moldybluecheesecurds 2

Friday, December 29, 2006

The little princess: empowering or emasculating?

If you have a daughter or cousin or niece in the 4 to 10 range, you've probably been introduced to the importance of princesses and the color pink. This essay recounts one feminist mother's struggle with the "princess culture" for her preschool daughter, wondering if the mass marketing of girlishness may be undermining young girl's chances to eschew stereotypical gender roles later in life. Some sneak peeks:
  • When overhearing the dental hygienist offering to seat her daughter in the "princess chair" to have her teeth "sparkled," Mom replies: "Oh, for God’s sake...Do you have a princess drill, too?"
  • "The issue is 25,000 Princess products," says Brown, a professor of education and human development at Colby College. "When one thing is so dominant, then it’s no longer a choice: it’s a mandate, cannibalizing all other forms of play."
  • On the other hand, Mom also notes, "a headline-grabbing 2005 British study that revealed that girls enjoy torturing, decapitating and microwaving their Barbies nearly as much as they like to dress them up for dates. There is spice along with that sugar after all..."

The "dismal science" goes happy

For many years, economists have eschewed emotion in their study, assuming that choices in the marketplace are simply rational 1-0 on/off things and that choices accurately reflect what people actually want. But with advanced brain science and good old survey techniques, some economists are delving into the idea of happiness once more and finding that some choices aren't really based on happiness or that humans can often be a poor judge of what will make them happy.

The general rule is that experiences make people happier than things. A trip to Hawaii, for example, trumps a BMW M5. But things can also sometimes contribute to happiness:
before [one economist] scoffs at Gillette's latest five-blade shaving system, he should recall Benjamin Franklin's belief that teaching a young man to shave, and keeping his blade sharp, would contribute more to his happiness than giving him 1,000 guineas to squander.
The other interesting bit is on social competition. Humans, like many primates, don't just want to be happy. Part of happiness is to be at the top of the pecking order, to be better than our peers, a condition some sociologists call "affluenza." In the Overspent American, Juliet Schor also notes that affluenza is worse in modern times, where television allows us to have peers that are substantially better off than our actual social group, putting even more pressure to one-up.

Anyway, it's good to know that economists are getting down to the issue of what makes us happy, and understanding that not all marketplace decisions are rational, happiness-maximizers.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Energy efficiency revisited

A Wall Street Journal columnist recently took an energy meter around his house to look at what used the most power, concluding that major appliances and lights were the real power sinks. However, this blogger posts a rebuttal based on his own testing, noting that appliances have enjoyed substantially improved energy efficiency in the past 20 years. While he's not denying the energy-sucking role of washers and dryers, he notes that even as these big appliances have become dramatically more energy efficient, household energy usage has increased from an annual "793 kWh in 1990 to 938 kWh in 2006."

The major culprit in driving energy use up? Home electronics, like televisions and computers, as well as the multiplicity of battery charged devices (cell phones, razors, and even toothbrushes!). I wrote on this previously, since many of these devices continue to suck electricity even when turned off!

Email is not actually private?

A federal case against a spam king has taken an interesting twist. During the investigation, the government applied for and received a court order to access the spammer's email accounts. A court order is similar to a search warrant, but it requires a lower burden of proof than a warrant. The federal government argued that it doesn't need a search warrant since emails are held on a third party server and therefore are more accessible under the Stored Communications Act. The spam king has now challenged this move, arguing that email is private and should be as such by law.

Since most people view email as private communications akin to letters (which would require a search warrant), it will be interesting to see how the case unfolds. For now, maybe I should switch on POP3 settings in my Gmail account...

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Wal-Mart's new green image

A lot of news stories have been touting Wal-Mart's flirtation with solar power, with a potential rollout to over 300 stores in the United States. It's a great way for the corporate giant to try and clean some of the tarnish of its image as a skinflint on wages and healthcare. So is this a big change?

While there's no doubt that a energy-sucking big box store will lessen its energy footprint by installing rooftop solar panels, there's a reason local retail activist and expert Stacy Mitchell has said that the best thing Wal-Mart can do for the environment is to stop building stores.

Why Iraq lacks power

We're talking Iraq, courtesy of Energista's discovery of an excellent piece on the rebuilding of the Iraqi electrical system. It's an account of a journalist for Spectrum magazine, the trade publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and his visit to Iraq. It may be from a technical group, but it's as accessible as USA Today, with some excellent personal perspective on what's gone wrong with reconstruction of the electrical grid. Some highlights:
  • Of those Iraqis who do pay for electricity, the price is around $0.0007 per kwh (compared to $0.01-$0.05 in neighboring countries). Thus, demand increases faster than reconstruction can build power plants.
  • Early reconstruction officials ordered power plants that could be brought on quickly, ignoring the fact that they run on fuels - highly distilled diesel or natural gas - that aren't readily available.
  • Ironically, in light of the above, there's millions of cubic feet of natural gas being burned off at Iraq's oilfields, when it could be collected and used to generate electricity.
Oh, and if you know what Digg is, I submitted this story over there and would appreciate your digg.

Drug companies and patent law, part 2

Thanks to G$ and Rick for their comments on my drug patent law post. Their thoughts were provoking enough to get me to write on the subject again, no doubt to the dismay of my two other readers...

I think the point of patent law revision is that the public good is served by developing drugs that treat the most prevalent illnesses or diseases that post the greatest threat. Repackaging an antacid drug to treat a stomachache by varying the dosage, on the other hand, doesn't really represent the innovation that patent law exists to protect. Nor does developing drugs for "restless legs" or erectile dysfunction serve the public in the same way that an AIDS vaccine, a malaria vaccine, or a staph antibiotic could.

In other words, the public policy should reflect (as Rick noted), the desired public outcome.

The problem presented by the GAO study is that drug companies are a) making money hand over fist b) pouring money into R&D, but c) not developing these new molecular entities (NMEs) that can provide the substantial human benefit.

One solution is to amend patent law so that there's less of an incentive to focus on modified or marginal drug improvements. I'm not suggesting that patent terms on new drugs be reduced, but that companies be sent the message that we value (legally) developments of new drugs, not repackaging of old ones.

Another solution is to (as G$ recommends) increase federal R&D budgets. This is undeniably a good thing, because the results of federal research are public, adding to the body of general scientific knowledge. Additionally, the kind of general research done with federal dollars often serves several scientific disciplines and not just the goals of a particular industry.

My final thought is this: drug companies are constantly researching new or modified therapies and are still making profits, so their research costs are part of their bottom line. Yet they are still making record profits. To me, this makes the argument about recouping research costs inane. They're doing research and making millions!

Maybe they're paying down debt from 20 years ago when they started developing the drugs that are paying off today. But that's all the more reason to make sure patent law offers advantages for companies seeking the most promising and novel drugs, to keep the health benefits (and profits) flowing.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Making bank from recycling

Thanks to TriplePundit for the heads up on this innovative new way of encouraging recycling - paying people to do it.

Municipalities (that's cities in non-wonk speak) often have to budget extra for recycling programs because many people pledge to recycle, but often don't put up the volume to make ends meet for the city. Instead, a lot of half-empty trucks trundle off to the recycling center.

Enter Recycle Bank. It helps increase recycling rates by signing on corporate sponsors to reward recyclers with gift cards (think rewards Mastercard, but you get points for giving plastic instead of using plastic). RB helps reduce city's recycling costs and takes a cut of the savings, all while increasing recycling rates. Win win win.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Comeuppance well deserved

According to Christopher Caldwell, our palpable relief at the Republican's midterm election beating is mostly to do with our satisfaction with the receding authority of President Bush. Great leaders, he says, listen to their constituents and then mirror back their interests. Bush, on the other hand, reflects a cocky, brash, "I don't do nuance" belief. As we collectively enjoyed this attitude when he took office, "U-S-A...U-S-A," we share the shame as it has led us into an Iraqi quagmire, a massive budget deficit, and several major ethical scandals. The haste to remove this mirror, says Caldwell, is why even Republicans have a sense of relief after the midterms. "The losers seem to believe they got what was coming to them."

P.S. Although I found the piece intellectually intriguing, Caldwell's argument that voters don't understand the Democratic agenda because one-third have never heard of Harry Reid is completely asinine. Agenda != Harry Reid

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Non-surprise of the week: patent law lines drug company pockets

Most Americans have a sneaking suspicion that pharmaceutical companies are making pretty good money (pdf), but many probably don't understand exactly why. Well, the Government Accountability Office (formerly General Accounting Office - GAO in either case) just released a report (pdf) that explains why.

Because minor changes in existing drugs allow for new patents, giving extended monopolies, drug companies have used very little of their increased R&D budgets (147% from 1993-2004) to develop new drugs. Applications for new molecular entities - the FDA term for significantly new therapeutic drugs - increased only 7% in the same period.

In other words, instead of sparking innovation, drug patent law is doing the reverse - allowing companies to make big money off marginal modifications instead of expanding the realm of medicine. This might be good for Eli Lilly's shareholders, but it doesn't do much for the treatment of antibiotic resistant diseases or some of the world's more prevalent diseases. Time for an amendment to patent law.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Many Linux users are wankers

I tried to install Linux a few weeks ago. I thought it'd be nice to completely cut the tether to commercial software and see what would happen. The answer? A whole lotta of command prompts and time wasted.

I tried to install Slackware, a form of Linux that's supposedly fairly compatible with games and the like. In particular, I wanted to set the system up to emulate SNES and NES games. But there's very little that's intuitive about switching from Windows to Linux. All the terminology is different. There are "kernels," which you can compile yourself. The graphical user interface (GUI) is independent of the operating system (think Windows 3.1 and DOS). The most annoying this is that configuring system settings seems to be done almost entirely at the command prompt. Hey, I used to use DOS, but this is 2006 and I like my control panel. So to configure my video card, I had to go online and look for the command that I could type in to load drivers. Same for my NIC card. I had to know my monitor's horizontal and vertical sync rates, for Pete's sake!

Yeah, I know that Linux users hold people like me in complete scorn - you n00b! Go back to your Micro$oft products! You expect everything to just work like Windows! Here's a sample from a comment thread about Linux v. Windows:
I did an "experiment" over the weekend and asked a friend to launch Firefox from Gnome.

He blankly looked at the screen as said: "Where the hell is the Start button?"...completely neglecting the fact that it clearly says "Applications" up top.

He'll probably be the same person to flame Linux on a comment thread because he can't figure out how to perform a simple function.

But if free software wants to provide a viable alternative to the default option for the general population, it has to be easy. Think Tmobile to your Sprint, Firefox to your Internet Explorer, or AVG FREE Antivirus to your Norton Antivirus. The learning curves are shallow, making switching easy. The general interface is pretty much identical.

Instead, switching from Windows to Linux is like switching from English to Spanish. GUIs become command prompts. Start menus become something else. Double clicks become single clicks. And a lot of Linux users not only expect me to want to learn Spanish, but teach it to myself?

Maybe I picked the wrong Linux package and I should try Redhat, which I've heard is much easier to install. Or I could pick up a library book about Linux to at least get a handle on the commands. And I'll probably try, because - if nothing else - I'd like to avoid a $100 Windows upgrade fee. But until there's a way to install a Linux OS and GUI by primarily clicking "I agree" and "next" - or an English-Spanish interpreter provided for every user - it's going to be a Micro$soft's world.

Update 2/28/07: As I commented below, I've successfully installed Ubuntu Linux on the computer I was working on two months ago and it was an entirely different experience. As the Anonymous (and blessed) commenter noted, Ubuntu is the user-friendly way to go. I've been helped along a lot by Lifehacker's regular updates on how to improve Ubuntu.

Disclaimer: there are many, many lovely Linux users out there who have spent countless hours creating FAQs and online guides for people like me. You're great and I'm sorry you're in such shitty company.

Screw bipartisanship - just get to work

I just saw a recent national survey that once again finds Americans interested in a Congress that is "bipartisan" and "get things done." After all, most of the spending bills got tabled until the new Congress convenes and a lot of work is needed on the minimum wage, ethics, health care, and of course, Iraq.

But I think that the question about bipartisanship is kind of a false question. People want government to do things that are good for them and good for the country. They want lower taxes, but only if it can be done without damaging good programs. They want good health care, but only if it doesn't break the bank. They want good paying jobs. And when it comes down to it, they aren't going to care if these things come via party-line vote, as long as they're effective.

There's an illusion out there that good policy has to be bipartisan, but I think that some of the best government work ever accomplished (Social Security, Medicare) only succeeded because the Democrats had overwhelming control of Congress. Bipartisanship only matters when good legislation fails because the proposing party can't peel off enough of its opposites to pass the legislation. And some really vile legislation (the Bush tax cuts, the Iraq war authorization, the Medicare prescription drug benefit) had plentiful votes from both sides of the aisle.

So when Congress convenes in January, I want them to get things done. If it happens to be bipartisan, that's the icing on the cake.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

A better idea

Ditch the penny and swap dollar bills for coins. I see several advantages:
1) Same number of coins overall - good for those cash drawers
2) Creates an actual incentive to use dollar coins instead of bills (i.e. no bills)
3) Makes for easier vending/parking meter use, etc

Of course, maybe we'll stop using cash entirely at some point, but probably not until Craigslist goes belly up!

Chew on this

It's been debated plenty, but I just wanted to add my two cents to the anti-penny contingent. There's only one good use for pennies, anyway...

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Let the civil war roll

Although President Bush is mostly avoiding the "civil war" moniker to preserve some modicum of respect for his legacy (note: too late), Iraq might really be better off having this fight out. James Traub, a contributing writer for the New York Times magazine, writes that civil wars can rarely be staved off, especially when the combatants have been pressurized under a dictatorship for decades.

Furthermore, Iraq resembles conflict-laden regions like the Ottoman Empire or Yugoslavia after the fall of the imperial or dictatorial regimes. In other words, the sides aren't likely to sit down for tea and peace accords any time soon. They'll want to kill each other until each side is convinced they can't win (if that's in fact the case).

I also blogged on this topic previously, linking to an article arguing that Vietnam offered a model for Iraq (read: get out and let the natives fight it out).

Goog askew

I frequently use Google to find information for my job, as well as to get quick reference things. I was trying to verify the number of gallons of gasoline in a barrel today, when I received a bit of a surprise - Google is wrong! Have a look at their results for "barrels to gallons" this afternoon and the real answer from the Energy Information Administration of the US Government (as well as all the search results).



Dig in or climb out

The Iraq Study Group recently released its recommendations and Bush is still looking around for additional advice. Instead of reading - a chore - or wasting more time talking to people, Bush should just consult Steve Sack:

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

This is why we have modern technology?

Get more from your USB drive...ahem...

Can I be a renter again?

This week has highlighted why the federal government needs to give people home interest deductions to get them to buy houses.

Thursday - noticed water dripping through the basement ceiling from near the bathroom tub. Had already planned grout repair, but now project has new urgency. Cost: $50 in materials, 5 hours in work time.

Saturday - furnance breaks while out to dinner with friends. Although most furnace manufacturers make a good product, I'm told by the serviceman that "every one has a bad model." Great. Not only is the visit outside normal business hours, but he has to make a special trip to pick up our furnace valve (it's a "unique" type). Cost: $500, and one cold night.

Tuesday - garage door fails to open when I try to leave for work. Hmm, are these cables on the door supposed to be hanging limp? Oh, and I bet this roller is actually supposed to be in the guideway, as opposed to on the garage floor. Car was liberated from garage after jimmying with door opener and manually "assisting" the opener. However, broken roller means door looks drunk when closed. Cost: a minimum of $100, and no help until Thursday.

Any good deals on a 2BR with laundry?

Friday, December 08, 2006

I laughed for 10 minutes straight

The latest Slashdot poll begins "I write with..." and offers some common responses (pen, pencil, marker). As usual, the user comments add some additional "missing options":
  • Pilot G-2 pens
  • Fischer Space Pen
  • manly appendage
  • "I write with a lithp, you inthenthitive clod!"
But the winner managed at least three levels of humor, which collided for a good 10 minute belly laugh:

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Alas for VHS

I watched a movie with K last night, the Birdcage (note: hilarious). It's part of my movie collection that I started buying before I realized that VCRs were out and DVD players were in back in 2001. Yes, I realized late.

However, the market's hurried transition to DVD on the basis of "better picture and sound quality," "special features," etc. may have overlooked some of the benefits of VHS tapes:
1) No previews. Within 30 seconds of putting the tape in last night, I was watching my movie. (note: I know that some VHS tapes had previews).

2) Save your place. I'm sure some people really like the thumbnail image menus on a DVD player to jump to a particular place (and they are great for that if you just want to show someone a particular segment). But if you're the kind of person who maybe takes two nights to watch a movie, it's nice to know that you can turn the player off and resume at exactly the same place without any extra navigation. Let's illustrate resuming a movie halfway:
DVD player: system on...disabled menu button thwarts preview skipping...FF through previews...chapter switch turns off FF...disabled FF button forces me to watch 20th Century Fox splash screen...idiotic menu animation wastes another 10 seconds...successfully pick closest scene...FF through scene to find exact place.

VCR: System on...play.

3) No fascist remote. I can't count the number of times I've had my DVD player flash a big red X when I press the "menu" button to skip previews or FBI warnings, etc. On a VHS player, the remote buttons work the same for every tape and they all work. Preview? FF. FBI warning? FF.

4) No inane menu animations. The first time I watch a DVD I like the menu animations - they're clever. By the second time, I want to scream. I don't need to watch the Knight Bus zoom across the screen before every Harry Potter 3 scene selection page display. Let me turn off animations or better yet, skip them and cut the price of the DVD.

We're now being introduced to HD-DVD and BluRay DVDs, with supposedly even better features. Something tells me it won't involve preview skipping...

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Star Wars nerds, your new game is calling

Clear the disappointment of Episode I from your mouth, revitalize your faith in the power of the original trilogy, and find out how the Force can be combined with Legos?!

Monday, December 04, 2006

It's the whiteys who do the crime

Articles like these should all be part of a series: Exposing Our Inner Racist. The NY Times Magazine explores how greater immigration depresses local crime rates, whereas white people feel the exact opposite. In other words, we like to think that dark-skinned people cause crime, but we're as wrong as Bush is on climate change.

Interestingly, the article notes that the law-abiding benefits of immmigrants are concentrated in the first generation. Successive generations are much more likely to be involved in crime. Probably because they get tired of being discriminated against for looking like an immigrant...

Waiting for an electoral 9-11

Refusing to recommend that we have a verifiable paper trail for voting because of the supposed strain on election officials reminds me a lot of the FAA refusing to require fortified cockpit doors because of the potential cost to airlines.

The Ivory Tower rises above technology

Having recently assisted my mother switch to Gmail and my father-in-law with a notebook wireless card, I've been thinking a lot about the technology divide between generations. However, that rumination grew into a full-fledged mental guffaw at this exchange with a PhD professor I previously worked with (age 50 or so).

As background, I produced some reference "finding aids" on a library project for him, which I then packaged in a CDR with a handy web interface (that automatically loads on CD insert). This hasn't prevented requests for the information I already gave him or this stunning misunderstanding of file extensions.

LJ: Could you email me a file with all the finding aides in them?

[It's really petty, but since he has a PhD, I really want to point out that an 'aid' is "a device that assists" whereas an 'aide' is an assistant - a person. I cannot email him an 'aide' unless Ted Stevens is right and the internet is really a series of tubes]

JFF: I've attached a zip file with all 25 finding aids [in pdf format]. If for some reason it doesn't come through, let me know. MB [LJ's student worker] also has the CD with all of the materials on it.

LJ: Could you please send the Finding Aids as a Word File?

[Okay, so he wants to actually be able to edit the files - no problem]

JFF: Attached. [zip file with .doc files included]

LJ: I don't use zip drives. Could you transfer the file to Word instead? Thanks.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Please give Big Brother the smackdown

Seriously, how many times do we have to needlessly trample civil liberties and privacy before we stop letting government profile us?

The Homeland Security Department recently revealed its Automated Targeting System (ATS) that tracks things like what meal you asked for on the plane, when and where you flew, how you paid for your tickets, and seating preference. How useful is this information in catching terrorists?
Government officials could not say whether ATS has apprehended any terrorists.


If you haven't spoken bureaucratese lately, that means ZERO. But it does make sure that my dad gets padded down every time he flies and that despite sending in all sorts of information to the government to try to get off the "watch list," he still has to go through extra security rigmarole every time.

This revelation is in face of research at MIT suggesting (as it has for some time) that random searches will beat computerized profiling any day, especially when we're dealing with potential suicide bombers.

But instead of searching potential terrorists, we're recording their seat and meal preferences.

I feel safer.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

A baby and a drink?

Having been a good schoolboy, I remember the lessons of 10th grade health - including the mantra that alcohol consumption during pregnancy leads to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. Apparently, this conventional wisdom was shared with the men so that we could continue to make choices on behalf of the women in our lives...

Anyway, the fact of the matter is that there is no research in the middle ground. The federal government knows that heavy alcohol consumption causes FAS, but doesn't know much on whether moderate or light consumption has any effect at all. And because pregnant women are a protected class of citizen under research rules, we're not likely to find out anything any time soon.

However, one might take note of the French, who drink wine in moderation during pregnancy and still seem to be doing fine (all jokes about Nazis and trees aside).

Conclusion: I am a geek

Otherwise, I would never find the girls of the NES entertaining. But I laughed...out load.

UPDATE at 4:52pm: The hilarity mentioned above is just the tip of the iceberg. Sydlexia also discusses the brilliance of McDonald's Halloween pails, pans SNES Super Punch Out, and reviews the 100 top NES games of all time (the deepest dip in the well I've ever seen).

Matching that picture does not make you secure

A researcher who had posted a boarding pass generator on his website has just been exonerated due to a complete lack of evidence of criminal intent. He had posted the feature on his website to emphasize that the ID checks and no-fly lists were ineffective methods of preventing terrorist attacks on airplanes, especially compared to random searches.

His post and the following comments highlight the various issues at stake with airport security and identification checks:
1) No fly lists don't work because suicide bombers only need to get through once and can have a clean record beforehand.
2) ID checks are therefore useless because verifying the identity of a suicide bomber before they commit their terrorist act does not stop it.
3) ID checks do, on the other hand, threaten the rights of Americans to fly without informing the government that they are traveling, as well as adding inconvenience to traveling.
4) There are more effective ways - random searches - to improve airplane security.

As he sums up, the issue is not WHO is on the plane but WHAT is on the plane. Letting a potential terrorist onboard but without his weapon will pretty much guarantee failure. On the other hand, making every traveler show ID or profiling Muslim travelers does very little to ensure security.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Victory through retreat?

I'm not sure I agree, since it's a bit fatalistic, but David Rieff has an intriguing piece on Iraq where he essentially argues that the sooner we lose and leave Iraq, the sooner we can get to the reconciliation process, even if it takes 30 years. His reflections on Vietnam make this a worthwhile read for any citizen whose government is mired in a foreign war.

Public education: choosing to fail

The eons-long debate over the quality of public education rarely uncovers a lot of new ground, but sometimes things are a little different that you expect. In an analysis of the lofty goal of No Child Left Behind - that all American students will be 100% proficient by 2014 - NY Times Magazine contributor Paul Tough notes that we're choosing to fail.

Several good studies have uncovered the facts:
1) Students from low-income families start school behind and fall further behind as they are socially promoted.

2) These shortfalls have more to do with parental style than income!
Amazing, but true. Middle class parents talk to their kids frequently, building their vocabularies. They give their children enriching activities and they encourage their kids to challenge authority. And these kids, armed with a sense of entitlement, do better in school and in life (and often treat teachers poorly, as well).

3) A proven way to improve the chances for poor kids - courtesy of KIPP schools - is to help them catch up:
a) by giving them 60% more time in school.
b) by giving them highly qualified teachers.
c) and by teaching them the work ethic and commitment to education that their parents may not have.

Part (c) is particularly interesting in light of research that shows that a child's scores on a psychological self-discipline test are twice as likely to help predict their GPA than their IQ. Motivation matters.

If we know what works, from motivation to more intense schooling, then the author is right. We aren't failing by accident or because failure of certain students is inevitable. We have the model and we know the cost.

We're failing these kids by choice.

A fear of food?

With so many people approaching blimp size in the United States, it's easy to overlook - or much scarier - admire those folks with eating disorders. This piece looks at the experience of one family trying to help their teenage daughter overcome anorexia and is an engaging look into how little we understand the disease.

Even conservatives support the Bill of Rights

He may not be a progressive's favorite Supreme Court justice, but Antonin Scalia is showing a surprisingly strong resistance to overreaching executive power during the "War on Terror." The article explores Scalia's firm but narrow commitment to the Bill of Rights and his subsequent impatience with the Bush administration's claim of expansive executive power in times of war.

I think it's also interesting because, as I understand it, many of the drafters of the Constitution thought the Bill of Rights unnecessary - or more specifically, redundant. It doesn't look so redundant now...

Monday, November 27, 2006

With sex offenders, irrationality rules

As with many laws in the area of crime and justice, laws regarding sex offenders have a tendency to overreact to spectacular cases. Many towns have responded to problems with released sex offenders by setting up residency and loitering restrictions on released offenders, banning them from being within 1000 (or even up to 3000) feet of locations where children frequent. The rationale is to remove sex offenders from the presence of temptation, no doubt.

The drawback is that these restrictive zones can create large swaths of towns where sex offenders can no longer reside, causing many to be evicted. Ironically, this drives many offenders to move, making them harder for state officials to track them. Furthermore, sex offenders who are forced to move often drop out of treatment programs. The most interesting tidbit was hidden deep within the NY Times article on this phenomenon (and the resultant court case). An expert on sex offenders is quoted: "most of the laws are passed on the basis of the repulsive-stranger image, when in most cases the offender knows the victim.” Not just most cases; 90% of cases.

But at least we feel like we're doing something...

Monday, November 20, 2006

Go with the stove

Ask Pablo answers the unanswerable, such as this question: is it more efficient to get hot water by running the tap for a minute or heating the cold water on the stove? Surprisingly, the answer is to fire up the burner. Both heat loss in the pipes and the wasted cold water mean the stove's a better bet, even though the gas burner is less efficient than your hot water heater.

My one question to Pablo is, who the heck keeps their water heater in the garage? Not at my latitude!

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Listen to the generals

A major criticism of President Bush by Democrats was that he refused to listen to the State Department or even his dissenting generals when setting Iraq policy. While the Iraq War is cited as a major reason for the Republicans' ouster, it would be a mistake to assume that a unilateral withdrawal will necessarily serve American interests. We had a chance in 2003 to make the right choice - staying the hell out - but now that we've made the bed, we should probably at least get dressed before we get up.

Basically, if our "commanders in the field" are suggesting that we need to think carefully about our new Iraq policy, we should.

Consider this game system an investment

There are people on eBay willing to pay more than $2000 to have a PS3 tomorrow; that's four times the retail price of $500. Of course, eBay isn't helping by restricting auctions of the PS3.

DIY Computer Woes

I like to build my own computers because I get to cherry-pick components that have a good price-performance ratio. That, and it's fun to pretend to know a lot about computers. So when my recently purchased set of hardware has turned out to be a failure, I've hit the online forums trying to piece together answers. The one refrain I hear constantly, even from official technical support people: did you test the part in another system?

Excuse me? Am I just supposed to have a second, identical machine lying around for swapping parts? Computers are expensive, even when you shop judiciously, and I'm apparently expected to have duplicates of everything around so I can verify for these folks that my part is not faulty.

Whatever. I know they're stuck because of the near-infinite number of component combinations that can create incompatibilities with otherwise-fine hardware. But something tells me I shouldn't be bearing that cost.

Is this really your legacy?

Media Matters has another example of a pundit being an asshole to get attention, this time regarding the newly-elected US Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN). How long until Mr. Beck is found paying a gay Muslim for sex?

Friday, November 10, 2006

Bush lied

Putting these two words together seems to elude most major media outlets, even when the President ponies up. An excellent analysis of the media's pathetic revisionism shows that even when Bush admits he's a liar (having determined that Rumsfeld would in fact be resigning before the election while saying the exact opposite - a lie), the media like to give him the "benefit of the doubt." Folks, the doubt has run out. In fact, continuing to use these silly euphemisms like "untruth" is insulting. He's a liar.

Note: I didn't really closely enough to realize my friend at 28th Ave linked to the same analysis I just did. He's my source on the second link on newspeak.

A concrete that cleans?

Smog getting you down? Never fear, self-cleaning concrete is here! Coated with titanium dioxide, the new concrete - called TX active - helps quicken the oxidation of harmful chemicals such as nitrogen oxides (smog contributors), carbon monoxide, and benzene (a carcinogen). For only a 30% premium over regular concrete, it can reduce NOx by up to 60%.

The producer envisions this concrete in urban environments such as sidewalks and streets, reducing car pollution and keeping the urban air cleaner. As a bonus, the active compound in the concrete keeps these substances from clinging to the concrete, making it look cleaner. Nice!

While this is no reason to keep working on pollution reduction through cleaner fuels and renewable, clean energy, it's nice to know we can help clean up the mess closer to the source.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

I take it back

Sometimes I'm a little too cynical about Republicans, but I'm willing to admit I was proven wrong. Good spirit, Mr. Allen.

Fewer signals make safer roads?

A seven-year experiment in a Dutch town has removed nearly all traffic signs and lights from the roadways. The theory was that fatalities and injuries from car-pedestrian or car-bicycle collisions are due to drivers' sense of entitlement to the pavement, enhanced by having a green light.

The result of the light removal is that there have been no fatalities and that drivers use greater care. Apparently, people can actually get around town faster this way, as well.
These transportation research folks and road engineers basically argue that we'll have greater safety and less pollution by letting traffic self-regulate (a la sidewalks).

Note: I didn't have time to dig deeper, but the source of these theories is the British-based Institute for Economic Affairs, and they seem rather libertarian (surprise!).

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

It's over

An exhausting election cycle done and the votes are in. Results? Democrats take control of Congress, winning 29 House seats and 6 Senate seats. Pundits on both sides will spin this as they will, but it's a whole new ballgame in Washington in January. Look for legislation on ethics, the minimum wage, government bargaining on prescription drugs, a balanced budget, and health care.

There will likely be at least one major recount, in Virginia. Republican incumbent George Allen is losing by 8,000 votes and is saying that the voters of Virginia must be respected and their votes counted, in response to his opponent's declaring victory. The Daily Kos has some excellent perspective on Allen's opinion, since this man had no patience for recounts in Florida in 2000. But maybe that's because his party was the projected winner. Hypocrite.

Oh, and Donald Rumsfeld quit as Defense Secretary today. Why he waited until now is beyond me.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Another new lightbulb

While not precisely new, as it has seen extensive use in traffic lights, the light-emitting diode (LED) is poised to become economic enough to replace the standard incandescent light bulb. Although still cost-prohibitive in comparison, LEDs even put compact fluorescents (CFLs) to shame as they last 10 times longer than CFLs and 133 times longer than incandescents. However, depending on the application, their efficiency can range from 1-10 times as much as incandescents (LEDs are better at spotlighting than lighting an area). In other words, it's questionable if an overhead fixture would be more efficient with a CFL or an LED. Either way, there's no way you should still be using a regular lightbulb when 90% of its output is heat.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Superb Iraq War journalism

In an era of 24-hour news, you rarely see the kind of in-depth investigative reporting that reveals the truth about society and government. The mention courtesy of Shadoweyes, this Mother Jones timeline exposes what we knew about Iraq and when we knew it, with particular attention to how the Bush administration ignored its own intelligence to lead us to war. It gives you a chilly sense of foreboding as you see the inexorable move to war amidst all the evidence against it.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Iraq Reconstruction Stopped in June

Is there any better indication that we're losing the war in Iraq? The Defense Department's Iraq reconstruction website shows no reconstruction projects completed since June 2006. Are the webmasters at DOD just taking a break or has the focus shifted from rebuilding to survival?

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Election Roundup

There's little doubt among political pundits, or from political polls, that Democrats will take over the U.S. House of Representatives when the results are in next week. While it's a complicated math game of the 435 seats, the polls - which are more frequent in the tossup seats - show that Democrats could have as much as a 30-seat advantage when Congress reconvenes in January.

The Senate is much closer and all the more interesting for it. An MIT researcher put statistical analysis to the polls of the Senate seats up for election and found that it would be 50.3 Republicans and 49.7 Democrats. It all comes down to 4 states: NJ, VA, TN, and MO. Democrats are fairly likely to win in NJ, a feat which would put them at 49 seats. A pickup in any of the remaining three makes the Senate even (with Dick Cheney the tiebreaker) and if Dems get 2/3 of the seats in VA, TN, and MO (unlikely according to the polls), they'd have outright control of Congress. We'll see...

Finally, a little look at voter turnout. A George Mason University professor claims that we've been calculating voter turnout incorrectly for years, underestimating turnout by counting ineligible adults (immigrants and felons) as part of the voting age population when calculating turnout. His revised turnout figures show an approximate 5-point increase in national election turnout in 2004 (almost equal to the high points in the 1960s). However, his claim that the revised figures erase the therory of declining turnout doesn't hold water, since there were still substantial declines from the early 60s until the mid-90s. True, turnout has rebounded and the revised figures give a more accurate picture, but let's not be revisionists.

Note: One reason the numbers needed revision is the inordinate number of convicted felons who have lost their voting rights: an estimated 4.6 million in 2000, more than a third of which had completed their sentence.

Finally, state legislatures are also in the balance this election, and as they control Congressional redistricting, it will be interesting to see if Democrats take over in several states and if they start some Texas-style line-drawing.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Hot Pants!

From today's news of the weird (and cool, er, hot): Dual Zone Heated Cargo Pants

Stigmatizing fat isn't burning it

In a broad (ahem) look at the social stigmatization of obesity, this article notes that making people feel bad for being fat doesn't make them thinner. In fact, it does the opposite. If social stigma fails, unlike with other social ills such as smoking, what's a society to do?

Who pays the price for climate change

Global warming is coming in like a freight train. Does it matter to you?

Friday, October 27, 2006

How To: talk to a climate change skeptic

The environmental news site Grist has a new feature: how to talk to a climate change skeptic. I particularly like their breakdown of climate change denialist arguments by "level of sophistication":
  • Silly
  • Naive
  • Specious
  • Scientific
Oh those silly global warming deniers.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

A diamond is forever, except its value

This Atlantic article is 24 years old, but it is perhaps one of the most comprehensive and well-written assessments of the diamond market and the manufacturing of the diamond engagement ring. Even knowing that social trends and customs change over time can't rub away that icky feeling of knowing this trend was marketed.

Update: MSP Airport cabs will take passengers or queue up

In an interesting twist, the Metropolitan Airports Commission in Minnesota found a way out of its dilemma involving Muslim cab drivers refusing rides to people carrying alcohol. Any cab driver who refuses a passenger has to return to the start of the cab queue, a wait of as much as 3 hours for another passenger. I don't think Muslims should be punished for wanting to follow their faith, but neither should people seeking cab drivers be discriminated against for not following Muslim law.

Update 10/26/06: as one might expect, a few other bloggers are weighing in. This guy says we should let Muslims discriminate, but post signs to let people vote with their dollars. Another says that any preferential treatment for Muslims based on their religion clearly violates the establishment of religion and is unconstitutional. Interesting stuff.

Save gas, lose weight!

Fuel efficiency and hybrids aren't the only things affecting gas consumption. Larger Americans are also affecting fuel economy, for the worse. With so many overweight Americans, we're using almost a billion more gallons of gasoline a year than we did in 1960 just to move that extra pudge around.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Soldiers appeal for redress

When the main force of "stay the course" proponents aren't doing the bleeding, it becomes all the more interesting to hear from soldiers on the ground that the mission in Iraq is not going well. Interestingly, there exists a legal route for soldiers wishing to express their frustrations with American military action, via protected communiques to Congress. These "Appeals for Redress" have been sent by 346 service men and women so far. It will be interesting to see how it unfolds as more soldiers learn that they still have civil rights while in uniform.

Wellstone!

Four years ago, one of the greatest senators from the great state of Minnesota died in a plane crash just a week before his re-election. Often called the "conscience of the Senate," Paul Wellstone was a passionate believer in social justice, peace, and family values. His vote against the Iraq War resolution in the waning days of the campaign represented just one of his many stands on principle and one that would likely have led to his re-election.

If you're in the Twin Cities area, it's easily worth the cost of admission to see the Great American History Theatre's production Wellstone!, recalling the life of the much beloved senator from Minnesota. There are several times that actor Kris Nelson is so much in character that one can almost hope the Senator himself has returned. Viva Wellstone!

Ignoring the facts on minimum wage

The Economic Policy Institute has recently released a document supporting a minimum wage increase, citing the support of over 650 economists, including 5 Nobel Laureates. So what do conservatives have to say against this overwhelming evidence? Look no farther than Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman for an article that is stunning in its glossing over of the evidence.

First, let's establish Chapman's credentials to dispute the economic evidence. He's a journalist from a big city paper and has been a fellow for libertarian think tanks. His academic work was in business administration and "general studies." You'll note the lack of "economics" or "economist" anywhere in that vitae. So when Chapman argues that, "if businesses could make more money with that tradeoff, the government wouldn't have to force them to do it -- greed would be motivation enough," he's speaking from his deep experience in punditry, not economics.

Chapman does try to enlist the help of someone with economics qualifications, and quotes one economist from the Hoover Institution (where he happens to have been a fellow). This economist says that "the consensus in the trade is that each 10 percent add-on would destroy 1 to 2 percent of young people's jobs. So a $7.25 minimum wage could mean the loss of up to 1.6 million positions." (emphasis mine) Interestingly, this "consensus" position seems to be shared by none of the 650+ economists (and Nobel Laureates) who have presented their evidence to the contrary, so it would seem this "consensus" consists of one economist and Mr. Chapman.

Chapman concludes his argument by nit-picking. Ted Kennedy has said that a family of three with one parent working full-time and the other half-time at minimum wage is still in poverty. That's sixty hours a week, year round, and income of "$15,450 a year in wages, less than the poverty level of $16,600." But Chapman pulls out his slide rule and argues that this is fudging, because the Earned Income Tax Credit - no doubt something Chapman has long supported - boosts this family's income to over $17,000, out of poverty. Yes, Mr. Chapman knows how important it was to clear that up, seeing as how $17,000 for a family with two working parents and one child is a veritable fortune.

Accounting for inflation, the real value of the minimum wage has declined from near $8 to $5.15 and the proposed increase to $7.25 still fails to restore that value. But to do that might be too much, says Chapman, it might actually raise a family out of poverty.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Swiping the "swipeless" credit card

New Radio Frequency ID RFID-enabled credit cards won't need to be swiped (or even removed from your wallet) to make payments, ushering a new level of convenience. It may also enable a whole new kind of credit card theft. With a scanner as small as a pack of gum, someone could get a hold of your credit card information, including your name, card number, and expiration date.

The new type of credit card might make theft easier, but your card company is happy to sell you identify theft protection, only $12.99 a month! Nice. I think I'll stick with the non-broadcasting card for now...

What's that stuff between my toes?

From the inestimable Lifehacker, a link to Ask Alice, a Columbia University professor who helps answer all questions health, from suicidal thoughts to electric toothbrushes.

Is higher education the panacea?

In quite a novel commentary, this contributor to the Christian Science Monitor feels that the U.S. doesn't need more college graduates. Arguing that increasing the number of college attendants will only require depressed standards, he also notes that 6 of the 10 fastest growing occupations require less than a 4-year degree; four require no degree at all.

Will moving more folks into postsecondary give America the edge in the information economy, or simply force a lot of people into unnecessary postsecondary education?

Friday, October 13, 2006

Automated Craigslist searches

I'd like to thank Lifehacker for the tips on becoming a Craigslist power user. I've purchased a few items from Craigslist and gotten some freebies, but sometimes what you want isn't immediately available. And if you have a little time, that's no problem.

What was news to me is that every Craigslist search has an RSS feed. Every time you search for "weber grills" or "beanie babies," a little orange link at the bottom of the results page says "RSS." Copy that to your favorite RSS reader and - voila - real-time updates on the availability of your item.

Neat!

Featuring another good blog

Looking for good writing on energy, modern day religion, and hypoallergenic cats? Look no further than Solar Kismet.

Huzzah! A new reader!

Some of my recent posts on energy and gas prices actually attracted a reader or two outside my social circle! Not only did these folks find my article interesting, they were also interested in "exchanging links." This means that we each have a link to the other's blog on our pages, which helps more people find our insightful ramblings (we hope).

The first to be profiled is It's So Obvious, a blog by garagejazz that covers three of my favorite topics: politics, energy and jazz (perhaps not exactly in that order). His posts on energy tend to be more in-depth than mine, such as yesterday's look at the Energy Information Administration's release of petroleum stocks and its potential impact on prices. He's got a left-of-center perspective, which also doesn't hurt. Check out his blog at http://garagejazz.blogspot.com/ - highly recommended.

I'll profile my second liaison soon, and add his link to the homepage.

The truth about offshoring

When the United States is in the middle of a domestically and internationally unpopular war, is it really the time to reveal that our economic "investments" overseas are often about avoiding labor laws to get cheap, expendable workers? China has just announced that it plans to pass new laws boosting the power of unions and ending labor abuses. From the story, we find that
The move, which underscores the government’s growing concern about the widening income gap and threats of social unrest, is setting off a battle with American and other foreign corporations that have lobbied against it by hinting that they may build fewer factories here. (emphasis added)

Nothing like exposing the American international business slogan: "the cheapest labor money can buy." Maybe it's time to pay a little more for that plasma tv to make sure it wasn't assembled in a sweatshop by an 8-year-old.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Why we eat (that much)

Given the vast scale (pardon the pun) of America's obesity epidemic, I find the kind of psychological analysis done by Professor Brian Wansink to be a fascinating insight into American culture - where we value food based on price per quantity and little else. He's a Cornell psychologists whose food lab tests to see what kind of social and physical cues people use to shape their eating habits. The discovery? That people frequently eat more than they think they did. The cause? Everything from larger dinnerware to the company at the table.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Have booze, won't travel

The Minneapolis Airport has recently been struggling with an issue brought to them by travelers - Muslim cabbies refusing rides to people carrying (even unopened) liquor, citing their religious beliefs. This is similar to an issue arising a few months back, where national attention was focused on pharmacists who would refuse to dispense the morning-after pill, citing their Christian religious beliefs.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the Muslim cabbie issue was that the Metropolitan Airports Commission was negotiating with cabbies and considering a special light for the cabs to indicate drivers who would refuse service to booze carriers. In other words, they were ready to accomodate this service distinction.

In an email listserv I read, one respondent found this idea a slippery slope:
Still, this seems to me to set a very troubling precedent. Cabbies are licensed to provide a secular public service that, in my mind, has nothing to do with their personal religious belief systems. If they are allowed to discriminate based upon their personal belief systems, where does it end? A special light for cabbies who refuse to transport scantily clad women? Another light for cabbies who refuse to transport women and men traveling together (unless of course they show proof of marriage)? I recall an incident reported in the local press a few years ago in which a Mpls cabbie kicked a gay couple out of his cab (which I believe violates the city's anti-discrimination ordinances). Perhaps local cab drivers and/or local Muslim leaders can chime in and educate the rest of us on this issue: What are the limits here? When should a cabbie's personal beliefs influence whom he chooses as a client?
The challenge is that both pharmaceuticals and cab rides fall under the purview of state licensing and therefore have a modicum of state oversight. I would think that nondiscrimination clauses should apply in both cases and that these cabbies should not be able to prohibit riders who are carrying legal and unopened substances.

After all, it really comes down to an issue of religion in a secular society - your freedom to practice extends right up until you force your beliefs on me. Christian fundies, take note.

A nifty new way to see candidates debate

Minnesota will be allowing all the gubernatorial candidates in this year's election to participate in 10-day online debate that started this Monday. Check out the announcement from E-Democracy for more details:

E-Democracy.Org and the Blandin Foundation are pleased to announce an online candidate debate with Minnesota’s gubernatorial candidates. The e-debate starts on Monday, October 9th and goes through Thursday, October 19th.

The officially confirmed and participating candidates - everyone on the ballot - include:

* Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Republican
* Atty Gen. Mike Hatch, DFL
* Peter Hutchinson, Independence
* Ken Pentel, Green
* Leslie Davis, American
* Walt Brown, Quit Raising Taxes

With new responses each weekday, this “on-demand” debate let’s you choose which candidates and questions to follow. With Voter Voices (below) you can have your say in text or multimedia. This is what any time, anywhere democracy is all about.

See the debate here or sign up to receive the e-debate e-mail by sending an email to MN Politics

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Don't Eat at Joe's for your health

There seem to be pretty regular stories about how an Asian diet (focused more on fish) or a Mediterranean diet (with olive oil, etc) helps to reduce the incidence of disease. You know which diet never gets mentioned? The American one, since it just seems to make people fat.

What really gets their gourd

When interviewed about the Foley scandal and its potential impact on their vote, many Republican evangelical Christians said that it was a personal moral failing of Foley's and not an issue with Republican leadership. More to the point, several commented along this vein: "I do not believe in homosexuality."

Note to fundies: soliciting sexual favors from minors is not the same as being gay.

Monday, October 09, 2006

See wind turbine construction in action!

In my new job capacity, I'm paying a lot more attention to wind power and this weekend I got to see a recently completed 1.65MW turbine in action. Check out this time lapse video of its construction.

Feed the beast?

It's a whole new world when a Cato Institute chairman not only comes out against "starving the beast" (the principle of shrinking government by cutting taxes) but says that in fact tax increases may be the most effective way to slow government spending.

As promised

Bush's anti-terror policies have made the world safer...

Friday, October 06, 2006

What's in a name?

A name can be from a much-loved relative, a Christian reference, or even a commercial product. But it's also a detriment to your employment hopes if it "sounds black." Lovely.

It's not enough to turn out the lights

It probably doesn't hurt that I have a new job doing research on alternative energy and local economic development, but I've been enthralled recently by ways to reduce electric bills. The concept of vampire appliances has particularly caught my attention, because it's annoying to think that I'm paying for electricity when I'm not even using a device. If you have a TV, a DVD player, or a home security system, check this out.

Oh, and if you're looking for compact fluorescent bulbs that have similar color to incadescents but don't cost an arm and a leg, check out this company for your energy efficient bulbs.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

We'd step in, but we don't want to gay bash

The Daily Show had a great segment this week about the Republican scandal over Congressman Foley, who turned out to be a pedophile that Republican leadership was unwilling to out for several months. One excuse offered by some Republicans, including Newt Gingrich, was that the leadership did not want to be perceived as gay bashing for outing Foley's predatory messages to Congressional pages.

Stewart notes that a party wanting to avoid gay bashing would do well to distinguish between being gay and being a pedophile.

Monday, October 02, 2006

A few points on health care

Rising health care costs come from a lot of places, one of which is simply the fact that we want to live healthier, longer. But this guy looks at some of the most significant ways to address the not-so-necessary costs of doing health care business.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Redefining abortion

According to this essay, I would be pro-baby, but are there any pro-spermers who'd like to speak up?

Friday, September 22, 2006

The Uses of Scare-Talk

Such is the title of a recent Economist article, highlighting the strategy of national Republicans in the face of poor prospects in this fall's Congressional elections.

We're making progress?

The image says it all.

John Lennon and National Security

If you're looking for a reason why John Lennon's FBI files are considered key to national security, you better ask the Bush administration. According to this story, several of the documents in his file are being kept classified long past the date that documents usually enter the public record. Perhaps it had to do with his fervent opposition to the Vietnam War, though I wouldn't put it past some Bush administration bureaucrat who's nervous about Lennon's wife's foreign name.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Friday, September 15, 2006

Can one state stop global warming?

California might not be solving the problem all by itself, but it's "gambling" (as the NY Times describes it) that by being a leader in improving energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gases, it will create a following among other American states in the task of fighting global warming. The Times article also discusses the federal lawsuit resulting from the new California law, as the Bush administration argues that regulating carbon dioxide emissions in cars (as the legislation calls for) is equivalent to regulating fuel efficiency, the sole purview of the Federal Government.

It will require some good science to make that case to the court for the Bush Administration - nice to see that they'll use science when it suits them.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Dear Sprint mobile phone users

Please use the following instructions to save me valuable minutes when I call your phone. First, turn off the option to let me send a numeric page, that is so 1990s. Call voicemail, select (3) for personal options, (1) for notification options, and (2) to turn off the numeric page.

To skip the annoying digitized voice providing instructions as to how to "leave a message after the beep," do the following:
Once you're logged into your voicemail, the sequence is: Personal Options (3), Greetings (3), Personal Greetings (1), Caller Instructions (3). It'll demonstrate the message for you and you'll press (2) to turn it off forever. Once you've disabled the caller instructions, it will go directly from your outgoing message to the beep.

You've now returned the simplicity of an answering machine to your iPhone or ePod or RAZR...

Thank you

P.S. You can learn how to skip to the beep in voicemail hell on a stock phone here.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Why we have courts...

...instead of media convictions. Google News still shows more than 2,000 articles on the supposed JonBenet Ramsey killer - a man the Colorado DA says they had "no concrete evidence beyond the rambling confessions" for bringing in. What a ridiculous waste of energy.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Are we winning?

When a foiled terror plot leads to substantial news coverage, a lot of talking heads fear-mongering, and even greater security restrictions on flights, are we letting the terrorists have their day?

The latest terror threat has led to the banning of liquids on planes, despite chemists continued assertions of the miniscule threat. And of course, it has racheted up the fear factor in boarding a plane.

Here's a question: if the War on Terror simply increases the population's fear of terror, then have we already lost? Is victory the bliss of ignorance of terror, the security of freedom from terror, or somewhere in between?

Not a nation, a Congress divided

Abortion, prescription drug imports, and gay marriage might create stark divisions in Congress, but the picture in the broader electorate is a little more muted.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

A freefall of respect for college football

It's one thing to have a team like UW beat the snot out of San Diego State, but it's quite another thing to realize that most major division I-A programs essentially buy their weak schedule. Lame!

Monday, August 21, 2006

Things that make you shiver

Pedophiles love the internet, as it allows them to find like-minded people to help them rationalize their deviant behavior. Apparently this community of sins has also developed their own "secret" signs, including jewelry and web images. If you see these, it might be time to send the FBI a tip or at the very least, keep your kids away!

Friday, August 18, 2006

Once again, kill the messenger

The big news this week is that a federal judge struck down the NSA's domestic wiretapping program, calling for its immediate cessation. While the President responded with arguments about the need to combat terrorism, the Republican Party immediately set out to discredit the judge's opinion, rather than dispute the legal facts: "Republicans said the decision was the work of a liberal judge advancing a partisan agenda."

You have your appeal, use it. Losers are so much uglier when they throw a tantrum on the way down.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Maintaining life's little escapes

For those of you languishing in office jobs where supervision is a lot like preschool, here's a nifty way to find a few free moments in your day. Just surf to workFriendly and type in a web address and, voila, you can be reading about Lance Bass in People in no time, with the boss none the wiser. I especially like the "Boss Key," which changes your webpage to a document of inspirational statements on work with just a mouseover.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Hybrids may save the environment, but not your pocketbook

The Omninerd has a thorough analysis of the economics of hybrid cars and concludes that for overall savings, it's still far more economical to drive a conventional high efficiency vehicle like a Toyota Corolla than a "gas sipping" hybrid Prius. Those who also employ an environmental consideration in their purchasing decision may be willing to pay a premium for lower overall gas consumption, but saving the Earth is not equal to saving money in this case.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Fuel-efficiency-come-lately

Many economists will use this article as proof that the market can effectively regulate fuel efficiency. Prices are up, and demand for efficiency rises. Unfortunately, the economists will miss a few points:
  • For the poorest Americans, a tripling of gas prices (as has nearly happened since 2000) creates a disproportionate burden on poor families, who have little discretionary income to cover them.
  • It overlooks what we could have done with a sizable gas tax in 2000, driving fuel use down and banking the money for mass transit and car-alternatives to save even more fuel, as well as providing people with transportation options.
  • If nothing else, we could have used the extra money to help balance the budget.
In other words, I'm delighted to see that people are turned on to more fuel efficient vehicles. It's just too bad we've waited until those high pump prices mean more money for Saudi madrasahs instead of American metrorails.

The stag rears its ugly head

So just last week I noted that comments about stagflation might be overblown, given fairly strong GDP growth and fairly low inflation (despite rising energy prices). But that argument just developed a hole the size of oil barrel prices: the latest economic report shows growth slowing to 2.5% annually in the second quarter, but inflation surging at 5.6%. It may not be time to bust out the wheelbarrows, but with wages predicted to rise less than 4% this year, we'll all be making a little less on the same dollar by Christmas.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The even numbered key to Middle East conflict

Ever wonder why Israel and the Palestinians/Arabs/Hezbollah have been at it since 1948? Why there's more intense bloodshed now? Why Northern Ireland was a place of near-constant strife for 150 years?

A psychology professor from Harvard recently published an article in the NY Times where he discusses the two principles of the legitimate use of force and how the human brain regularly short-circuits our ability to follow them.

The two principles of justifiable force are:
1) that your strike must be even numbered (i.e. you are hitting back, not striking first - unless it be an oil-laden country whose leader "hurt your daddy")
2) that your strike not exceed the first in force (proportionality)

However, human brains are poorly wired to follow these principles. The problem with the first principle is simply that people count differently. What seems like the first offense to me seems like a measured response to you, and thus we each perceive that we are dealing out even-numbered strikes.

Proportionality is also short-circuited by the human brain.
Research teaches us that our reasons and our pains are more palpable, more obvious and real, than are the reasons and pains of others. This leads to the escalation of mutual harm, to the illusion that others are solely responsible for it and to the belief that our actions are justifiable responses to theirs.
The article illustrates this with a poking game, where two volunteers exchange pokes with instructions to poke back only as hard as they were poked. Despite the instructions, each person averaged 40% more force when returning a poke, quickly escalating the level of force.

In other words, these world-capturing conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere are simply large-scale human fallibility. Israel strikes at Hezbollah for capturing soldiers, while Hezbollah does that in retaliation for a previous offense. Each retaliation changes which strike is even-numbered, and no one remembers where it began.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Blowing a hole in the world's nuclear non-proliferation regime

Several weeks ago, the Bush administration proudly announced a deal to offer civilian nuclear assistance to India. While the aid itself is unremarkable, it is precedent-setting because until now, a country had to renounce nuclear weapons in order to receive civilian technological assistance and materials. No more.

The US is the first nuclear-powered nation to open the door to proliferation by signing a deal with India allowing the transference of nuclear technology. While the President has indicated that some safeguards will be in place, the Economist notes that there's no real way to keep the technology from being co-opted into India's active nuclear weapons program. In particular, India's shortage of high-grade uranium for bomb-making might be a problem of the past, as they would be able to divert uranium intended for civilian use into bombs.

I can't see how this is a good move in a region where two nuclear powers (Pakistan and India) are regularly practicing brinkmanship.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Breed for niceness?

According to this long-running study in the former Soviet Union, not only do mean people suck, but their meanness might be genetic. Apparently, Soviet scientists were essentially able to domesticate a silver fox and rats within a human lifetime by always pairing the most tame animals for mating. What shall we domesticate next?

Friday, July 21, 2006

Bulls, and Bears, and Stags - Oh My!

You don't hear much about economic downturns or inflation from the government and indeed not even much from the media. But The Austrailian doesn't shy from an assessment that the United States could be facing stagflation - a combination of a slowing economy and rising inflation that eats away the standard of living.

The Economist opined last year that while the United States was not facing the same dual punch as it did in the 1970s (with inflation above 7% and GDP growth hovering at 1%), the Federal Reserve was running too loose of a monetary policy to effectively contain inflation. This means that interest rates are still too low to act as a curb on borrowing and spending (which leads to inflation).

However, the data show that we aren't really in trouble yet. Pulling some data from the BLS, we see that US inflation (as measured by the Consumer Price Index) was up 3.3% last year and is up at a similar annual rate this year. And GDP growth was 3.5% in 2005 and 5.6% (annualized) in the first quarter of 2006. So despite a growing number of news stories about it, do we really need to worry about stagflation yet?

Let's try a post 9/11 government

As usual, you can count on Bill Clinton to be articulate when describing the need to switch the party in control of government. Who's really interested in the security of Americans? It's not our administration!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

We must protect the sheep - and the cute little chicks

If there's one thing sticking in Osama bin Laden's craw, it must be the "Great Satan's" ability to defend it's most valuable resources. That's right, Old MacDonald’s Petting Zoo is featured in the federal antiterrorism database, listed as a national asset alongside the Golden Gate Bridge, Empire State Building, and US Capitol.

Even better is the listing of Amish Country Popcorn. When the proprietor of this fine establishment was interviewed about his listing in the National Asset Database, he had this to say:
“I am out in the middle of nowhere,” said Mr. Lehman, whose business in Berne, Ind., has five employees and grows and distributes popcorn. “We are nothing but a bunch of Amish buggies and tractors out here. No one would care.”

But on second thought, he came up with an explanation: “Maybe because popcorn explodes?”

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Open the books, Uncle Sam

One of the main ideas behind American government is that the people rule. And flowing from this principle is the concept that people should be informed so that they make good choices. Laws like the Freedom of Information Act - turning 40 this year - were designed to ensure that the public has access to documentation of the government's business. So what's with the dramatically increasing level of government secrecy?

This kind of restriction is what's happening to American government, as increased secrecy removes a lot of public decisions from the scrutiny of citizens. And since citizens are supposed to hold the power in a country with democratic self-rule, secrecy is the enemy of effective and responsive government. If you don't buy it from me, check out Jimmy Carter's recent commentary or view the secrecy video at openthegovernment.org.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Does Wal-Mart make it not organic?

Picture organic farms and you might see a farm family, carefully avoiding the use of pesticides or even mechanized equipment in order to raise the most natural animals, vegetables or grain. Technically, you might be overreaching, as the USDA defines organic food as stuff raised without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. But you probably don't imagine mass produced products at Wal-Mart as falling into the organic category. And there you'd be wrong.

Recognizing that organic food is a rapidly growing industry, Wal-Mart has decided to jump whole (grass fed) hog into the organic market. But the question is: once Wal-Mart goes organic, does organic really mean the same thing?

Beyond the USDA definition, Michael Pollan says that organic food "should be priced not high or low but responsibly." In other words, Wal-Mart's promise to reduce the premium on organic foods to just 10% of the conventional food price means that it won't be possible to do organic farming the same way. Pollan mentions the concept of "organic feedlots," where milk cows are raised - not roaming a grass-covered field - but in virtually the same way as conventional milk cows, substituting in organic grain.

The other factor in low prices is transporting organic food from the cheapest locale. However, while this organic food might avoid pesticides and herbicides, as Pollan puts it, it will be "drenched in petroleum." With oil profits often enriching large corporations - or more worriedly - illiberal regimes in the Middle East, perhaps cheap organic food is too costly to the concept of sustainability.

But at least it won't be elitist anymore...

Thursday, July 06, 2006

A race to watch

Connecticut "Democratic" Senator Joe Lieberman is facing a primary challenge from Ned Lamont, a progressive who's drawing a stark contrast to Lieberman's unwavering support for the Iraq War. One tool in Lamont's arsenal is his advertising agency. The agency is run by Bill Hillsman, who helped Paul Wellstone's long-shot campaign for Senate in 1990. Hillsman also teamed up with Jesse Ventura in his successful 1998 campaign for governor of Minnesota and he made a great ad ("priceless") for Ralph Nader in 2000. See Hillsman's work here.

It's going to be rough going for Lieberman - not that I'll shed many tears for his poor policy choices.

Racial profiling by name

Is there really anything more we can do to alienate otherwise friendly Arabs? We already have few enough friends in the Arab world. And even though there may only be 200,000 Arabs living in the United States, each one serves as an ambassador of American ideas to their relatives back home.

So it probably doesn't do us any favors to have Western Union, citing Treasury Department policy, prohibiting money transfers to people with Arab-sounding names. Here's just a few reasons why this is dumb:
  • We punish innocent people with Arab names
  • As a result, we further erode Arab opinion of the United States
  • We don't actually prevent terrorist money transfers, because there are alternative money-transfer services.

I'm just glad there weren't any Irish terrorists involved in 9/11.

Back from vacation

T've had the good fortune to have two mini vacations in the past few weeks, the first to Jamaica to see a friend's wedding and the second to family cabins. It's meant a lot of relaxing near water, the discovery of a local beer, and some sailing.

I was amused at my recognition of many land and water features on the plane ride to Jamaica, thanks to many hours wasted on Pirates!.

But now I'm back at the library, so I should be getting back to the punditry.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

There's a stand-up guy...

I'm so glad that President Bush can admit his mistakes and reply forthrightly to criticism. In all cases except in his role as President, of course. My favorite line?

[The reporter's] only complaint is that the president didn't answer his question at the news conference.

Friday, June 09, 2006

So why do we do it this way?

A new report on prisons does an admirable job of marking the worst aspects of the American prison system. In spending $60 billion a year for imprisoning 2.2 million convicts, we are buying:
  • A 60% recidivism rate (3/5 convicts reoffend when they leave).
  • Public health threats from poorly treated inmates (who bring diseases like tuberculosis back into society).
  • High rates of violence between inmates and between inmates and staff, often from overcrowding and cutbacks in prison programming.
What's disappointing is that no one should need this report to know that there are better ways.