October 31, 2007

But what will they play for Cheney Putin?

Perry de Havilland shares a joke with an unknown military music director:

I was watching the Channel 4 news coverage of the state visit of the King of Saudi Arabia to Britain, when something I saw nearly made me fall off my chair laughing.

So what does the British Army band for the guard of honour strike up as The Man himself steps out of his limo to high-five Her Majesty?

The Darth Vader March from Star Wars (click on 'watch the report' to see for yourself). I kid you not.

Someone somewhere deserves a medal.

Posted by Nicholas at 06:41 PM | Comments (0)

The anti-age-effects movement

What would our society look like if, as we aged, we didn't suffer the physical infirmities of aging? Given all the money that will be moving into gerontological research in the next ten years, we have some chance to find out for ourselves:

"If we want to hit the high points, number one is, there will not be any frail elderly people. Which means we won't be spending all this unbelievable amount of money keeping all those frail elderly people alive for like one extra year the way we do at the moment. That money will be available to spend on important things like, well, obviously, providing the health care to keep us that way, but that won't be anything like so expensive. Secondly, just doing the things we can't afford now, giving people proper education and not just when they're kids, but also proper adult education and retraining and so on.

"Another thing that's going to have to change completely is retirement. For the moment, when you retire, you retire forever. We're sorry for old people because they're going downhill. There will be no real moral or sociological requirement to do that. Sure, there is going to be a need for Social Security as a safety net just as there is now. But retirement will be a periodic thing. You'll be a journalist for 40 years or whatever and then you'll be sick of it and you'll retire on your savings or on a state pension, depending on what the system is. So after 20 years, golf will have lost its novelty value, and you'll want to do something else with your life. You'll get more retraining and education, and go and be a rock star for 40 years, and then retire again and so on."

As many people have pointed out, the "baby boomers" will have enough political and financial clout to direct a lot of efforts toward the things that concern them . . . and they're all starting to get close to drawing a pension cheque. Living longer isn't as important to most people as living healthier for as long as they live. That's more of a challenge, but with enough attention paid to it, any challenge can be tackled.

Posted by Nicholas at 06:13 PM | Comments (0)

From the Blindingly Obvious beat . . .

"The state of Texas just spent 18-months to publish a 668-page report finding — wait for it — that the state of Texas issues too many reports."

For most of us, just substitute the local/regional/state/provincial or national government of choice and it'll still be absolutely true.

Posted by Nicholas at 01:03 PM | Comments (0)

QotD: The ever-expanding waistline

Meanwhile, there's the Disney World turnstiles problem. Uncle Walt's Florida showcase opened in 1971, and its turnstiles are sized for waistlines of that era. More than a few Americans now cannot pass through the Disney World turnstiles; when my son Spenser and I were at Disney World a couple of years ago, gate staffers were on hand to help those who needed to bypass turnstiles to enter the park. Two years ago when 300-pound defensive tackle Tommie Harris was drafted in the first round by the Bears, Harris exclaimed that he might be huge but he was fit and said the proof of his fitness was that he recently had been able to go through a turnstile at Disney World. Today, significant numbers of visitors to Disney World are bigger than a Bears defensive tackle. Something to think about.

Gregg Easterbrook, "TMQ: Ticket, Please!", ESPN Page 2, 2007-10-30

Posted by Nicholas at 09:13 AM | Comments (0)

October 29, 2007

QotD: The net

What's happening here? What is it about the network that makes it so potent? Simply this: the network, in every form, is anathema to hierarchy. The network represents the other form of organization, not a contradiction of hierarchy, but, rather, a counterpoint to it. I've rewritten Gilmore's Law to reflect this:

"The net regards hierarchy as a failure, and routes around it."

For the fifty-five hundred years of human civilization, hierarchy has always had the upper hand. Now the network, amplified by all those wires and routers, is stronger than hierarchy, and battle has been joined. But this isn't going to be some full-on Armageddon, a battle between the Empire and the Alliance; this is the Death of a Thousand Cuts. The network is simply kicking the legs out from under hierarchies, everywhere they exist, for as long as they exist, until they find themselves unable to rise again. What it really come down to is this: we are assuming management of our own affairs, because we are now empowered to do so. It doesn't matter if you're a maize farmer in Kenya or a video producer in Queensland; these mob rules apply to us mob.

Mark Pesce, "Mob Rules (The Law of Fives)", hyperpeople, 2007-09-28

Posted by Nicholas at 12:58 PM | Comments (1)

October 28, 2007

QotD: Moderation in religious belief

I have never believed that such a thing as "moderate Islam" exists, any more than I believe that "moderate Christianity" exists. Either Jesus Christ died to take away the sins of the world, or he did not; if one believes that Jesus was just another preacher with a knack for parables, one quickly will be an ex-Christian. Either God dictated a final revelation to Mohammed which invalidates the corrupted scriptures of Jews and Christians, and the sign of the crescent should rise above the whole world, or he did not.

Spengler, "Why does Turkey hate America?", Asia Times, 2007-10-23

Posted by Nicholas at 12:17 PM | Comments (0)

October 27, 2007

At least Colby agrees with me . . .

Colby Cosh finally admits to feeling similar concerns about the widespread belief in official Chinese economic figures:

Are the spectacular Chinese economic growth numbers of the post-Deng era reliable? The West has been tricked into bad policy decisions before because economists foolishly trusted Communist growth estimates. The George Mason economist Bryan Caplan has just voiced what I've been thinking since the early 1990s (which is admittedly a long time to wait for data to be falsified)

[. . .]

The two-headed creature so often talked of as "Chinanindia" (I think at this point we can just start calling it "Chindia") has taken over from Japan in our imaginations as the next "obvious" successor to the economy supremacy of the West. Japan turned out to be the wrong horse to bet on, and still hasn't fixed all of its macroeconomic issues. And it is often forgotten that even by official numbers China's economy is still much smaller than the U.S.'s and is dwarfed by the combined size of NAFTA and the EU.

Of course, I've been riding this hobby horse occasionally since 2004.

Posted by Nicholas at 08:53 PM | Comments (0)

Someone has a sense of humour

Communist_Fiction27Oct07.JPG

The Communist Manifesto, filed in the Fiction bargain bin.

Posted by Nicholas at 04:38 PM | Comments (0)

Micro microeconomics

You can tell how well an economy is performing by certain (trailing) indicators: how well low-level service jobs are performed. When the economy is doing well, these jobs are being filled by less skilled, less competent, less motivated workers. When the economy is doing poorly, these jobs are being staffed by people who are often seriously over-qualified for the work, but need the money. I've often jokingly referred to this as "Russon's Law of Economics", always in the context of suffering through terrible service at a store or restaurant.

On that basis, I'd have to say that the Ontario economy is performing far better than the official numbers indicate: service and entry level jobs are being performed as badly as I've ever seen. For example, in the office complex at work, there's a coffee shop offering the usual variety of hippy-dippy frappy latté options. It's becoming a joke between me and the manager that they can't get my own order right twice running (unless he or the assistant manager does it). I've had several unidentifiable beverages offered to me that then have to be thrown out and re-made properly. And, of course, the staff turn over at a fairly high rate (I've been going in there for three months, and over that time, only the manager and assistant manager are still there).

That's not too surprising . . . coffee shop jobs aren't the sort of thing that people aspire to as career moves. But it's not just coffee shop jobs that are showing this kind of downward drift in skill and attention. My employer has been trying to get a set of business cards printed — for months — and the printer seems to be staffed by illiterate and incompetent shaved baboons.

In this run, there are four managers who need new business cards. The information is sent to the printer electronically, and they set the cards and fax back proofs for us to examine and approve. We went through nine proofs before we could sign off on them.

Now think about this for a second . . . a business card has only a few key elements: the company name, the person's name, the title, the address, the email address, and the telephone numbers. Even if you got each of them wrong, it shouldn't take more than one more proof to fix things, right?

I can only assume, on the evidence presented in the successive proofs, that they were throwing away the draft each and every time and starting over from scratch . . . because each proof showed new and different errors!

I wasn't keeping track of the errors (because I never thought it would take so long to fix them), but the first time out, the company name was missing from three of the four cards. The next time, that error recurred, but now they'd used the same telephone number for all four cards. The time after that, still no company name on three of four, but now a different — wrong — number was used for the cell phone numbers on all the cards. And so on, and so on.

The actual printed cards finally showed up yesterday, and there's still a minor glitch on my own card, but it's close enough to correct that it's not worth the time and effort to try to get it fixed.

What's even scarier is that this is the fourth printer we've used, and (according to the person who deals with the printers) the other three were worse.

Oh, yes. The economy is doing just fine . . .

Posted by Nicholas at 10:13 AM | Comments (0)

October 26, 2007

Che's kids become non-persons in Iran

Brian Micklethwait links to an interesting story of worlds colliding:

A glorious culture clash took place in Iran recently that made me laugh out loud. The children of Che Guevara, the revolutionary pin-up, had been invited to Tehran University to commemorate the 40th anniversary of their father's death and celebrate the growing solidarity between "the left and revolutionary Islam" at a conference partly paid for by Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president.

There were fraternal greetings and smiles all round as America's "earth-devouring ambitions" were denounced. But then one of the speakers, Hajj Saeed Qassemi, the co-ordinator of the Association of Volunteers for Suicide-Martyrdom (who presumably remains selflessly alive for the cause), revealed that Che was a "truly religious man who believed in God and hated communism and the Soviet Union".

Che's daughter Aleida wondered if something might have been lost in translation. "My father never mentioned God," she said, to the consternation of the audience. "He never met God." During the commotion, Aleida and her brother were led swiftly out of the hall and escorted back to their hotel. "By the end of the day, the two Guevaras had become non-persons. The state-controlled media suddenly forgot their existence," the Iranian writer Amir Taheri noted.

Posted by Nicholas at 01:01 PM | Comments (0)

Beyond parody, parks division

Your first amendment rights begin here "(A permit is required)"

Posted by Nicholas at 08:20 AM | Comments (0)

QotD: The Farm Question

Here's how the American free enterprise system works. You have an idea for a business. You find the money to start it up. You try to give customers something they want at a price low enough to keep them happy but high enough to earn a profit. Either your plan works, allowing you to make a living, or it doesn't, indicating you should find a different line of work.

Unless, of course, you are a farmer, in which case all this may sound unfamiliar. A lot of American agriculture operates in an environment where none of the usual rules apply — where the important thing is not catering to the consumer, but tapping the Treasury. It's a sector that, ever since the Great Depression, has been a ward of the government, both coddled and controlled.

By any reasonable standard, federal agriculture policy is past due for a major overhaul. But judging from the latest farm legislation moving through Congress, not much is going to change.

Back in the 1930s, when the economy was a wreck, the survival of capitalism was in doubt and Oklahoma was blowing away, you could understand the impulse for Washington to intervene on behalf of farmers. But the days when agriculture meant a lifetime of toil for a meager living are just a memory. Today, farmers monitor soil conditions by computer, drive air-conditioned tractors and have a higher average income than nonfarmers.

Yet many of them continue to enjoy treatment other industries can only dream about. Imagine the government rigging the market to assure high prices to people selling concrete or cameras. Dairy farmers and sugar growers get exactly that, courtesy of the Department of Agriculture. Farmers who plant a host of other crops receive compensation anytime their prices fall below a fixed minimum.

Steve Chapman, "Take the Federal Out of Farming", Reason Online, 2007-10-25

Posted by Nicholas at 08:20 AM | Comments (0)

October 25, 2007

Deadlines loom . . .

. . . blogging will be light. Apologies, etc. Later.

Posted by Nicholas at 08:40 AM | Comments (0)

October 24, 2007

The oversize backlash

Juliet Samuel finds that the put-upon, verbally abused overweight people of America are not taking this lying down:

Listen to any public health official and you'd think obesity was a scientific slam dunk, but studies on the exact causes and effects of weight gain are highly ambiguous. One study of 25,000 men by The Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research, for example, found that a fit fatso is actually healthier than a sedentary skinny: over an eight year period even those technically classified as "obese" (a BMI of over 30) were less likely to die from heart attacks, strokes and cancer than inactive people of normal weight. And many of the studies released as "proof" of America's impending death by gristle fail to take into account confounding variables, like yo-yo dieting, a sedentary lifestyle and fat distribution on the body.

But even if the science were sound, public officials and anti-fat crusaders still confuse bad health with moral depravity. Paul Campos, a law professor at Colorado University and author of The Obesity Myth, claims that this "moral panic" sticks because it finds an "ideological resonance." On the right it appeals to an ascetic attitude; on the left it taps into anxieties about capitalist over-consumption and manipulative force-feeding by corporations.

Unfortunately, the "obesity crisis" has real victims. At 500 pounds, Gary Sticklaufer was judged too fat to make a good adoptive father to his own cousin—despite having adopted and raised several other children without problems. His cousin was forcibly taken from his care. Meanwhile, fat women are regularly told by their doctors that to become pregnant would be irresponsible, despite a lack of medical evidence demonstrating a higher risk for overweight women. And in the UK it's now commonplace to raise concerns over fat children with a view to placing them in foster care. In short, cutting a slim figure is now a moral imperative for responsible parenting, and those who refuse the "cure" to this aesthetic "disease" are summarily punished.

Posted by Nicholas at 08:48 AM | Comments (1)

October 23, 2007

Obesity "epidemic" now world-wide phenomenon

Instead of the rest of the world poking fun at how fat Americans are, the rest of the world is hurrying to catch up:

Between half and two-thirds of men and women in 63 countries across five continents — not including the US — were overweight or obese in 2006.

The Circulation journal study included over 168,000 people evaluated by a primary care doctor.

Experts said the findings were deeply worrying.

Of course, this is all revolving around the increase in BMI numbers, which are not necessarily a good proxy for general health (I've dissed BMI a few times before).

Canada and South Africa are joint leaders in the world-wide waist-expansion sweepstakes:

Just 7% of people in eastern Asia were obese, compared to 36% of people seeing their doctors in Canada, 38% of women in Middle Eastern countries and 40% in South Africa.

Canada and South Africa led in the percentage of overweight people, with an average BMI of 29 among both men and women in Canada and 29 among South African women.

It's not clear that these numbers are totally valid: they encompass a large number of people, but these are the people who happened to visit their primary care provider on a particular day.

Posted by Nicholas at 06:26 PM | Comments (0)

QotD: "Le p'tit gar"

Reading this book you detect an undercurrent of hostility toward "Bay Street" and "Wall Street," but no great sense of what Chrétien's for — other than "tolerance" and the other hollow cobwebbed buzzwords that boil down to little more than a passionate belief in not believing passionately in anything. The Iraq chapter is headlined "No To War," as if M. Chrétien is an elderly student on the march with Naomi Klein and Maude Barlow. In fact, under the cover of various "liaison" programs, Canada had more men in Iraq than many full-throated paid-up members of the "coalition of the willing." It was happy to be a unilateral coalition of the unwilling as long as it didn't have to march in the victory parade. But the author strains credibility when he claims to have told Bush, six months before the invasion, "I've been reading all my briefings about the weapons of mass destruction, and I'm not convinced. I think the evidence is very shaky." My Beltway pals scoffed when I relayed this snippet to them, and I'm inclined to agree. Even Chrétien's chum Chirac, who opposed the war, never disputed the fact that Saddam had WMDs, if only because he had a big bunch of the relevant receipts.

Mark Steyn, "He's still da boss", Macleans, 2007-10-23

Posted by Nicholas at 01:00 PM | Comments (0)

Graphical apologies

My apologies again to those of you attempting to read the blog using IE or Opera: I must have done something to the site template that breaks the display paradigm for those browsers, but I don't know what it might be. As I can't seem to track down the problem, I can't manage to fix it either.

And no, it's not some weird attempt to make you all switch over to Firefox, either . . . but the site does display properly in that browser.

Posted by Nicholas at 12:36 PM | Comments (0)

Two movies

James Lileks casts a jaundiced eye over the recent movie pairing of Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of our fathers:

"Flags of our Fathers" spent as little time as necessary on Iwo Jima, and concentrated its rambling Mobius-strip narrative on the domestic propaganda uses of the flag-raising photo. The government, for the usual devious reasons, used the photo to bolster support for the war, which was going on for some reason or another; the details weren’t entirely clear. "Letters from Iwo Jima" spends as little time as necessary on the domestic front, but a flashback does give us a hint about Japanese society during the war. An officer assigned to Iwo Jima to enforce political purity — you know, the way the Navy regularly posted officers to make sure everyone bowed to a picture of FDR every day — reveals his moment of shame, when he was forced by a superior to kill . . . a dog. A family dog. That tells us everything, I guess: these guys will kill a family dog in front of the kids. I gather the dog is supposed to stand in for Nanking.

"Flags of our Fathers" informed me that there were no great causes, that the soldiers were a complaining, fractious lot who fought for each other, and there was no such thing as heroes, just "men like our fathers." The two being mutually exclusive, I guess. "Letters from Iwo Jima" told me that the enemy was full of honor and discipline, which was Tragically Misguided, and it was all quite sad because several of the Japanese officers had been posted to the United States, and performed charmingly at official functions where they were accepted as equals before that terrible misunderstanding at Pearl Harbor.

I almost quit the movie after the Yanks shot the surrendered soldiers. The recollection of the first film, with its vapid screaming PR displays and careful elisions and gruff cynical vets recalling the BS of it all, eventually overwhelmed the respectful treatment of the Japanese. If the same traits — death-worship, the nobility of suicide, fixation on honor not as a trait but a code — had been ascribed to Allied forces, it's impossible to imagine a Hollywood movie that would not have treated the characters as absolute lunatics. I have no problem with a respectful treatment of the soldiers who fought on the other side. But the point of the first movie seems to be the unfortunate effect of the battle on Ira Hayes. Clint Eastwood gave the hero of "Letters" an honorable death. Ira Hayes ended up face down in a pig farm.

Of course, this is merely the American flavour of how history is being taught nowadays: only the warts. It's as if British history was completely and accurately summed up by Cromwell, Glencoe, Amritsar, and the concentration camps. (Sadly, some people would argue strenuously that this is the case . . .)

Posted by Nicholas at 12:18 PM | Comments (0)

October 22, 2007

A response

The post quoting tekwrytr@hotmail.com provoked "Snooty McTooty" to write a spirited response (lifted out of the obscurity of the comments to that post):

As a snooty technical writer myself, I have a few issues with this post.

The author states, "If there is a future for TW, it lies in the area of facilitating knowledge transfer, rather than an obsession with style, form, and consistency."

That's a no-brainer. I think we can all agree that the quality of instructional content is far more critical than the style, form and consistency of the writing itself. I don't think any technical writer would argue otherwise. Although many technical writers serve as their own editors, the processes of writing and editing are distinct. Although it is good to keep style, form and consistency in mind while writing, they are all things to double check during the editing process. The goal of technical writing is to clearly communicate technical information to a (typically) non-technical audience. The only way to achieve that goal is through quality instructional content. Duh!

Also, I think we can agree that as long as humanity creates inherently unintuitive things (from software to garage door openers) there will always be need for clear, concise operating instructions, and thus a need for technical writers. Implying that the future for technical writing is somehow threatened, outdated, or unnecessary is alarmist and absurd.

The author states, "Documentation is not used by the end-user because it is awkward, poorly organized, and in many cases, indecipherable for a user seeking task-accomplishment assistance."

Then why do any of us continue to be paid for our services? If the work product was always horrendous, why is there still a need for it? I have seen many examples of quality end-user documentation.

I do agree that users are primarily interested in task-accomplishment assistance. Users don't want to read an entire manual to figure out how to perform a task at hand. If the manual has a table of contents and an index, guess what, they typically don't have to read every word of the manual. They can use an inventive device called a page number and look up the precise page of instruction relating to their task. Task level assistance can also be achieved using interactive tool tips, context sensitive help files, and in some cases simply writing out pointers on the application itself (many Web-based applications provide instruction right on the application’s page). If a client isn't willing to budget for this level of assistance or for quality documentation, it's the client's fault, not the technical writer's.

I agree that every effort should be made to facilitate user instruction; but at some point users must stop whining and read the instructions. Yes, no-one likes to read instructions. Most of us like to jump right in and start using the application or product. But after we've broken the product or get stuck using the application we eventually have to break out the instruction manual to understand how to accomplish our task.

One last note. Implying that Linux is not a widely used operating system because its documentation is confusing is an extreme oversimplification. What about the fact that Windows comes pre-installed on most PCs? What about the fact that Windows is the standard operating system for most businesses? What about the fact that Windows has a consistent and reasonably easy to understand GUI? What about the fact that Windows ships their OS with a large driver pack? What about the fact that there is a standard process for installing and uninstalling applications under Windows? What about the fact that, for typical users, maybe, just maybe, it IS easier to use Windows than Linux? Linux is languishing because of poor documentation? Come on.

Also, why abbreviate "technical writing" throughout this post? Is it that much of a burden to type out?

TWs ftw!

Posted by Nicholas at 04:46 PM | Comments (0)

October 19, 2007

State of Blog: partially bustulated

I got an email from a regular reader earlier on today, with a screen capture of the blog, showing me that the page layout had broken when viewed in Firefox. I tried looking at the blog in Opera and IE and saw the same thing. But when I view it in Firefox, it looks normal.

What does it look like for you, gentle reader, and what web browser are you using?

Posted by Nicholas at 03:45 PM | Comments (7)

It's not news, it's a Drew Curtis interview

Over on Reason Online, Katherine Mangu-Ward interviews the moving force behind fark.com:

In the golden summer of 1997, small-time ISP entrepreneur Drew Curtis bought fark.com when he noticed all of the good four-letter domains were being snapped up.

Until early 1999, fark.com featured a picture of a very brave squirrel and nothing else. Which, as Curtis notes, "some would argue this is better than what we have now." He briefly considered building a database of Indian curry recipes ("I like to cook, mostly because my wife can't"), but decided to go with Plan B, a site mocking the media (and occasionally Floridians) for their stupidity. Fark, he decided, should be the word for "what fills space when mass media runs out of news." Since then, Fark.com has become the go-to "news" site for the bored at work and sick at heart.

Stepping back from the day-to-day inanity/insanity of the news cycle, Curtis tries to figure out guiding principles behind why networks think it's a good idea to give airtime to 9/11 truthers ("Equal Time for Nut Jobs") or why every issue of Cosmo has exactly the same headlines ("Seasonal garbage") in his new book It's Not News, It's Fark: How Mass Media Tries to Pass Off Crap As News (Gotham).

Posted by Nicholas at 08:53 AM | Comments (0)

"They took the science and they bastardized it"

Don't expect all your genealogical conundrums to be solved with a simple DNA test:

As ads go, they're pretty alluring: "Find out how you are related to Marie Antoinette" and "Discover your relation to Genghis Khan." With a simple swipe of a swab inside the mouth, consumers are told, they can capture DNA for analysis to trace their ancestors and country of origin.

But researchers say genetic ancestry tests being offered by a growing number of companies have significant limitations in pinpointing a long-dead relative on the family tree or tracking down geographical roots.

"These tests all examine a very small fraction of the DNA in your body and the result is that they can only tell you something about a few of all of your ancestors," said Deborah Bolnick, lead author of a paper on the issue published Friday in the journal Science.

"I think it's just important for consumers to be informed about what the test can and cannot do," said Bolnick, an anthropologist and geneticist at the University of Texas in Austin.

Posted by Nicholas at 08:39 AM | Comments (0)

QotD: American Media

Indeed, compared to Europe, this country is doing pretty well. It's almost tabloid newspaper free, with a bifurcated media that generally separates celebrity gossip and news into separate publications—although there are exceptions like the New York Post. In Britain, the three highest circulating daily newspapers (The News of the World, The Sun and The Daily Mail) are aggressively low-brow, a mix of top-heavy women and conjecture-heavy, populist reporting. The country's parliament, often praised as an honest, if overly raucous, chamber of debate from which America could learn, is Crossfire on steroids (and with even less honesty and more partisan hackery). The largest-selling paper on the continent is the ridiculous German daily Bild, a tabloid whose softcore front page make its British cousins seem downright priggish.

Michael Moynihan, "There is no truth: The problem with Jon Stewart's media criticism", Reason Online, 2007-10-18

Posted by Nicholas at 12:26 AM | Comments (0)

October 18, 2007

Sad, true, and depressing

Brian Micklethwait talks about the advantages to criminals in the modern surveillance panopticon that is modern-day Britain:

The ubiquity of surveillance cameras in Britain does not appear to be having any very detectable effect upon the level of crime.

Well, actually, that is not quite right. Total surveillance does dissuade the law-abiding from straying across the line. Surveillance cameras do slow up speeding motorists, for instance. But with one exception. They do far less to slow up motorists who are already criminals. These persons have little further to fear from the criminal-processing system than the complications they already have to live with as a result of already being criminals. In the unlikely event that they are traced, driving a car that isn't theirs or that they have not reported to the various authorities that the rest of us must keep informed about everything, they are processed slowly and clumsily by the criminal-processing system. It is noted yet again that they are criminals, which everyone already knows, and that, pretty much, mostly, is it. Any punishments they suffer are as likely to be badges of honour as they are to be truly feared.

[. . .]

The most spectacular and often newsworthy instances of this contrast between the law-abiding and the criminals occur when the law-abiding fight back against criminals when they are attacked by them. When this happens, and in those cases when both parties are scooped up by the police, perhaps because the law-abider summoned the police and the police actually turned up, the criminals often come off better, because they then know how to handle things. The criminal lies about having aggressed, and in due course walks away. The law-abider tells the truth about how he defended himself, and can land in a world of trouble.

The effect of total surveillance, then, when combined with the rest of the criminal-processing system, is not to abolish criminality, but rather to ensure that we all have to decide, as one big decision for each of us: Am I going to be a criminal, or not? If I am, that's one set of rules, criminal rules, which I must obey. If I am going to be law-abiding, then I must obey the law, whatever that exactly is. (And at all times, now that all infractions can be photographed and recorded for ever, everywhere. If that is not the case now, it soon will be.) But, because the law is so very intrusive and annoying and so full of complexities and arbitrarinesses and injustices, that creates a constant pressure on people to say: To hell with it, I'm going to be a criminal. Meaning: someone who doesn't care who else knows he's a criminal, and who can accordingly relax about being totally surveilled.

Posted by Nicholas at 01:04 PM | Comments (0)

The bottom of the waterfall or going over the top

Given how rarely I post anything in the Tech Writing category, it's mindboggling that I've got two on the same day . . .

John Hedtke (who also blogs — occasionally — at Don't Ask Me; I'm Making This Up As I Go Along) had this to say about a few of the non-traditional software development models:

XP and Agile are excuses for bad behavior. "We're manly men who code brilliantly; we don't need documentation because our code is perfect and if the users don't understand our godlike design, that's their problem." XP and Agile will get code out the door and it may even be good code (occasionally), but it ignores the idea that 90% of programming is maintenance . . . and without internal documentation or process, you have no history.

I've seen XP happening in a number of companies that are now dead. Think of it as evolution in action.

This is not to say that there aren't good aspects to the current flavour-of-the-month software development models, but this particular interpretation of XP/Agile carries with it some built-in flaws, and the poor folks in the QA and Documentation groups are usually the first to get hit with them.

Posted by Nicholas at 12:47 PM | Comments (0)

It's the design, not the documentation

There's a good discussion going on the Framers mailing list today, with this post by "tekwrytr@hotmail.com" being of particular interest:

Technical writing, specifically end-user documentation of software applications, is perceived by the majority of producers as "less than useful" and, in general, a waste of money, time, and effort. Similarly, the TW's view that they are "adding value" to a product may be just as impoverished.

Documentation is not used by the end-user because it is awkward, poorly organized, and in many cases, indecipherable for a user seeking task-accomplishment assistance. Linux is a primary example; despite some of the most dedicated, motivated developers on the planet, and droves of TWs spending endless amounts of time creating "tutorials," introductions," and "documentation," (along with a massive PR pitch by IBM a few years back), Linux languishes. Users avoid it because it is "too difficult to learn."

The underlying cause begs exploration, and is at the heart of technical documentation; does the TW really want the witless user to understand what the TW finds conceptually difficult? Or is there the same tendency in TW that is found in academia — "I took years to learn this, and you expect me to tell you how to do it in half-an-hour?"

I am not suggesting for a minute that the process is planned, or even that the TW is aware of it. I am suggesting that the underlying premise of technical documentation is not "documentation" (as in "creating a record of"), but knowledge transfer. It is in the area of knowledge transfer that TW comes up short. Of all the software documentation available on October 18, 2007, how many pieces are considered easy-to-use by users?

What I suggest is not a simplistic condemnation of TW, or TWs. What I suggest is that the underlying premises of TW may be impoverished, and suffer the same weakness as academic "instruction." That is, replaying the one-to-many lecture style of Aristotle on the computer screen, in the mistaken belief that a user really cares whether every i is dotted and every t crossed, or that a consistent style is used for all code samples, and a consistent voice is used for all explanations.

Finally, the reason that user interfaces in software applications require extensive documentation is a failure in the design and programming stage, not in the documentation stage. If the interface were competently designed, it should be "intuitive" to use, and require only minimalist documentation. If there is a future for TW, it lies in the area of facilitating knowledge transfer, rather than an obsession with style, form, and consistency.

Reproduced by permission.

Posted by Nicholas at 12:39 PM | Comments (1)

Kids, you might as well start smoking right now . . .

. . . because according to most anti-smoking organizations, if you've ever even smelled tobacco smoke, you've probably already suffered all the health problems:

Action on Smoking and Health: "Even for people without such respiratory conditions, breathing drifting tobacco smoke for even brief periods can be deadly. For example, the Centers for Disease Controls [CDC] has warned that breathing drifting tobacco smoke for as little as 30 minutes (less than the time one might be exposed outdoors on a beach, sitting on a park bench, listening to a concert in a park, etc.) can raise a nonsmoker’s risk of suffering a fatal heart attack to that of a smoker."

TobaccoScam: "30 minutes exposure = stiffened, clogged arteries"

Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights: "Even a half hour of secondhand smoke exposure causes heart damage similar to that of habitual smokers. Nonsmokers’ heart arteries showed a reduced ability to dilate, diminishing the ability of the heart to get life-giving blood."

Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Hawaii: "Thirty minutes of secondhand smoke compromises a non-smoker’s coronary arteries to the same extent as in smokers. ... All of these effects not only increase the long term risks of developing heart disease, but also increase the immediate risk of heart attack."

Go ahead, light one up — smoke a pack — if you can't possibly avoid the health risks anyway, you might as well take up the habit, right?

Posted by Nicholas at 09:18 AM | Comments (2)

Sushi: 19th century McDonald's equivalent

Katherine Mangu-Ward reveals the dirty secret behind sushi:

For traditionalists in 19th-century Japan, a new sushi place was a sign the neighborhood was going to hell. In 1852 one writer grumped about the proliferation of sushi stalls in booming industrial Tokyo. The McDonald's of their day, the stalls offered hungry factory workers a quick, cheap meal of fish and sweetened, vinegared rice. If the fish wasn't top of the line, well, a splash of soy sauce and a dab of spicy wasabi perked up a serving of fish gizzards nicely, with some antimicrobial benefits to boot.

Today that writer's spiritual descendants dwell on food chat boards like Chowhound, where calling a new Japanese place "inauthentic" or deriding it as "strip mall" or "food court" quality is the kiss of death. When we think of high-end, "authentic" sushi today, we envision rich, fatty slices of smooth tuna and creamy salmon arranged on a pristine plate — the height of elegant Japanese cuisine. But sushi wasn't always elegant, and salmon and tuna are relatively recent additions to the menu. In that sense, sushi's appearance in food courts worldwide is more a return to the dish's common roots than a betrayal of authenticity. Sushi has always been in flux, with new ingredients and techniques added as convenience demanded. Globalization has sped up that process exponentially, bringing novelty to an old food and bringing traditional food to new places. The story of sushi is the story of globalization writ small — very small, on tiny slivers of raw fish.

Posted by Nicholas at 08:50 AM | Comments (2)

QotD: Soccer

You can put Beckham on the field. You can put Rinaldo on Beckham's shoulders. You can add nudity, stilts, a roving herd of robotic horses that shoot lasers from their eyes — in a sports-saturated age in which Americans have already set aside most weekends to watch hillbillies drive around in circles and the approximately 493 commercials featuring Peyton Manning for some reason, no one man nor team of men nor ambitious attempt at mass hypnosis will succeed in convincing America to watch a sport in which the most common expression is "nil-nil."

And for the love of Mike don't go telling them how popular soccer is in the rest of the world — that only alienates them further. Americans prefer profoundly American pursuits, like football and obesity.

Scott Feschuk, "Who is Your Vagina Wearing?", Macleans Blogs, 2007-10-17

Posted by Nicholas at 12:30 AM | Comments (0)

October 17, 2007

Missing passages from the Throne Speech

Scott Feschuk goes dumpster diving to find the excised sections of the recent Throne Speech:

Only this blog has the 15 key missing passages from last night’s Speech From the Throne:

1. "Honourable Senators, Members of the House of Commons, Ladies and Gentlemen . . . and whatever Stephane Dion qualifies as now that the Prime Minister has possession of his balls."

2. "Through the Speech from the Throne, the Government shares its vision with Canadians . . . along with a sinister mind-control ray that will make you our willing hypno-slave upon the utterance of the code word, 'Pheasant.'"

[. . .]

9. "Our Government will introduce legislation to place formal limits on the use of the federal spending power. This legislation will allow provinces and territories to opt out with reasonable compensation if they offer compatible programs . . . or are Quebec."

10. "Canadians want a government that is a competent and effective manager of the economy . . . which is bad timing, because obviously we're spending our nuts off over here."

Posted by Nicholas at 12:34 PM | Comments (0)

QotD: Modern History

The grade schools no longer teach American history as any kind of coherent narrative. "Paint me warts and all," Oliver Cromwell instructed his portraitist. But in public education, American children paint only the warts — slavery, the ill-treatment of Native Americans, the pollution of the environment, more slavery . . . There are attempts to put a positive spin on things — the Iroquois stewardship of the environment, Rosa Parks' courage on the bus — but, cumulatively, heroism comes to be defined as opposition to that towering Mount Wartmore of dead white males. As in Grenada, the outward symbols are retained — the flag, the Pledge of Allegiance — but an entirely new national narrative has been set in place.

Mark Steyn, "The 'cold civil war' in the US", Macleans, 2007-10-17

Posted by Nicholas at 12:23 PM | Comments (0)

Newest cool epithet: "You're a weathervane!"

Just to show that Canadian politics can be as inane as any state in the union (even Florida), Quebec forges ahead with critical measures to curb pol-on-pol abuse:

Politicians in Quebec's legislature will have to come up with a new way to slag their opponents now that the word 'weathervane' has been added to the list of unparliamentary language.

Speaker Michel Bissonnet judged the word to be "hurtful" as the legislature resumed Tuesday after the summer break. Premier Jean Charest has called Opposition Leader Mario Dumont a weathervane on numerous occasions recently, elevating him on Tuesday to "national weathervane" during the legislature session.

Charest made the crack near the end of the heated debate as he reiterated his belief that the Action democratique du Quebec leader is like a weathervane in the wind because he is always changing directions.

Posted by Nicholas at 08:39 AM | Comments (0)

October 16, 2007

Peterson gets more applause

Scoop Jackson sets his phasers on praise:

Minnesota Vikings rookie Peterson rushed for 224 yards. Two-hundred twenty-four yards. A rookie. In the NFL. Against a Chicago Bears defense (albeit not 100 percent or fully staffed) that carried the team to the Super Bowl nine months ago. And that's not including the 53-yard Devin Hester impersonation Peterson pulled off on a kickoff return that gave his team the field position it needed to kick the game-winning field goal as time expired.

[. . .]

My eyes have seen the glory.

And apparently, I wasn't alone. Keith Olbermann had the same moment, saying, "If we had to show you all of the Adrian Peterson highlights we'd be here until Thursday."

"He's the best player to come into this league since LaDainian Tomlinson," Daryl Johnston said during the broadcast on Fox. "At the beginning we said he was special . . . and he's making the Bear fans go home early."

"He's a very special player," Darrell Bevell, Vikings offensive coordinator said, having had his share of "moments" since the day training camp opened. "He's got special talent. He has that great combination of physicalness but yet speed to take it the distance, and I think he showed all that today."

They've seen the glory too.

If he wasn't real, I'd think he was Xbox'd. One hundred three yards in his first game as a pro . . . off the bench. One hundred fifty yards against the Chiefs in Week 3. In Week 4 against the Packers — 112 yards (on only 12 carries and 108 of those yards came in the first half before the coach stopped giving him the ball in the second half). The third highest total yards by one person (361) in a game in NFL history Sunday.

Posted by Nicholas at 06:16 PM | Comments (0)

Sad, but not surprising

I thought it'd been a long time since I received a catalog from Laissez Faire Books . . . they're shutting down operations:

The catalog has for decades been the best way to keep up on the thankfully ever-growing flood of books of interest to libertarians. While in an Amazon and abebooks age, the need for one special place to go to to obtain sometimes obscure books may be smaller, LFB and its catalog editors' ability (special hat tip to libertarian legend Roy Childs, who edited the catalog in the late '80s and early '90s and read and understood more libertariana than any random 20 ordinary libertarians) find and compile in one place and intelligently review and contextualize,books for the libertarian community will be sorely missed.

As one of the comments said (I hope tongue-in-cheek): "SamB: Goddam big business book sellers running out these small mom and pop laissez faire book stores! The government should do something about this!"

Posted by Nicholas at 12:14 PM | Comments (0)

Can't parody this

From the daily Bleat, a link to a fascinating story of political correctness:

A priest has been interviewed by police on suspicion of inciting racial hatred for expressing his Christian views in his parish newsletter.

Father John Hayes, 71, was quizzed for more than an hour after commenting on the case of a Muslim girl who went to court over her wish to wear a full veil in class.

A sergeant and community support officer turned up without warning at his presbytery after an allegation was made to a Scotland Yard 'hate crimes' unit.

[. . .]

The inquisition in Hornchurch, East London, prompted a furious row about policing priorities. In the past 12 months there have been five murders, 33 rapes, 424 robberies and 2,267 burglaries in the local police borough of Havering.

Yet, despite being accused of turning a blind eye to the inflammatory remarks of some Muslim preachers of hate, the Met still found time to quiz Mr Hayes.

Last night the priest said his 'offending' remarks had concerned Shabina Begum, who, represented by Cherie Blair QC, claimed unsuccessfully that it was her human right to be allowed to wear her jilbab, a loose gown, in class.

After hearing an interview with the girl, Mr Hayes suggested in his internet bulletin to his parishioners that it was never possible to convince anyone by argument in matters of religion.

"My point was that you have to demonstrate what it means to be Christian through your actions," he said.

"Apparently someone in my congregation was unhappy with my comments and, after waiting a year, went to the police to say he had been 'disturbed' by it."

The Rev'll be lucky not to do hard time for this one.

Posted by Nicholas at 09:30 AM | Comments (0)

At least I didn't hit it . . .

On the way home from my badminton club last night, I nearly killed a skunk. Mr. Skunk was running down the middle of the road, in the same direction I was travelling. I came over a small rise, saw him in the way, and swerved ever so slightly so that my wheel didn't run directly over him.

He thanked me for my kindness in the usual manner.

The Quotemobile is now in desperate need of a carwash.

Posted by Nicholas at 09:23 AM | Comments (3)

October 15, 2007

Peterson sets Vikings record

Rookie running back Adrian Peterson set the record for the best rushing performance by a Viking in yesterday's squeaker over the Chicago Bears:

After the greatest single-game rushing performance by a Viking, Adrian Peterson recounted Sunday how the offense set a goal of rushing for 225 yards as a team. "We executed that goal," he said.

The rookie was being very humble. Peterson came within a yard of matching that figure by himself, rushing for 224 yards on 20 carries and scoring on runs of 67, 73 and 35 yards in the Vikings' 34-31 victory over the Bears.

His rushing total broke Chuck Foreman's record of 200 yards on Oct. 24, 1976, at Philadelphia. It also is the most rushing yards given up in Bears history.

Another game I didn't get to see, although I was alternating between elation and depression as the scoreboard updates showed first a strong second half by the Vikes, and then an equally strong recovery by the Bears. When I saw the Bears tie it up at 31 inside the last two minutes, I figured that the Vikes would self-destruct and give the game away in overtime. It was a huge relief when the next update showed the game had ended in regulation with a Vikings field goal.

Posted by Nicholas at 12:50 PM | Comments (0)

The worst commute in L.A.

Drew Carey talks about trying to find ways to fix the commuter nightmare that is Los Angeles. (Sorry, no embedding from that site yet.)

I wrote about my own differing experiences on my public-private commute a few weeks ago.

Posted by Nicholas at 12:29 PM | Comments (0)

QotD: Prices

Price is the single most important item of information that's necessary for individuals to act effectively within that part of our civilization we call the market. Price tells every market participant what to offer, how much of it to offer, and at what level of quality. Yet orthodox Marxism forbids the very activities that generate that all-important information.

The idea, of course, is that the benevolent State should establish "fair" prices, so the lovely Proletariat won't get screwed by evil capitalist pigs. But no single individual or institution can establish price (although that never keeps them from trying), it is established by facts of objective reality, playing against an aggregate of all the economic decisions each of us makes every day, practically every hour, in the process of living and working, buying and selling, bidding in the market for what we need or want, accepting bids on what we make or do.

This doesn't require any sort of formal auction process. If, for instance, something about the idea of high-quality gourmet earthworms in marinara sauce is unappealing, people simply won't buy them — no matter how little you charge — the message conveyed by price is that you should stop making the stuff and leave the poor little earthworms alone.

L. Neil Smith, "The End", Libertarian Enterprise, 2007-10-14

Posted by Nicholas at 08:59 AM | Comments (0)

Good morning

TooEarly_15Oct07.JPG

I'm not used to getting up early enough to see this sort of thing.

Posted by Nicholas at 08:59 AM | Comments (0)

October 13, 2007

"This is my railroad"

One of the most interesting railroad promotional films ever made: This Is My Railroad, Part 1 and Part2. It's portentious, hokey, and triumphal, yet tells more about both the Southern Pacific and the regions it served than anything I've ever seen. If you want to know why the 1940's and 50's were the golden age of railroads, this film will give you a bunch of clues.

TIMR_1.pngTIMR_2.png
TIMR_3.png TIMR_4.png

One of thousands of public domain short films now available from the Prelinger collection at the National Archive.

H/T to Jeff Scarbrough.

Posted by Nicholas at 10:19 PM | Comments (0)

October 12, 2007

QotD: The campaign for the presidency

I have, as of yet, no real opinion about the race, except, as stated before, that I think Giuliani is crazier than a funhouse full of drunk chimps. But what I wonder about Hillary is: do Democrats really like her? Or do they just think that other people like her?

That, after all, was the main problem with John Kerry: he was a Democrat's notion of what a Republican wanted to vote for. After all, he served in 'Nam! I know of exactly one person who was really enthused about Kerry before he won the nomination — and that person worked for the Kerry campaign. Yet somehow, my friends were actually surprised when it turned out that no one else liked John Kerry any more than they did.

I get a similar lukewarm vibe about Hillary from many of the people I know. They themselves will vote for her in the general election because she's a Democrat. But the reasons that they offer that other people will vote for her are kind of lame. Like, she's female. Or she's a Clinton. Or . . . hey, have you noticed, she's a woman? Women love that. And they're half the population!

No one ever argues that they'll vote for her because she's got sound policy ideas and a winning personality, which kind of seem like the criteria Democrats ought to be using.

Megan McArdle, "Hail, Hillary!", Asymmetrical Information, 2007-10-11

Posted by Nicholas at 12:55 PM | Comments (0)

Lorem Ipsum dolor sit amet

From the "I didn't know that" hopper:

What is Lorem Ipsum?
Lorem Ipsum is simply dummy text of the printing and typesetting industry. Lorem Ipsum has been the industry's standard dummy text ever since the 1500s, when an unknown printer took a galley of type and scrambled it to make a type specimen book. It has survived not only five centuries, but also the leap into electronic typesetting, remaining essentially unchanged. It was popularised in the 1960s with the release of Letraset sheets containing Lorem Ipsum passages, and more recently with desktop publishing software like Aldus PageMaker including versions of Lorem Ipsum.

Where does it come from?
Contrary to popular belief, Lorem Ipsum is not simply random text. It has roots in a piece of classical Latin literature from 45 BC, making it over 2000 years old. Richard McClintock, a Latin professor at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, looked up one of the more obscure Latin words, consectetur, from a Lorem Ipsum passage, and going through the cites of the word in classical literature, discovered the undoubtable source. Lorem Ipsum comes from sections 1.10.32 and 1.10.33 of "de Finibus Bonorum et Malorum" (The Extremes of Good and Evil) by Cicero, written in 45 BC. This book is a treatise on the theory of ethics, very popular during the Renaissance. The first line of Lorem Ipsum, "Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet..", comes from a line in section 1.10.32.

Source: http://www.lipsum.com/

Posted by Nicholas at 10:44 AM | Comments (0)

Ain't science wonderful?

I nearly dropped this one in as a quote of the day, but I think it's even funnier in context. First, read the story, then read the comment below.

If they don't stop taking all the oil out of the earth as well as other countries setting off nuclear bombs under ground, the pace of Earth Quakes will carry on; the techtonic plates need that oil to make it easier to glide centimeter by centimeter year in and year out. Take that away and you leave no lubricant and nice big holes the earth decides to fill up.

I shudder to think that this comment comes from someone who graduated from high school . . . possibly even college.

Hat tip to Lois McMaster Bujold, who sent the original link to her mailing list.

Posted by Nicholas at 09:15 AM | Comments (0)

Latest OWR now online

The most recent issue of Ontario Wine Review is now online, with Michael dissing those who don't want to take part in the wine bottle recycling program:

We'll start at the top, where Kelly is at the beer store on a Saturday morning, and shock of all shocks, it's busy . . . hmmm. Saturday, middle of summer, beer store busy . . . now that’s a novelty (please read with dripping sarcasm). The problem: the line up to return empties is "enormous". Again shocking — going to the beer store equals bringing back empties, be it beer, wine or liquor bottles these days — and again, it's the weekend, go figure.

Here we get a respite from complaints about long lines for a brief overview of the McGuinty government's policy of "slapping a 20 cent tax on bottles". I hasten to point out to Kelly that it is not a "tax" — it's a "deposit", which means if you return the bottle, you get it back. Same thing applies to 18L water bottles, any rental equipment, or security deposits on apartments, just to name a few — do we call those taxes? But because the government does it, some have decided to label it a "tax" (I'm neither pro- nor anti-McGuinty here I'm just saying . . .). Come to think about it, does anyone consider the 10 cents per beer bottle a tax? I didn't think so.

Update: Also on the general topic of wine, Nick Gillespie interviews John V.C. Nye about his interesting new book, War, Wine, and Taxes: The Political Economy of Anglo-French Trade, 1689-1900.

Posted by Nicholas at 08:23 AM | Comments (0)

An unromantic view of shooting stars

Col. Chris Hadfield of the Canadian Space Agency discusses the differences between bears in the woods and astronauts in space.

Posted by Nicholas at 08:21 AM | Comments (0)

October 11, 2007

Okay, so it's not a Kylie Minogue thing

Unlike the esteemed Major-General Flea, I don't have a Kylie Minogue fascination going. I do, however, quite enjoy listening to Bif Naked, so her pre-wedding video was of interest.

(Preview here, full clip at Bodog.)

Posted by Nicholas at 08:57 PM | Comments (0)

QotD: Fred Thompson

I'm not sure what kind of reviews zombie candidate Fred Thompson is getting for his performance, but I'll tell you the one thing I like about him: He always has an expression on his face like he just walked out of the most-godawful state fair porta-potty on the hottest day of summer. If Dick Cheney's sneer is a smug, cowardly, Draco Malfoy turn of the lip, Thompson's is full-blown, immersive revulsion and barely constrained contempt for all that he can see, hear, taste, and smell.

So I like that about him. Everything else, not so much.

Nick Gillespie, "The President's Name Is Missing...", Hit and Run, 2007-10-11

Posted by Nicholas at 12:08 PM | Comments (2)

MMP proposal defeated

Well, the election result was pretty much what I expected, no real surprise there. The referendum result was much more pleasant: resounding rejection of MMP:

At 8:15 a.m. ET Thursday, with more than 98 per cent of polls counted, the proposal had the support of 36.8 per cent of the vote. Meanwhile, 63.2 per cent of voters cast their ballots in favour of the existing first-past-the-post (FPTP) system.

Only five ridings, all of them in Toronto, showed a majority supporting MMP.

The MMP proposal required 60 per cent support to become the new electoral system. As well it had to win a majority in 64 ridings.

A citizens assembly was appointed by the previous Liberal government to study the issue. It recommended MMP to replace FPTP, which has been in place in Ontario for 215 years.

Huzzah!

Posted by Nicholas at 09:14 AM | Comments (0)

October 10, 2007

Repost: The value of scrutineers in elections

Back in 2004, I posted a brief discussion of my experiences as a scrutineer during a by-election in the 1980s. It seems appropriate to re-post that story today:

[. . .] In Canada, these people are called "scrutineers" and they have a vital job.

No, I'm not kidding about the vital part. Each candidate has the right to appoint a scrutineer for every poll in the riding (usually only the Liberal, NDP, and Conservative parties can manage to field that many people). I was a scrutineer during a federal byelection in the mid-1980's in a Toronto-area riding, but I had five polls to monitor (all were in the same school gymnasium). This was my first real experience of how dirty the political system can be.

The scrutineers have the right to challenge voters — although I don't remember any challenges being issued at any of my polls [. . .] They also have the right to be present during the vote count and to challenge the validity of individual ballots. Their job is to maximize the vote for their candidate and [legally] minimize the vote for their opponents.

Canadian ballots are pretty straightforward items: they are small, folded slips of paper with each candidate's name listed alphabetically and a circle to indicate a vote for that candidate. A valid vote will have only one mark inside one of the circles (an X is the preferred mark). An invalid vote might have:

After the polls close, the poll clerk and the Deputy Returning Officer secure the unused ballots and then open the ballot box in the presence of any accredited scrutineers. The clerk and DRO then count all the ballots, indicating valid votes for candidates and invalid ballots. The scrutineers can challenge any ballot and it must be set aside and reconsidered after the rest of the ballots are counted.

A challenged ballot must be defended by one of the scrutineers or it is considered to be invalid and the vote is not counted. The clerk and DRO have the power to make the decision, but in practice a noisy scrutineer can usually bully the DRO into accepting all their challenges. I didn't realize just how easy it was to screw with the system until I'd been a scrutineer myself.

This is one of the key reasons why minor party candidates poll so badly in Canadian elections: they don't have enough (or, in many cases, any) scrutineers to defend their votes. In my experience in that Toronto-area byelection, I personally saved nearly 4% of the total vote my candidate received (in the entire riding) by counter-challenging challenged ballots. We totalled just over 400 votes in the riding (in just about 100 polls) — 21 of them in my polls. I got 15 of those votes allowed, when they would otherwise have been disallowed by the DRO.

There was no legal reason to disallow those votes: they were clearly marked with an X and had no other marks on them; they were challenged because they were votes for a minor candidate. As it was, I had a heck of a time running from poll to poll in order to get my counter-challenges in (I probably missed a few votes by not being able to get back to a poll in time).

The Libertarians only had six or seven scrutineers, covering less than a third of the polls in this riding. If the challenge rate was typical in my poll, then instead of the 400-odd votes, we actually received nearly 2000 votes — but most of them were not counted.

Yes, even 2000 votes would not have swung the election, but 2000 people willing to vote for a "fringe" party would be a good argument against those "throwing away your vote" criticisms. Voters are weird creatures in some ways: they like to feel that their votes actually matter. Voting for someone who espouses views you like, then discovering that only a few others feel the same way will discourage most voters from voting that way again in future.

Minor revisions in the text to elide references to the 2004 Ohio article which I was originally commenting on.

Posted by Nicholas at 09:01 AM | Comments (4)

Voting day in Ontario

It may surprise some of you to find that today is an election day in Ontario . . . and the most likely result is no change (the ruling Liberal party may lose a few seats, but appears likely to still manage a majority in the house). John Tory did a masterful job of steadily wearing down his own support to keep Premier McGuinty in power for another four years (the government-funded madrassa proposal had a major part in this outcome).

Perhaps more important is the referendum to change the existing electoral system from the traditional first-past-the-post to a system that will provide (theoretically) a result more reflective of the actual votes cast. I like to consider this proposal the "Never let Mike Harris get elected again" initiative, because the most likely outcome of implementing this will be a never-ending series of coalition governments between the moderate left, the hard left, and the Greens. We'll not likely see the conservatives get close to running the province again if this proposal is approved by the voters.

I'm against it, by the way, as I really don't like the idea of adding a number of unelected (and probably otherwise-unelectable) party bagmen through the party list system: the current system isn't wonderful, but it's better than this monstrosity being foisted off on the voters today.

Posted by Nicholas at 08:42 AM | Comments (0)

The problem with email

Daniel Goleman points out some of the problems with email:

The advantage of a phone call or a drop-by over e-mail is clearly greatest when there is trouble at hand. But there are ways in which e-mail may subtly encourage such trouble in the first place.

This is becoming more apparent with the emergence of social neuroscience, the study of what happens in the brains of people as they interact. New findings have uncovered a design flaw at the interface where the brain encounters a computer screen: there are no online channels for the multiple signals the brain uses to calibrate emotions.

Face-to-face interaction, by contrast, is information-rich. We interpret what people say to us not only from their tone and facial expressions, but also from their body language and pacing, as well as their synchronization with what we do and say.

Most crucially, the brain's social circuitry mimics in our neurons what's happening in the other person's brain, keeping us on the same wavelength emotionally. This neural dance creates an instant rapport that arises from an enormous number of parallel information processors, all working instantaneously and out of our awareness.

In contrast to a phone call or talking in person, e-mail can be emotionally impoverished when it comes to nonverbal messages that add nuance and valence to our words. The typed words are denuded of the rich emotional context we convey in person or over the phone.

I certainly value email as a communication channel, as I can refer back to what I said or what the other person said without having to verbally re-map the conversational pathways. But the chances of misunderstandings and misinterpretations are much higher for email conversations between people who've never met in person.

H/T to Arroxane Ullman, who posted the link to Techwr-L.

Posted by Nicholas at 08:38 AM | Comments (0)

QotD: Movie Hypocrisy

In "Scream IV," Good-Looking Teenagers are Trapped in the MPAA Headquarters and Stalked by a Madman with a Press Release: Tuesday Morning Quarterback asked in 2005, "If Hollywood won't show smoking because viewers are impressionable, how come the movie industry eagerly glamorizes violence, torture and murder of the helpless as forms of cool recreation?" This question is worth asking again in wake of the recent decision by the Motion Picture Association of America to factor depiction of smoking into movie ratings. So Hollywood wants to discourage scenes of people lighting up — but scenes of young women being tortured to death, that's fine, show 'em in the mall! Even given that Hollywood's leading product is hypocrisy, this development borders on surreal. The movie industry trade association is very, very worried about depictions of legal use of a lawful product — TMQ doesn't smoke, so I've no brief here — yet has no problem with the glamorization of slow-motion slaughter. The same month the MPAA wrung its hands about lighting a cigarette, the MPAA gave its blessing via an R, rather than an NC-17, to "Hostel II," which graphically depicts pretty girls being tortured to death with power tools. Because of the MPAA's ratings favor, this depraved flick was shown in suburban shopping malls. But should someone want to light up, the MPAA has pangs of conscience!

Gregg Easterbrook, "TMQ: Throw to the tight end!", ESPN Page 2, 2007-10-09

Posted by Nicholas at 08:35 AM | Comments (0)

October 09, 2007

Why Ron Paul's campaign bothers Republicans

David Weigel tries to explain to Guardian readers in the UK why Ron Paul's campaign upsets mainstream Republicans:

And all of this is happening in the context of a larger crisis in the Republican Party. The party of Gingrich and Reagan is arguably weaker than it has been at any time since the 1970s. Four years ago, when campaigns were tallying up their July through September fundraising totals, George Bush's campaign had raised almost $50m. This year the top four Republicans — Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson, and John McCain — raised a combined $35m. Giuliani led the pack with $11m, only a little more than twice as much as Paul. All of this while the top four Democrats — Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, and Bill Richardson — raised $59m.

Put in that perspective, Paul's graduation from the fringes to a serious presidential campaign says as much about his party as it does about him. The old party of "small government" now supports enhancing the state's power to spy or detain prisoners indefinitely. A party with a long-running isolationist streak is becoming inhospitable for war doves — every Republican who votes against funding the Iraq war, Paul included, has a pro-war candidate challenging him for re-election in 2008. In this climate, with the party so fraught and fractured, a colorful libertarian is starting to gain some steam. Why is Washington so surprised?

Posted by Nicholas at 12:42 PM | Comments (0)

QotD: Freedom of Speech

Almost any argument about race, gender, Israel, or the war is now apt to be infected by a spirit of self-righteous grievance and demonization. Passionate disagreement isn't sufficient; bad faith must be imputed to one's opponents: skepticism of affirmative action equals racism, antiwar sentiment equals anti-Americanism (or terrorist sympathy), criticism of Israel is by definition anti-Semitic, and so on. More and more people think they're entitled to the right not just to ignore or disapprove, but to veto and banish. And the craven fear of triggering tantrums leads the responsible authorities — university administrators, politicians, corporate executives — into humiliating, flip-floppy contortions of appeasement.

[. . .]

When it comes to free speech, we need to let a hundred flowers bloom. We need to chill. We need to stop being pussies.

Kurt Andersen, "The Age of Apoplexy", New York Magazine, 2007-10-07

Posted by Nicholas at 08:39 AM | Comments (1)

October 08, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!

It's the Canadian version of the Official Trytophan Overdose Day, so blogging will be limited to this post.

Posted by Nicholas at 03:35 PM | Comments (0)

October 06, 2007

QotD: Art and Science

[T]hink what has happened in technical and artistic trends in the 50 years since 1957. Scientific endeavors have made fantastic strides in quality, complexity and significance. Consumer product quality has increased dramatically — new cars are packed with features unknown in 1957 yet are far safer and more reliable, and the cell phone in your pocket and the computer you're reading this on, to say nothing of the Internet it's transmitted over, would have been viewed as supernatural by the engineers who built Explorer I. At the same time, the quality of art has plummeted. There hasn't been a musical of artistic merit to open on Broadway in many moons — right now, it's all vapid dreck. (In fact, I think the show "Vapid Dreck," based on a remake of a remake, opens at the Brooks Atkinson soon.) And although good books are still written, what truly great novel has been produced in the past decade or two? Fifty years ago, technical stuff was buckets of bolts and art was splendid; now, the technical stuff is splendid and the art is in poor repair. This tells us something — I just wish I knew what.

Gregg Easterbrook, "TMQ: Come Clean", ESPN Page 2, 2007-10-02

Posted by Nicholas at 09:54 AM | Comments (0)

October 05, 2007

There's no place like Florida

. . . at least according to the folks at Fark.com. They even have a special Florida tag because of special incidents like this:

Authorities said the incident took place at a school bus stop on the Westside.

According to the police report, Briggs brought a gun with her when she met her son at the bus stop.

The report states Briggs pointed the gun at other students getting off the bus and said, "Does anyone have something to say?" and "You can all get some of this."

Briggs' son was repeatedly being bullied on the school bus and that she wanted to put a stop to the bullying, according to police.

"The thought of going after children with a gun would not cross my mind; she should not have done what she did," said the father of another child who rides the school bus.

Okay, that sounds kinda crazy. But you know what really sounds crazier? The fact that the woman has been charged with a frickin' misdemeanor: "improper exhibition of a firearm or danger[ous] weapon". We may all be timid, panty-waisted GFW's up here in Soviet Canuckistan, but at least we'd have that woman up on at least careless use of a firearm or pointing a firearm charges (good for between 2 and 5 years).

I'm glad my former co-workers, for the most part, live in the safer, saner part of Florida . . . the region around Tallahassee (a.k.a., the "gunbarrel of Florida").

Posted by Nicholas at 12:24 PM | Comments (0)

First they came for Christmas, and I said nothing

Now that the battle has been fought and lost over Christmas "the Winter Festival", the moral guardians of western culture are taking aim at Halloween:

The two most devastating words any red-blooded American kid is likely to hear are "Fall Festival."

It can mean only one thing: The War on Halloween is once again upon us.

No, the War on Halloween won't induce the same zealous indignation that, say, the War on Christmas can. For me, though, it's far worse.

We're still weeks from this glorious pagan celebration, but you can already hear the sound of the pinheads sucking the fun out of life.

Recently, Halloween celebrations were banned at Kohl Elementary School in Westminster. The story garnered national attention after the principal sent home a newsletter alerting parents that their children's yearly Halloween party would be replaced by a — gulp — fall celebration.

Costumes? Forget it.

My favourite quote from the article is "Well, as one fourth-grade Kohl teacher puts it — and I paraphrase here — if even one child feels left out because of Halloween, we've all failed."

Posted by Nicholas at 12:17 PM | Comments (0)

The newer, edgier G&M

Jon, my virtual landlord, sent me an email asking if I'd seen the front cover of yesterday's Globe and Mail:

globe_and_mail.gif

I guess the Globe really does get that there intarweb-thingy after all . . . (if this is a bit obscure, try this link for clarification).

Posted by Nicholas at 08:39 AM | Comments (0)

October 04, 2007

QotD: Men and Women

I can't remember whether it was Robert Ardrey or Desmond Morris who observed that, unlike men, who've evolved complex patterns of threat display, rules of war, and other behaviors to avoid a fight unless it's absolutely necessary, women have none of these things. Most of the time, they're not called upon to fight, but when they are, because they're smaller and weaker than any likely aggressor, and because they're the absolute last line of defense for their homes and babies, they are natural berserkers who won't fight fair or pull their punches.

Robert Heinlein famously said that the moral range of women is broader than the moral range of men, that the best among them are better than the best men, and the worst among them are worse. Women often display the tenacity of a little cat fighting a great big dog. They don't know or acknowledge any limit until the enemy is dead or they are. That's commendable in everyday life. I have been careful to marry just such a female, and we have made sure our daughter is the same.

But there are those — and yes, say what you will or flounce off in a snit, I am among them — who believe that those traits disqualify women for certain occupations in which rituals to avoid violence and customs to limit it are everything. Police work comes immediately to mind. I have never seen a policewoman I thought was fit for the job, and I came close to being shot by one, once, over the height of my lawn.

On the other hand, it's fair to ask, is there any man who's fit for telling other people what to do with their lives, liberty and property, for beating them up and killing them, or threatening to do so?

L. Neil Smith, "Evil Women", Libertarian Enterprise, 2007-09-30

Posted by Nicholas at 12:08 AM | Comments (0)

October 03, 2007

QotD: The Pacific War

I am watching Flags Of Our Fathers, which I believed was a gritty, realistic, reverent account of the battle of Iwo Jima. It may yet become that. So far, aside from some horrifying battle sequences, it is movie about the cynical, callous exploitation of the famous flag-raising picture. Apparently every state-side government employee was a brittle, shallow, two-faced, glad-handing PR-minded ass who regarded soldiers as ignorant cattle. I also have the Japanese version of the movie, Letters from Iwo Jima. I have this odd feeling it will concern itself very little with the issues raised in this movie. I have the feeling I’ll be hearing a lot about honor. I have the feeling that I will be informed that war is hell on everyone, and the enemy are human as well - two things that never occured to me. I do know that the state-side PR effort for WW2 was phony and false, because the way the movie lit the Andrews-Sisters wannabees and had them sing patriotic songs with exaggerated cheer tells me all I really needed to know. This strange stark contrast to the grim realities of war makes me question the premises of the war against fascism! Why, they're selling the war! The bond drives should have consisted of grim dour matrons urging a negotiated settlement to the strains of a Kurt Weill song. Anything's better than a perversely calculated ad campaign designed to elicit voluntary contributions.

James Lileks, The Bleat, 2007-10-03

Posted by Nicholas at 08:53 AM | Comments (0)

October 02, 2007

And to think that flying used to be a luxury

SF author Charlie Stross provides his rules for (as much as possible) trouble-free flying:

I've been traveling too much lately, and it tends to concentrate the mind. Not your usual commuting travel, of course, but international, intercontinental travel, which in the post-9/11 era is more than a little trying.

(On the subject of terrorism and flying, I have this to say: your chances of being involved in a real incident — as opposed to a false alarm — are vanishingly small. Much of the post-9/11 security checks are smoke and mirrors, nonsense designed to demonstrate that something is being done in order to justify the ever-increasing demands for money and attention emanating from the monstrous $90Bn baby of the counter-terrorism industry that has sprung up since 2001. The real solution to the security hole exposed by the Hamburg Al-Quaida cell on September 11th 2001 was in place the very same day, as the non-arrival of Flight 93 demonstrated. The ground rules for hijacking have changed: if someone tries to gain access to the cockpit in flight, you need to stop them at all costs — all else is secondary, and the simple fact that the traveling public are aware of it makes the post-9/11 security measures pointless. As for the "liquid explosives" nonsense of 2006, it's precisely that — nonsense that obsesses scientifically illiterate politicos who slept through chemistry class at school and learned everything they fear about terrorism from Hollywood.)

But I digress. I'm not here to talk about terrorism, I'm here to talk about long-haul international travel, and how to do so with a minimum of discomfort and inconvenience. Herewith, a brain dump of what I've learned from flying upwards of 50,000 miles a year for several years.

The comment thread is well-worth reading, too. After reading all that, I'm even less eager to fly anywhere (my last flight was, um, interesting enough, thanks).

H/T to Pat Mathews for the link.

Posted by Nicholas at 06:15 PM | Comments (0)

October 01, 2007

Christian right announces tentative plans to elect Hillary Clinton

At least, that's what this proposal would really result in:

Alarmed at the chance that the Republican party might pick Rudolph Giuliani as its presidential nominee despite his support for abortion rights, a coalition of influential Christian conservatives is threatening to back a third-party candidate in an attempt to stop him.

The group making the threat, which came together Saturday in Salt Lake City during a break-away gathering during a meeting of the secretive Council for National Policy, includes Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family, who is perhaps the most influential of the group, as well as Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, the direct mail pioneer Richard Viguerie and dozens of other politically-oriented conservative Christians, participants said. Almost everyone present expressed support for a written resolution that “if the Republican Party nominates a pro-abortion candidate we will consider running a third party candidate.”

H/T to Brian Doherty.

Posted by Nicholas at 12:53 PM | Comments (0)

QotD: Burma and Buddhism

The State Peace and Development Council derives its legitimacy from public support for Buddhism, and in recent years has leaned even more heavily on approving pronouncements from prominent religious officials. Theravada Buddhism is the establishment religion under a repressive military regime. No actual Burma scholars dispute this, as far as I know. Anyone with doubts should check out the military’s propaganda paper, which is a dual attempt to showcase the devotion of military officials and advocate peaceful, Buddhist complacency on the part of the Burmese. It adopts the tone of an authoritarian yoga instructor for a reason.

The monks, known as the sangha, regularly accept extravagant and highly publicized gifts from well placed military officials; this is a desperately poor country filled with solid gold pagodas. The rebuilding of Buddhist shrines can be a public project, with villagers force to participate. Monks have in the past refused to perform ceremonies for NLD members. It's difficult to define complicity when everyone may be acting out of fear, but you can't call a religion that confers legitimacy on a bunch of thugs (and advocates passivism in response) entirely helpful.

Yes, the Burmese monks have a history of peaceful protest, as in 1990 and 1962. But you wouldn't want to define the monks by these protests any more than you would a pope by his opposition to communism. It's rather more complicated than that.

Kerry Howley, "Buddhism Is Not a Democracy Movement", Hit and Run, 2007-10-01

Posted by Nicholas at 12:48 PM | Comments (0)

Onrushing work impedes blogging

I don't expect to have much free time for blogging today . . . feel free to visit one or more of the blogs listed down the left side of the page!

Posted by Nicholas at 08:58 AM | Comments (0)


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