wraps, green technology news, or the latest from The Onion.

I’ll stop myself since this post already reads like an advertisement for corporate names.

But take a minute or two to check out the power of RSS. If you have a blog, your readers can know the minute you post. If you just like to know the news, you can get the stories as they are published.


Thursday, June 09, 2005

The Power of Pissed

Democracy can usually be understood as the exercise of the people’s power through elections, reasoned debate, and the majority implementation of policy. Which is why it’s delightful to see some minority hellraising get the job done instead once in a while.

In the Twin Cities in Minnesota, they recently adopted a new toll lane paralleling Interstate 394 heading west from downtown Minneapolis to the suburbs. The lane was converted from an HOV lane to a so-called High Occupancy Toll (HOT) Lane. By scaling tolls based on overall traffic levels, the HOT lane guarantees at least one lane of free-flowing traffic that anyone with a transponder (and the $1.50 monthly rental fee) can access for between $0.25 and $8.00.

Problem is, the old HOV lane only restricted access from 6-9am and from 3-6pm to accommodate rush hour. The HOT lane operates 24-7, reducing overall capacity for those folks unwilling to pay $0.25/trip plus $1.50/month to use a lane that they used to use for free.

So Rep. Jeff Johnson, R-Plymouth, responded. He wrote a letter to the major metro daily, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and encouraged people to call or email Lt. Gov. Carol Molnau (state transportation commissioner) with their complaints. That was Sunday. Today, the paper’s headline reads: “I-394 toll rules ease today.”

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Don't dispose, try dirt instead!

Disposable culture has reached new heights in America. We all have an aversion to things gross (messes, spills, and of course dirty toilets and bathrooms). Well, this article I saw last week (now heartlessly stashed away in the NY Times paid archive) covers the development of new disposable toilet wands. The head is detachable, allowing the germ-averse cleaner to trash the head of the wand rather than risk facing it again the next time the bathroom needs cleaning.

It just so happens that I had recently cleaned a toilet when this article came out, and I did it the old fashioned way. I put cleaner on a scrub and actually touched the parts of the toilet that my butt does. Yes, I even scrubbed away the splash damage. Although I did wash and rinse the scrub, I did not throw it away.

See, the amazing part of these cleaners is that they clean things. Including the scrub. So unless you have large chunks of poo to clean off your toilet, you don’t really need to toss your scrubs after every cleaning. In fact, you can just as easily wash the scrub as you did the toilet.

America has gone overboard toward disinfecting and disposing of everything. First of all, there’s the trash – 3.5 pounds per person per day. A third of that trash is from packaging, just to show us the brand name on our Oreo cookies or Cheerios cereal. The there’s the dirt-aversion. We throw away 49 million diapers per day to avoid cleaning. And thanks to Swiffer mops, clean wipes, and disposable toilet wands, we can now avoid touching even the second-hand dirt – the things that clean.

It reminds me of a thing I read on polio in college. Polio was a disease of the rich. Poor kids caught it as toddlers as a cold, developed immunity, and were protected. Rich kids were kept safely quarantined and cleaned, encountered the virus later in life when it was more likely to cause paralysis, and suffered.

Monday, June 06, 2005

For the sake of progress

I used to tell people that when I grew up I wanted to be an inventor. I envisioned coming up with lots of great ideas and devices that would make people’s lives better. Toilets that flushed themselves! Trash that took itself out! Grass that could be mowed automatically (they’ve already got a vacuum cleaner; it’s only a matter of time). The uncanny relationship between chores and inventions is no coincidence, I’m sure…

So I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine who knows something about patents and inventions because I have an idea. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a great idea. It’s no iPod or cell phone. But it would likely be a very convenient thing for a lot of people.

I’ve discovered that being an inventor is not as easy as one might have thought. First of all, you can’t patent an idea. What you actually patent are methods. That toilet-flushing idea? All about a “method to automate something via infrared beam.” Getting a patent involves some very detailed and technical writing about how this method is original and useful. Second, it also tends to involve thousands in lawyer fees. Great. So much for the intellectual might of the common man. Third, searching the database of existing and proposed patents is no picnic. In fact, it’s downright snooze-inducing. It also involves using exciting search features such as search by title (ttl/) or various Boolean terms (and, or, not).

And yet, there’s something intriguing about trying to patent an idea and market something original to the world. After all, the Founding Fathers saw the generation of new ideas so crucial to the success of society that patent law was even envisioned in the Constitution (Article I, section 8): “Congress shall have power . . . to promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”

So maybe I should patent this idea (or method). In the name of progress, of course.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Objecting to objectivity

Normally I like to write my own thoughts in my blog, but every once in a while someone else says it so well you feel like you should just use their words.

This piece examines the comments of Fox News London bureau chief Scott Norvell, who basically conceded that fair and balanced is just a nice slogan.

From Slate Magazine’s Timothy Noah:

Here is what Norvell fessed up to in the May 20 Wall Street Journal Europe:

“Even we at Fox News manage to get some lefties on the air occasionally, and often let them finish their sentences before we club them to death and feed the scraps to Karl Rove and Bill O'Reilly. And those who hate us can take solace in the fact that they aren't subsidizing Bill's bombast; we payers of the BBC license fee don't enjoy that peace of mind.

Fox News is, after all, a private channel and our presenters are quite open about where they stand on particular stories. That's our appeal. People watch us because they know what they are getting. The Beeb's institutionalized leftism would be easier to tolerate if the corporation was a little more honest about it.”

…Lord only knows where Norvell acquired the erroneous belief that Fox News is "honest" about its conservative slant; perhaps he's so used to Fox's protestations of objectivity being ignored that he literally forgot that they continue to be uttered.

I’ll be honest, I’m actually no fan of spurious claims of objectivity whether they come from Fox News or the NY Times. In fact, I’d rather see the media just be open about their biases, preferences, and personal connections. That way each reader, listener, or viewer can judge for themselves.

It’s also worth noting that the principle of objectivity is rather new, having swept newspapers (and carried to the “new” media of radio and television) in the early 20th Century. Before that, most print papers were partisan rags and you just read what you wanted to hear. At least you knew why someone had their perspective. Journalists now sort of imply that they deserve your trust, but don’t bother to explain why.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Parrot to persuade

Everyone recalls that incredibly annoying childhood game where a kid mimics your every movement or word. “Stop it, that’s annoying,” you say.
“Stop it, that’s annoying,” the child parrots.

Apparently, there’s more to mimicry than pissing someone off. A new study shows that mimicking body language during a conversation can help convince someone of your perspective. Folks at Stanford used a virtual human operated by a computer to subtly mimic the actions of test subjects while trying to talk them into accepting a new campus ID card.

In other words, your best bet in trying to sell something is being a bit of a copycat.

The disturbing part of this is the potential for someone conscious of the effect to take advantage of you. A salesman knows he’s got a better chance of a sell, so he practices up on mimicking his targets without them noticing. A politician learns to mimic body language to get your vote (perhaps by promising to protect you from people who “hate America”).

I’m sure that some people who are naturally charismatic probably do this unconsciously already. In fact, it’s probably part of why they are so charismatic. So why do I find it disturbing that someone would use this to their advantage?