April 30, 2009

Panic still not warranted

Further to the series of "OMG! We're all gonna die!" coverage in most media reports, Drew Curtis points out a few less-than-panicking facts:

Here's what's happened since I wrote my original article, "Why Swine Flu Isn't Going to Kill Us All".

- A toddler in Texas has died of the swine flu
- Mexico's infection and death estimates continue to climb
- The World Health Organization has raised it's pandemic warning from 5 to 6, the top of the scale

These three items have ruled headlines for the past 24 hours. However here are a few other things that are going on that you may not have heard.

- 36,000 people die every year from the regular flu.
- Since I wrote my article on Monday, 1 person in the United States has died from swine flu.
- The tally in the last three days: Swine Flu: 1, Real Flu: 295.

I mentioned in my last update that only 18 deaths had been confirmed to have been from Swine Flu, and that the other figures were estimates. That confirmed total has since been revised downward to 7. To quote Stratfor's reaction to this data:

"There is still a lack of information regarding the particulars about this new pathogen; but if it has killed only seven people after two months of spreading in a country with somewhat limited health care services, perhaps its virulence is not so harsh after all, even if its communicability is impressive."

In any case of an outbreak of a communicable disease, caution is warranted. Panic certainly isn't.

On a lighter note, Kernel of Wisdom presents WHO Level 5 Swine Alert!! Tips for Survival!.

Posted by Nicholas at 10:53 PM | Comments (0)

He's finished Biden his time, now he's gonna speak his mind

Well, it was a nice 100 days of administration peace and harmony, wasn't it? Who'd have expected the Vice President to be the one to finally sound the klaxon of alarm that the media have been tuning up for the last little while. Here's the official Vice Presidential health advice for today:

I would tell members of my family — and I have — I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now [. . .] It's not that it's going to Mexico. It's [that] you're in a confined aircraft. When one person sneezes, it goes all the way through the aircraft. That's me. [. . .] So, from my perspective, what it relates to is mitigation. If you're out in the middle of a field when someone sneezes, that's one thing. If you're in a closed aircraft or closed container or closed car or closed classroom, it's a different thing.

So much for the President's rather more careful advice about the situation. At least Obama didn't call for everyone to abandon mass transit and avoid air travel at all costs.

Posted by Nicholas at 08:14 PM | Comments (0)

Occasional Twitter reminder

If you're not getting enough Quotulatiousness by visiting the blog, you can follow me on Twitter. Of course, most of what I post to Twitter is links to articles posted here, so a certain degree of circularity is likely . . .

Recent Twitter Updates

    Posted by Nicholas at 07:43 PM | Comments (0)

    QotD: The office

    Not many people lie on their deathbeds wishing that they had spent more time in the office. Ah, the office: the mournful gloaming under the fluorescent strips, the monotonous swish of the photocopier, the "ping" as e-mails arrive from bullying bosses, work-shy colleagues, and backstabbing rivals. Much of it is little better than spam. In fact, spam is a blessed release: a missive from another world, sent by a transparent crook and wasting no more than a second or two. Real e-mail also comes from time-wasting criminals, but takes a lot more effort to deal with.

    Tim Harford, The Logic of Life: The Rational Economics of an Irrational World, 2008

    Posted by Nicholas at 11:02 AM | Comments (0)

    The magic of big numbers

    H/T to Radley Balko.

    Posted by Nicholas at 12:07 AM | Comments (0)

    April 29, 2009

    Labels are important

    Jeff Winkler reports on, among other things, the most recent nomenclature decision of the Israeli Health Ministry:

    Orthodox Jews will not be referring to the flu as it relates to filthy pigs. So dirty are the animals that their name can't be uttered. However, Israeli Health Minister Yakov Litzman has declared "Mexican Flu" to be a fittingly swinish substitute, making it Kosher to identify a particular country with filth and disease. Apparently, Kosher does not mean "it's cool," which confuse Goyim, who still struggle with the meaning of other Jewish words, like "shmuck."

    Update: Another group in favour of finding a new name for the disease are pig farmers and pork product companies:

    For U.S. pork producers the swine flu name has hurt, forcing government officials into the position of stressing that American pork is safe to eat and that other countries should not ban imports.

    Pork, soybean and corn prices have fallen in the last two days, "and if this continues, obviously you have significant potential, which is why it's important to get this right," Vilsack said.

    At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there was also talk of stripping the "swine" from swine flu, which CDC acting director Richard Besser said was leading to the misapprehension that people can catch the disease from pork.

    "That's not helpful to pork producers. That's not helpful to people who eat pork. It's not helpful to people who are wondering, how can they get this infection," Besser told a briefing.

    Posted by Nicholas at 03:58 PM | Comments (0)

    Update: Gurkhas rout Labour government

    A report from The Daily Mirror on the British government's defeat over rules restricting retired Gurkha soldiers from living in Britain:

    The Government suffered an embarrassing defeat today when MPs voted to give all Gurkha soldiers equal right of residence in Britain.

    The Liberal Democrat motion to scrap new settlement rules for Gurkha veterans was supported by 267 to 246 MPs, a majority of 21.

    Actress and pro-Gurkha rights campaigner Joanna Lumley, who was watching from the Commons public gallery as this afternoon's result was announced, said she was "elated" by the outcome.

    "Just before this vote was taken our spirits were nearly at zero," she said.

    "When it came through we saw it on the screen and I can't tell you the sense of elation, the sense of pride - pride in our country, pride in the democratic system and pride in our Parliament."

    It was the first major reverse for Gordon Brown since he became Prime Minister but has no legally binding effect on Government policy.

    Hurrah for the Liberal Democrat and Conservative MPs who voted this government measure down. It's not a confidence motion, so the government survives the defeat in the house, but I certainly hope the prime minister changes course on this issue.

    Posted by Nicholas at 12:44 PM | Comments (0)

    Good news for Russian beer drinkers

    According to this article in Pravda, Russian beer is being regulated:

    The content of toxic substances — lead, arsenic, cadmium, mercury, radioactive nuclides, caesium, pesticides and ergot — must be restricted in the Russian beer. Parasites of bread reserves — insects and ticks — must not appear in the production process. Beer must be made without the use of ethyl alcohol. Labels on the end product must provide full and true information for customers. These are a few of the new technical regulations on beer; the document was submitted to the Russian parliament, the State Duma, on Tuesday, The Vremya Novostei newspaper wrote.

    A couple of thoughts on this, first "Yikes! I'm not drinking any Russian beer after reading that!", but second "Wait a second . . . has this gone through a typical media thought filter?"

    It's a rare media outlet that ever has second thoughts about regulation — any regulation — being a good thing. As reported, this appears to be a good thing. After all, who wants to drink beer with contaminants like "lead, arsenic, cadmium, mercury" in measurable quantities?

    But just because it's going to be restricted in future doesn't mean it's already in the product. For instance, you could pass a regulation saying that Australian beer must contain no more than 1 microgram of U-238 per serving or that South African beer was limited to a maximum of 16 millilitres of liquid yak vomit. The media in those jurisdictions could be depended on to jump on the story as "OZ beer no longer radioactive!" or "SAB not allowed to put Yak Vomit in Beer!"

    Doesn't mean it ever contained those things, just that it's now legally not allowed to contain 'em. After all, brewing is a pretty simple process involving a relatively small number of ingredients to produce the basic beer — water, hops, and (usually) malted grain. It's possible (even likely) that some Russian beers have included contaminants from improperly treated water, badly maintained brewing equipment, or (especially if rye is the source of the malt) traces of ergot.

    Hmmm. On third thought, maybe I'll skip Russian beer, just in case . . .

    Posted by Nicholas at 11:05 AM | Comments (0)

    Oh, not the Favre soap opera again?

    Just when you think he's finally really retired, you get something like this:

    Those who found Favre's latest retirement less than convincing were given plenty of ammunition on Tuesday night when the New York Jets — Favre's employer during the 2008 season — announced that he had asked for and received his release from the team's reserve/retired list. Favre said in a statement that "at this time, I am retired and have no intention of returning to football."

    If Favre has no plans to return why did he ask for his release from the Jets? And why include the line "at this time" in his statement? Those three words are why there is going to be speculation that Favre is going to return and that, if he does, his first choice is going to be the Vikings. You'll recall that when Favre wanted to unretire last summer, his desire was to come to Minnesota. The Green Bay Packers made sure that didn't happen and even filed tampering charges against Minnesota. The Vikings were cleared by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

    I guess old Brett just can't stand not being discussed on the sports pages. And he'd indicated he would like to play for the Vikings, during his last retirement hitch, before signing with the Jets. And the one position the Vikes haven't finally settled is quarterback (Tarvaris Jackson and Sage Rosenfels aren't widely viewed as "franchise" players).

    No matter who ends up as the starting QB, the last thing Jackson or Rosenfels needs is a months-long media circus as Favre re-visits his "will I or won't I?" role.

    Stay retired this time, Brett!

    Posted by Nicholas at 10:18 AM | Comments (0)

    CITY-TV reports (rather calmly) that there are now confirmed Swine Flu cases in Toronto

    In a refreshing break from the non-stop panic, Toronto's CITY-TV reports on the first confirmed cases of Swine Flu in the GTA:

    For days, officials had been saying "when" not "if." That prognostication proved prescient on Tuesday, as Ontario health experts confirmed four cases of the swine flu turned up close to home in this province.

    Three women have tested positive for the malady in Durham while a man is sick in York. None are directly in Toronto yet, but that could certainly change. At least 20 more people in Ontario are being probed to see if they have the influenza strain, a number Dr. David Williams, Ontario's Chief Acting Medical Officer of Health, calls "fluid."

    Those affected aren't seriously ill and are recovering at home. All had recently travelled to Mexico. "These are mild cases," confirms Williams. "All the cases we've seen so far are mild, self limiting and it's like flu season continuing."

    But, of course, we have to have a tension-escalating item:

    But treating the disease or finding a vaccine may not be easy. "There is already evidence that the virus is mutating rapidly, as influenza does, and so whatever our model is going to be will be based on the history of the virus from a few weeks earlier," warns Dr. Vivek Goel of the Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion.

    OMG! He said "mutating"! The only things that ever mutate in movies are super-villains and monsters! Everybody PANIC!

    Or, y'know, not.

    Posted by Nicholas at 09:08 AM | Comments (0)

    QotD: Events

    It was a Friday afternoon. Richard had noticed that events were cowards: they didn't occur singly, but instead they would run in packs and leap out at him all at once.

    Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere, 1996, 1997.

    Posted by Nicholas at 08:55 AM | Comments (0)

    April 28, 2009

    Twitter's weakness

    Evgeny Morozov makes some good points about Twitter not being well suited to certain kinds of communication:

    Who knew that swine flu could also infect Twitter? Yet this is what appears to have happened in the last 24 hours, with thousands of Twitter users turning to their favorite service to query each other about this nascent and potentially lethal threat as well as to share news and latest developments from Mexico, Texas, Kansas and New York (you can check most recent Twitter updates on the subject by searching for "swine flu" and "#swineflu"). And despite all the recent Twitter-enthusiasm about this platform's unique power to alert millions of people in decentralized and previously unavailable ways, there are quite a few reasons to be concerned about Twitter's role in facilitating an unnecessary global panic about swine flu.

    First of all, I should point out from the very outset that anyone trying to make sense of how Twitter's "global brain" has reacted to the prospect of the swine flu pandemic is likely to get disappointed. The "swine flu" meme has so far that misinformed and panicking people armed with a platform to broadcast their fears are likely to produce only more fear, misinformation and panic.

    His quoted examples of individual Twitter updates illustrate quite nicely how quickly it can turn into a game of Telephone (or Chinese Whispers to the Brits).

    He also makes the following somewhat ironic statement: "In moments like this, one is tempted to lament the death of broadcasting, for it seems that the information from expert sources — government, doctors, and the like — should probably be prioritized over everything else and have a higher chance of being seen". As illustrated in the last two posts, the mainstream media have been doing their level best to hype up the panic levels and make the situation seem even more scary than it already is. Given that, it's just as well that fewer and fewer people take their "authoritative" news from those sources!

    Posted by Nicholas at 11:36 AM | Comments (0)

    CBC's calm approach

    Following yesterday's post on OMG-WE'RE-ALL-GONNA-DIE! panic mongering, here's how the CBC pitched the news last night (from a posting by "pnjunction" on this Fark.com thread):

    Just finished, here's how the CBC evening news went:

    swine flu
    swine flu
    swine flu
    tamil protest in TO
    DUI manslaughter conviction
    swine flu
    swine flu
    tamil protest in TO
    pitch more swine flu coverage on late news ("how worried should you be?" I'm dying to find out!)
    swine flu
    sap story
    a couple of arts stories
    pitch more swine flu coverage on late news
    swine flu 'update'
    tamil protest in TO (I get it, university ave is closed)

    That's just one dose of daily news and I'm ready to jump off of my 8th-floor balcony rather than hear about it again. Also, I feel like I am at that stupid protest (actually it's only a couple blocks away from my apt, I heard some of it earlier) after having seen all of that stock footage of it .

    As Drew Curtis said, it's a potentially bad public health situation, but it's not the apocalypse, and all the media pantswetting is not helping. The CBC is not alone in this, of course, as the British media have spent the last 24 hours publicizing an off-the-cuff comment by an EU official as a formal travel warning to the US and Mexico. As Gawker put it, "Even in Mexico, the epicenter of the deadly outbreak, and home to a far, far worse health care system than we have, it's only killed 103 people. That's a lot fewer people than have been killed in the Juarez drug war this year. This is a page B-3 story that's gone all A-1."

    Posted by Nicholas at 10:46 AM | Comments (0)

    April 27, 2009

    OMG! We're all gonna die!

    In case you haven't been paying attention (like, well, me), here's a quick summary from the media: Mexican Flu! It's the pandemic we've been warning you about for years! You're all gonna die!

    Drew Curtis (of fark.com fame) clarifies the underlying complexity of the situation:

    Finally, something of substance has appeared in the news. Swine Flu will kill us all. EVERYBODY PANIC.

    First off, I mentioned this in my book in the chapter on Media Fearmongering (which, if you read it, you're already recognizing the signs in MSM today). The problem with being the guy telling everyone not to panic is that if you're wrong, you're an idiot. As opposed to being wrong when predicting the apocalypse, in which case everyone just laughs at how silly you were for predicting the apocalypse. If you want to win every argument with no danger of coming down with "Long Term Idiot Stigma", be a consummate pessimist. If you think about it, probably every argumentative asshole you've ever met is one.

    - The Mexican Government estimates that 86 people (or more) have died from Swine Flu. Okay, that's tragic. But why the hell are we taking their numbers at face value? For starters, if you read the fine print the death numbers being tossed around are estimates. There are 18 confirmed deaths so far. Which ain't awesome, but it's a damn sight better than a hundred.

    - In quite a few articles I've read, I've seen statements to the effect of researchers aren't sure why the cases in the US and Canada appear to be milder than the ones in Mexico and none have resulted in death. I know we'd all like to pretend that Mexico has its act together, but last time I checked Mexico was a third world country with third world healthcare. Do the math.

    - Speaking of no one having died in the US and Canada, not only has no one in a first world country died from Swine Flu yet, but so far no one's even rumored to be in danger of dying. And most of the confirmed cases got better on their own after a few days at home. EVERYBODY PANIC

    Update: Reader "Ben" sent the following related comment:

    Did you hear about the high school in California that closed because ONE kid was /mildly/ ill... they sent everyone home while they check to see if it's even the swine flu.


    what if its' only food poisoning?

    Bureaucrats, especially school board 'rats, don't get paid to make decisions sensibly. They get paid to implement board policy, however ill-advised and clumsy it may be. As someone once said, no bureaucrat has ever been fired for following written policy, while those who try to do the "right thing" too often end up as object lessons for new staff.

    This is probably another variant of the "zero-tolerance" notion that's embedded itself in school board administrative policies. Nobody will be held to be in the wrong, or have made a mistake as long as they followed the set procedures. There's probably a policy document detailing what to do in the case of various health-related issues, and this'll be the "big red button" option.

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

    Vikings draft choices

    As I said before the draft, I don't follow college football so I really don't have any insight into whether the Vikings' draft choices were good, bad, or mediocre. Jim Souhan, on the other hand, has a nightmare scenario:

    Since draft day 2007, the Vikings have acquired Adrian Peterson, Bernard Berrian and Percy Harvin, three players faster than rumor and more elusive than the truth. Now we have to hope Brad Childress isn't lying awake at night, wondering, "How am I going to get the ball to Tahi?"

    Tahi is the Vikings' blocking fullback. His first name is Naufahu, which means "1-yard reception" in Tonga.

    On the first offensive play of the 2009 season, Childress will have the option of handing or throwing the ball to Peterson or Harvin, of lining Harvin up in the Wildcat formation, of throwing deep to Berrian, of creating a formation that includes Peterson, Harvin and Chester Taylor. What we fear is the always scintillating swing pass to Tahi, who gains the same number of yards whether he catches the ball or not.

    Okay, all joking aside, the Vikings took the following players in the 2009 draft:

    • Percy Harvin (WR/RB), 22nd pick
    • Phil Loadholt (OT), 54th pick
    • Asher Allen (CB), 86th pick
    • Jasper Brinkley (LB), 150th pick
    • Jamarca Sanford (S), 231st pick

    This addresses most of the published "needs" for the team except QB, but the Vikings traded for Sage Rosenfels before the draft, which strongly implied that they would not be looking to draft another QB. We'll have to wait and see if the rookies are able to contribute anything to the team this season (it's impossible to assess a draft class for the first couple of years anyway).

    Update: Viking Age reports on the ten (so far) undrafted free agents the team has signed since the draft ended:

    UCLA's Khalil Bell is really the only semi-recognizable name there, except Andy Kemp if you're a Big Ten person. Phil Loadholt's Oklahoma teammate Jon Cooper is also on there. A couple of these guys may end up on the practice squad. One may pop onto the radar in training camp for three seconds, touching off a round of "why doesn’t that idiot Childress give this guy a shot?" hysteria.

    Everyone likes an underdog, and the under-est underdogs are UFA rookies. The number of players who actually make the team is tiny . . . even squeaking into the practice squad counts as a major moral victory.

    Update the second, 28 April: Scout.com rounds up the various pundits' opinions on how the Vikings drafted. Most seem to be hinging on whether first round pick Percy Harvin can stay out of trouble. Draft grades range from C to B, with one outlier A- from The Sporting News. I think those are probably pretty accurate: if Harvin manages to stay on the straight-and-narrow, the team will benefit hugely . . . if he continues to have off-the-field issues, Minnesota will probably be hiring a new head coach next year.

    Posted by Nicholas at 10:17 AM | Comments (0)

    April 26, 2009

    Belated ANZAC Day post

    I was away from the computer pretty much all day yesterday, so I failed to post an ANZAC Day item. I take the liberty of quoting from Roger Henry's account of his ANZAC Day observation:

    Today, 25th April, is set aside in Australia and New Zealand to commemorate the disaster of the Gallipoli campaign in WW I. (ANZAC = Australian and New Zealand Army Corps). It is also an opportunity for veterans of all conflicts to march and reflect on their campaigns.

    I was prevailed upon to attend a dawn service at a local cenotaph, which is quite a moving event , and was then whisked into the city to witness the big march-past.

    [. . .] for the first time, the march-past was led by a large Kiwi contingent. Whether this was the result of trans-Tasman solidarity or just the sheer weight of Kiwi numbers prevailing I cannot say.

    It was interesting to see the number of 'foreign' contingents present. Allies from wars One and Two and various other, lesser, punch ups. Greeks, South Vietnamese, ROKs, Indians, Nepalese, Poles, Free French, Serbian Chetniks!?!? Claiming connections from WW I and WW II, Russians, a small American contingent, Canadians and South Africans. Probably there were others but they have slipped my mind. A reminder that it is hard to be neutral in a major war.

    Later I was watching a live broadcast from Gallipoli, on the site of the actual landing — well, one of them — and it was also a multi-lateral affair, French, British, Indian, Irish, Australian, New Zealanders, Nepalese, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. (The Raj had a big pool of man power to draw on in those days) and. of course, the Turks, without whom the event would not have been possible.

    One thing I noticed, The military representatives from the Brit connected countries all flashed a UK style salute. The Turks however favoured the American salute. I can't recall what the French did.

    The ceremonies then moved on to France and Belgium with a final cameo appearance of the Menin Gate.

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

    Bloody typical government action

    The British government is doing a fine job of portraying themselves as ingrates, as their latest move to "help" the Gurkha veterans illustrates:

    With a treacherous swing of the political axe the Government ruled that only those awarded for bravery or at death's door would be allowed to settle in Britain.

    Campaigners condemned new rules supposed to give more former Gurkhas the right to live in the UK as a "disgrace". Immigration Minister Phil Woolas said the changes — ordered by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith — would allow 4,300 more Gurkhas to settle here out of the 36,000 who served in the British Army before July 1997.

    But supporters of the soldiers’ campaign attacked the criteria as "unattainable", with actress Joanna Lumley describing the Government's actions as “despicable”.

    Critics argue that fewer than 100 people will meet the new requirements and campaigners have vowed to return to the courts. David Enwright, a solicitor representing the Gurkhas, said: "This Government should hang its head in shame".

    It's typical that (as was reported last year, but denied by the government) the Royal Navy can't take captured pirates aboard one of Her Majesty's ships for fear that the pirates will be legally entitled to claim refugee status in Britain, yet Gurkha soldiers who volunteered to serve in Britain's army are being actively denied permission to live there after their service is completed.

    Update, 29 April: Government defeated in the house over the Gurkha issue. Details linked from here.

    Posted by Nicholas at 12:43 PM | Comments (0)

    Cataclysmic feedback loop barely avoided

    Over at The Register, Lester Haines reports on a near-disaster:

    [. . .] following the first spot of what we have dubbed a "surveillance feedback loop", we received further examples of the watchers being watched by the watchers who in turn find themselves being watched on Street View.

    Our initial plan was to pin these incidents to a new Web 0.2 mashup, but no sooner had we connected the first test shot back on itself using a Street View link to create a self-referring closed reciprocal photographic image bounce, than someone from the Vulture Central particle physics lab ran screaming to the server room and hit the very big red button which closes down all third-party apps.

    The reason, we gather, is that by plugging a surveillance feedback loop into the internet, it's possible for the logic resonance to grow at an exponential rate to such a degree that it becomes self-aware within twenty minutes and rips apart the very fabric of time and space in a desperate attempt to escape into a dimension where Google doesn't own absolutely everything.

    H/T to Craig Zeni for the link.

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

    April 24, 2009

    A dinner I'd like to have taken part in

    Bennett Traub had an unusual dinner earlier this month:

    The week started off with a bang on Easter Sunday; not normally a holiday I particularly take note of, or celebrate. Usually I just have a quiet dinner at home, no different from any other evening meal. Yet several weeks earlier, at my wife’s urging, we had arranged to get together for dinner with Al Stewart. While perhaps not a household name today, you may remember the name if you were listening to pop or folk music in the 1970’s. Al had a few pretty sizable hits back then, beginning with “Year of the Cat”, to be followed by “Time Passages” and a few others as well. He still records and performs, and in fact will embark on a tour of England later this month. I had met Al at a dinner with one of my wine groups, the X-pensive Winos. An L.A. resident, Al is not a member of the group, but he had been invited by one of our members who is a former Capitol Records executive. Turns out that Al is quite an oenophile and experienced wine geek. He even titled one of his albums “Down in the Cellar”. While his contemporaries in the music world were smoking, snorting or shooting their brains out, Al was getting high the old-fashioned way, by drinking First Growth Claret, Grand Cru Burgundy, and the best wines he could find from France and elsewhere. Affording the best was certainly no problem in his pop-star heyday, and he has drunk wines most of us can only dream of. Beyond that, however, he’s a really down-to-earth, unassuming guy with a great sense of humor, intelligence, and a genuine enthusiasm for the fine art of eating and drinking.

    Anyway, my wife Linda and Al had hit it off at a Winos dinner last December, so we decided to arrange to meet for dinner at a West L.A. restaurant, Josie, to enjoy some good conversation, and even better Burgundies. Al said he’d bring some whites; I was to bring the reds. The results were memorable.

    Al Stewart is one of my all-time favourite musicians, and I'm a wine fan . . . from my biased point of view, that would have been a great combination of interests. I note from Al's website (linked above) that he'll be in Toronto for two shows in August. I'm adding that to my calendar . . .

    Posted by Nicholas at 03:47 PM | Comments (0)

    I LOL'd

    They'll pick music and culture that they know annoys you. Building in behavioural easter eggs is a fair retaliation

    With all xkcd comics, make sure you mouse-over the image for the alt-text commentary (or if your browser doesn't show alt-text . . . "They'll pick music and culture that they know annoys you. Building in behavioural easter eggs is a fair retaliation").

    Posted by Nicholas at 10:50 AM | Comments (0)

    April 23, 2009

    NFL rookie salary cap?

    As I always say at this time of year, I'm not making any predictions on the draft, as I don't follow college football, so I know almost nothing about the players eligible to be drafted.

    Gregg Easterbrook has been saying for years that the NFL draft system is broken:

    As regards rookie deals, there is increasing pressure for the NFL to adopt an NBA-style rookie wage scale. A year ago, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said it was "ridiculous" that high-first-round choices, who have never played an NFL down, signed for more money than established NFL stars. It is indeed ridiculous. In recent years, the first-selection guaranteed-money average has been $29 million, meaning draft picks have hauled in more guaranteed money than LaDainian Tomlinson received in the deal he signed three years ago at the peak of his career. It is equally ridiculous, but less commented on, that first-round choices receive so much more than midround choices, when football is a team sport, and midround players often outperform first choices. Last year the average guaranteed money for a first-round choice was about $8 million — for a fourth-round choice, about $300,000. There's no way the typical first-round draftee means 27 times as much to his NFL team as the typical fourth-round draftee. But that's how the pay assumptions work.

    The story repeats, draft after draft, as highly touted college stars are taken early in the first round, sign megabucks contracts and then go into the witness protection program. A rookie salary cap would be in the interests of almost everyone: teams, veteran players, and rookies-not-taken-in-the-first-round. The only ones who'd see their situation change for the worse would be the first 32 players taken in the draft (who would now have to prove that they can make the transition to the pro league before being rewarded with big contracts).

    Posted by Nicholas at 09:06 AM | Comments (0)

    April 22, 2009

    QotD: The real environmental disaster

    Ira Einhorn was arrested for murder March 28, 1979, the day the Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident occurred. Ira Einhorn, environmentalist, was charged with murder during the same period as one of the greatest environmental accidents in United States history.

    But the real irony is that more people died in the apartment of Ira Einhorn, co-founder of Earth Day than at Three Mile Island. The environmentalist killed more people than the so-called environmental disaster.

    Happy Earth Day.

    Michael P. Tremoglie, "Earth Day Philly Style", The Bulletin, 2009-04-22

    Posted by Nicholas at 06:36 PM | Comments (0)

    Paul Hellyer's American student

    Paul Kane has written a New York Times op-ed which sounds disturbingly like something cooked up by former Canadian Defence Minister Paul Hellyer. The modern Canadian Armed Forces were formed by amalgamating the formerly separate Canadian Army, Royal Canadian Navy, and the Royal Canadian Air Force. The arguments for this highly disruptive move were primarily economic and bureaucratic, not military in nature. It's to the credit of the members of the separate services that things worked out as well as they did, but many careers were cut short and much bitterness still exists from that re-organization so many years ago.

    Hellyer claimed that "the amalgamation . . . will provide the flexibility to enable Canada to meet in the most effective manner the military requirements of the future. It will also establish Canada as an unquestionable leader in the field of military organization." In one sense this was true: Canada was the first nation to completely amalgamate the military services. But to be a "leader" requires that someone else "follow". That part never happened. The hoped-for cost savings may or may not have been achieved, but the economies all seemed to reduce the combat effectiveness, morale, and equipment inventories of the combat arms. A unified armed forces was no better able to resist militarily ignorant political moves than the separate services had been.

    Kane doesn't go quite "full Hellyer" here, but you can see the same sort of thinking:

    First, the Air Force should be eliminated, and its personnel and equipment integrated into the Army, Navy and Marine Corps. [. . .]

    Yes, air power is a critical component of America’s arsenal. But the Army, Navy and Marines already maintain air wings within their expeditionary units. The Air Force is increasingly a redundancy in structure and spending.

    It's quite possible that the current division of responsibilities between the USAF and the other branches of service need to be re-adjusted. The USAF is notoriously uninterested in ground-support missions, which is of very high importance to ground troops. Allowing the Army to run its own attack helicopters was the compromise arrived at — the Air Force still had to maintain some ground-attack aircraft, but the Army's helicopter forces took on most of the close-support duties.

    The second part of Kane's proposal is actually pretty good:

    Second, the archaic “up or out” military promotion system should be scrapped in favor of a plan that treats service members as real assets. [. . .]

    Treating service members like so many widgets — in particular, the enlisted men and women who make up 85 percent of the ranks — is arbitrary and bad management. I have seen many fit, experienced officers and enlisted Marines arbitrarily forced out because there were only so many slots into which they could be promoted.

    The military should develop a new accounting and personnel system that tracks the cost of developing its human capital and tallies each service member as an investment with a fixed value based on his education, training, experience and performance. This would reflect the departure of a valued service member as an asset lost, not a cost cut. Why are fit men and women who have served in combat, a human experience that a million dollars can’t buy, being pushed out instead of retained for 15, 20, 30 years?

    But after the solid part of his proposal, he quickly dives into the worst solution available:

    Third, the United States needs a national service program for all young men and women, without any deferments, to increase the quality and size of the pool from which troops are drawn.

    Because, as we all know, a well-trained, loyal, and dependable armed service can be created by dragooning free individuals against their will. Calling it "conscription" does not make it any less repulsive. Forcing people to "serve" at gunpoint makes a mockery of the whole notion of being a free country.

    The "denizens" at Castle Argghhh! also weigh in on Kane's proposals.

    Posted by Nicholas at 10:40 AM | Comments (0)

    April 21, 2009

    Sorry Sorry for for the the double double post post

    Dunno how that happened, but the QotD cloned itself and I didn't notice until just now. Should be fixed now. Should be fixed now.

    Posted by Nicholas at 04:09 PM | Comments (0)

    QotD: Why demographics matter

    Whenever I write about demography, I usually get a ton of responses from folks saying: What’s so bad about falling population? Japan, Belgium and the like are pretty congested: Wouldn’t it be nice to have a bit more elbow room? Sure. With the rise of mill towns in the south and the opening up of the west, the population of my small municipality in New Hampshire peaked in the 1820 census, declined till 1940 and still hasn’t caught up to where it was 200 years ago. But it didn’t matter. Because we were a self-contained rural economy with no welfare and no public debt. If Japan and Germany were run like 19th century Granite State townships, they’d be okayish. But they’re not, so they won’t be. You can’t hunker down behind national borders when there aren’t enough young people inside the perimeter with a sufficient level of consumption to grow the economy at the rate necessary to cover existing government obligations.

    This is the first crisis of globalization, and it is a far more existential threat than the Depression. In living beyond its means, its times, and its borders, the developed world has run out of places to pass the buck.

    Mark Steyn, "Subprime Demography", National Review, 2009-04-21

    Posted by Nicholas at 01:54 PM | Comments (0)

    Are we evil for calling Inuit people "Eskimos"?

    By way of a link from Lydia McGrew, we find John C. Wright's objections to political correct speech:

    I am aware of that [the origin of the word "eskimo"], and I do not care. In fact, I regard with particular hatred attempts to change the language to sooth the imaginary hurt feelings of various mascots of the political Left. Unless you can tell me, off the top of your head and without looking it up, the name in any Eskimo dialect for a Virginian, I suggest your concern for their concern for our names for them is illegitimate, particularly where no English speaker knows the meaning of the insult. (None, that is, but I: it refers to them as eaters of raw fish, a slight against their relative poverty).

    Besides, what could be more insulting to me that to have the Eskimos refer to themselves as ‘the People’? What does that make me? A non-people?

    But it would be immature to the point of insanity for me to pretend I am insulted by the mere existence of a word in their language. Likewise, here. Insult requires intent.

    I ask any and all reader please to not make corrections of this type again. They offend me. They deeply offend me. [. . .]

    Let me explain that I regard political correctness as worse than a lie.

    A lie is a straightforward attempt to deceive a victim. It almost honest by contrast. Political Correctness is a corrupt attempt to poison thought and speech, and to impose upon the nobility and courtesy of its victims to get them to deceive themselves. A frequent side effect of PC jargon is that it renders rational conversation difficult, indirect, or even impossible.

    Innocent and well meaning people are actually fooled by this simple trick. Sad to say, most people think like magicians. They believe in the rule of true names. They think (or rather, they feel) that when they are calling one thing by another name, that the actual nature of reality changes. They put themselves in a position where they can no longer talk about real things. Words are severed from referents.

    Words really do have power, but not in a magical sense. Words have power because we use words to describe our own versions of reality. Being forced to substitute other peoples' words to describe your own reality is to allow those other people to not only influence but in some ways to control your reality.

    If you successfully substitute the word 'Inuit' for 'Eskimo' on the grounds that 'Eskimo' is an insult, you will have successfully convinced the next generation that all their forefathers who used the word 'Eskimo' deliberately meant and fully intended an insult, or were foolish or negligent enough to utter an insult by accident. That conviction will be false, a lie, and you (in a small way, one more straw on the camel's back) will have helped to perpetrate it.

    Exactly. While I do not agree with everything Mr. Wright discusses in the rest of his post, I can't find fault with the sentiments quoted above.

    Lydia also included a link to P.J. O'Rourke's wonderful review of Guidelines For Bias-Free Writing (PDF):

    The book arrived with an I.U. press release stating that, I quote, Anyone who spends even a few minutes with the book will be a better writer. Well, I spent a few minutes with the book, and I feel a spate of better writing coming on.

    The pharisaical, malefic, and incogitant Guidelines for Bias-Free Writing is a product of the pointy-headed wowsers at the Association of American University Presses who established a Task Force on Bias-Free Language filled with cranks, pokenoses, blowhards, four-flushers, and pettifogs. This foolish and contemptible product of years wasted in mining the shafts of indignation has been published by the cow-besieged, basketball-sotted sleep-away camp for hick bourgeois offspring, Indiana University, under the aegis of its University Press, a traditional dumping ground for academic deadwood so bereft of talent, intelligence, and endeavor as to be useless even in the dull precincts of midwestern state college classrooms.

    But perhaps I’m biased. What, after all, is wrong with a project of this ilk? Academic language is supposed to be exact and neutral, a sort of mathematics of ideas, with information recorded in a complete and explicit manner, the record formulated into theories, and attempts made to prove those formulae valid or not. The preface to Guidelines says, “Our aim is simply to encourage sensitivity to usages that may be imprecise, misleading, and needlessly offensive.” And few scholars would care to have their usages so viewed, myself excluded.

    Posted by Nicholas at 11:26 AM | Comments (0)

    How the media's mistakes became "the truth"

    It's been ten years since the Columbine massacre, and (for those who remember any details) much of what passes for common knowledge about the attack is wrong, as Greg Toppo explains:

    They weren't goths or loners.

    The two teenagers who killed 13 people and themselves at suburban Denver's Columbine High School 10 years ago next week weren't in the "Trenchcoat Mafia," disaffected videogamers who wore cowboy dusters. The killings ignited a national debate over bullying, but the record now shows Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold hadn't been bullied — in fact, they had bragged in diaries about picking on freshmen and "fags."

    Their rampage put schools on alert for "enemies lists" made by troubled students, but the enemies on their list had graduated from Columbine a year earlier. Contrary to early reports, Harris and Klebold weren't on antidepressant medication and didn't target jocks, blacks or Christians, police now say, citing the killers' journals and witness accounts. That story about a student being shot in the head after she said she believed in God? Never happened, the FBI says now.

    A decade after Harris and Klebold made Columbine a synonym for rage, new information — including several books that analyze the tragedy through diaries, e-mails, appointment books, videotape, police affidavits and interviews with witnesses, friends and survivors — indicate that much of what the public has been told about the shootings is wrong.

    The way the media covered the horrific event, and the emphasis placed on certain "facts" had wide ranging effects elsewhere:

    At the time, Columbine became a kind of giant national Rorschach test. Observers saw its genesis in just about everything: lax parenting, lax gun laws, progressive schooling, repressive school culture, violent video games, antidepressant drugs and rock 'n' roll, for starters.

    Many of the Columbine myths emerged before the shooting stopped, as rumors, misunderstandings and wishful thinking swirled in an echo chamber among witnesses, survivors, officials and the news media.

    Police contributed to the mess by talking to reporters before they knew facts — a hastily called news conference by the Jefferson County sheriff that afternoon produced the first headline: "Twenty-five dead in Colorado."

    A few inaccuracies took hours to clear up, but others took weeks or months — sometimes years — as authorities reluctantly set the record straight.

    The delay in clearing the record meant that school authorities in other areas were often stampeded into ridiculous disciplinary measures that did nothing to improve student safety, but often increased alienation and mistrust between the students and their teachers and school administrators.

    If the original suppositions had been true, the actions of many school principals and board administrators would have made copycat attacks more likely, not less: by increasing suspicion of "loners" and students who were further from the norm in fashion, reading tastes, and all the myraid other ways teenagers try to express themselves.

    H/T to Jesse Walker, who also noted:

    The persistance of such myths may be as interesting as the myths itself. Many of the tales that Toppo attacks were actually debunked in the immediate aftermath of the killings. In an editorial I filed less than a month after the massacre, I wrote this:

    In the weeks since the Littleton slaughter, we've learned that most of what the media initially told us about the Columbine killers wasn't true. They weren't Nazis. They weren't especially racist. They weren't necessarily Goths. They might not even have been members of the clique of outcasts called the Trench Coat Mafia, which, by the way, wasn't originally called the Trench Coat Mafia.

    Posted by Nicholas at 12:07 AM | Comments (0)

    April 20, 2009

    Focus on the wrong things, and invent new categories of "terrorist"

    Nick Gillespie finds things to critique in the performance of Janet Napolitano's DHS:

    On the one hand, you've got the former governor of Arizona who manages to keep talking no matter how many of her own feet she's got stuck in her mouth. Janet Napolitano's agency released a report implying that if you think Ron Paul is onto something or that state governments should ever challenge federal ones, you're a terrorist [. . .] Even more recently, she fretted and then apologized for worrying that some of our boys coming home from Iraq might be anti-government. Imagine.

    On the other hand, she's starting an Obama-sanctioned jihad against illegal immigrants who work in America and the "evil-doers" who hire undocumented workers to cut your grass and clean your sheets. From an appearance on State of Our Union:

    What we have to do is target the real evil-doers in this business, the employers who consistently hire illegal labor, the human traffickers who are exploiting human misery.

    In what alternate universe is the secretary living where it's evil (E-VIL!) to hire immigrants who are willing to work? Napolitano is also in favor of the idiotic border wall and "boots on the ground," meaning an unending harassment of all residents within Fortress America (after all, if you aggressively pursue illegals and their employers, it means you have to check everybody's papers and payrolls.)

    The popularity of "getting tough on illegal immigrants" is bound to wane, as part of the "getting tough" will be much more vigorous enforcement of employment laws . . . which will require everyone at a targetted business to prove that they have the right to live and work in the country. It will literally mean having to show "your papers" to every jumped-up Jack-in-office who takes a notion that you might not be "legal".

    As long as this sort of thing is conducted largely out of sight of most people, it's tolerated. They've already been moving to make this sort of enforcement effort much more visible.

    Nobody (well, damned few people) argue that the border needs to be monitored, but the over-expansion of the definition of what constitutes the border is a very bad thing. 100 miles is an arbitrary number . . . who can object if the government decides it javascript:editPlacements()should be 200 or 300 miles? At what point can anyone say "this far, but no further"? If you've already conceded 100 miles, there's no logical stopping point, is there?

    Posted by Nicholas at 11:04 AM | Comments (0)

    April 19, 2009

    QotD: What Britain used to be

    The outstanding and — by contemporary standards — highly original quality of the English is their habit of not killing one another. Putting aside the 'model' small states, which are in an exceptional position, England is the only European country where internal politics are conducted in a more or less humane and decent manner. It is — and this was true long before the rise of fascism — the only country where armed men do not prowl the streets and no one is frightened of the secret police. And the whole British Empire, with all its crying abuses, its stagnation in one place and exploitation in another, at least has the merit of being internally peaceful. It has always been able to get along with a very small number of armed men, although it contains a quarter of the population of the earth. Between the wars its total armed forces amounted to about 600,000 men, of whom a third were Indians. At the outbreak of war the entire Empire was able to mobilise about a million trained men. Almost as many could have been mobilised by, say, Rumania. The English are probably more capable than most peoples of making revolutionary changes without bloodshed. In England, if anywhere, it would be possible to abolish poverty without destroying liberty. If the English took the trouble to make their own democracy work, they would become the political leaders of western Europe, and probably of some other parts of the world as well. They would provide the much-needed alternative to Russian authoritarianism on the one hand and American materialism on the other.

    George Orwell, "The English People", 1947

    Posted by Nicholas at 01:38 PM | Comments (0)

    April 18, 2009

    Remedial Headline Writing

    The headline on a recent article in PC World includes an eye-catching statistic:

    IT Pros Find Smut on 3 out of 4 Employee Laptops

    My first response was "so few? Really?" (but I'm pretty cynical about things like that). After reading the first paragraph, it became clear that whoever wrote the headline didn't really read the article:

    Nearly three-quarters of corporate security and IT professionals in the U.S. have found "inappropriate" pictures, videos or browser cache links on employee laptops, a survey released Wednesday shows.

    A more accurate, but less sensational headline would not have confused the proportion of IT staff finding "smut" with the proportion of employee laptops containing "smut". So, it is not that three out of four employees have "smut" on their computers, but that three out of four IT staff members have, at one time or another, found "smut" on other employees' computers. Rather a significant statistical difference, no?

    Now the statistic implies that one in four IT professionals aren't doing their jobs properly!

    Posted by Nicholas at 12:05 AM | Comments (0)

    April 17, 2009

    QotD: "America is kooky"!

    Here's a stone truth: Every political protest, and indeed just about every political gathering, is filled with kooks, on account of America is kooky! A commentator's protest kook-detector works great when he disagrees with the protest, then gets turned off when the kooks on his side get busy. It has ever been thus, and it will always be.

    Matt Welch, "Army of Dicks Goes After Dick Armey", Hit and Run, 2009-04-16

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

    April 16, 2009

    If you say it with enough sincerity, maybe it'll become possible

    Dave Demerjian reports on President Obama's latest high-speed rail (HSR) pronouncements:

    President Obama delivered on a campaign promise Thursday when he announced a plan to lay the groundwork for a high-speed rail network that would serve 10 of the nation's busiest transportation corridors.

    The president, joined by Vice President Joe Biden and Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood, argued improving the nation's rail system is an economic and environmental necessity. Our overburdened highways and air traffic control systems are stifling growth, he said, and it is time to embrace rail.

    "What we need, then, is a smart transportation system equal to the needs of the 21st century," he said. "A system that reduces travel times and increases mobility, a system that reduces congestion and boosts productivity, a system that reduces destructive emissions and creates jobs.

    "There's no reason we can't do this."

    Well, actually . . . there are several reasons why you can't do this:

    [. . .] what's often missing from reports like this (contrasting HSR in other countries with regular rail service in the US or Canada) is that all HSR solutions require separate, reserved rights-of-way that never see non-high speed traffic (that is, no freight trains). The cost of developing and building the locomotives, coaches, signals, and control infrastructure pale in comparison to buying the land anywhere in North America on which to build the new railway. Passenger rail service, to approach sustainability — let's ignore the whole notion of profitability — has to be located in densely populated corridors . . . exactly where the costs of acquiring land are going to be highest.

    Yeah, I know, it's bad form to quote yourself . . . but even eight billion dollars won't buy you anywhere near enough for one of these proposed systems, never mind ten of them.

    Update, 17 April: Nick Gillespie isn't a fan of HSR:

    And now this morning, Obama was on the tube again, yapping about traffic jams. What the hell is going on here? The president of the freaking United States is talking about traffic jams? Then again, in grammar school we did all learn that part of George Washinton's Farewell Address where he warned against entangling alliances and the dread menace of highway jughandles and traffic circles. That Obama's big solution is, ta-da!, "high-speed rail" is simply one more sign that he is simply not serious about anything other than paying off 19th and 20th century legacy special interests. I look forward to tomorrow's press conference, when Obama trains his laser-beam brain on the question of whether Razzles is a candy or a gum. [. . .]

    If you're the president of the United States and you're talking about goddamn traffic jams and you're proposing high-speed rail as anything other than an unapologetic boondoggle that will a) never get built and b) never get built to the gee-whiz specs it's supposed and c) be ridden by fewer people than commuted by zeppelin last year, you've got real problems, bub. And by extension, so do we all.

    Posted by Nicholas at 09:47 PM | Comments (0)

    Would the Lions take Vick?

    Damian Penny (who is still pretending he's finished with blogging) sent out a link to this rather off-beat article arguing that the Detroit Lions might try to acquire Michael Vick:

    Jamie Dukes recommends the Lions set their sights on Vick as soon as they legally can, and here are his three major reasons:
       • Rest assured the Lions would have one of the top three running
       games in the NFL next season with Vick under center.
       • Vick would help the defense because of ball control and his unusual
       propensity to keep the chains moving.
       • Most importantly for the Lions, Vick is "recession-proof" — he would
       sell out Ford Field.

    I don't know about those reasons. There's still a weak offensive line there, so I don't know what makes him that confident about the running game. And when we're calling a guy who's been making 12 cents an hour washing the heavily-soiled whites of Stabface McAllister "recession-proof," I'm not sure we're talking about the most sound financial strategy in the world.

    But that's not to say that there are no positives for the Lions being Vick's next home.

    One, whoever signs Vick faces a big public backlash. If it turns out that it's the Lions, though . . . well, who could hate the Lions? You can't hate the Lions. That's like watching a newborn baby fight Rampage Jackson and rooting for Rampage.

    You can say the risk would be too high . . . but that would only apply to a normal team. Detroit is an extraordinary team — extraordinarily bad, that is. The remaining fans are probably willing to put up with almost anything that might improve the franchise. Michael Vick's talents are undeniable, even if his ethical and moral instincts are shaky.

    Posted by Nicholas at 09:24 PM | Comments (0)

    Another light blogging day

    I'll be away from the keyboard for much of today. Slight chance of light blogging a bit later on.

    Posted by Nicholas at 10:02 AM | Comments (0)

    April 15, 2009

    Today's forecast: light blogging

    I'm off at a client site all day today, so blogging won't be resuming normal patterns until tomorrow. Lots of fine blogs in the blogrolls running down the left side of the page, however, so I'm sure you'll not be bored while I'm away.

    Posted by Nicholas at 08:03 AM | Comments (0)

    April 14, 2009

    Airline passenger's balancing act

    As we all know, in today's unfriendly skies, the passenger who makes too much fuss risks being arrested on landing and having their name added to the No-Fly list. Apparently, though, if you don't make enough fuss, you may lose the right to sue:

    A federal district judge in Arkansas has dismissed a class-action lawsuit that sought damages from American Airlines for an incident in December 2006 where passengers were stranded on the tarmac in Austin for 9½ hours, unable to get off their plane. According to FlyersRights.org, an organisation formed in the aftermath of that episode, Robert Dawson, the judge, wrote that the court was "sympathetic to the plaintiff". But he ruled that the airline had no duty to provide passengers with "a stress-free environment". He found that the named plaintiff had never personally "told the pilots or the flight attendants that she wanted to deplane" so there was no "wilful detention".

    American Airlines is probably just jealous of the enviable title won by Alitalia: the "World's Worst Airline".

    Posted by Nicholas at 04:45 PM | Comments (0)

    Plumbing problems in U-boats

    Wired's Tony Long recounts the story of how a misbehaving toilet caused the loss of U-1206 in 1945:

    U-1206, sailing out of Kristiansand, Norway as part of the 11th Flotilla, was cruising at a depth of roughly 200 feet when the commander, Kapitänleutnant Karl-Adolf Schlitt, decided to answer the call of nature. The submarine was a late-war Type VIIC, commissioned in March 1944. It carried a new type of toilet designed for use at greater depths.

    Like a lot of new technology, the toilet was just a little buggy. Schlitt had trouble operating it. When he called an engineer for help, the man opened the wrong valve, allowing seawater to enter the boat.

    When the water reached the batteries located beneath the toilet, the boat began filling with chlorine gas, forcing Schlitt to order U-1206 surfaced. Unfortunately for the Germans, the boat was only 10 miles off the Scottish coast, and it was quickly spotted by the British.

    The crew was still blowing clean air into their U-boat when an aircraft appeared and attacked, killing four men on deck and damaging the boat so badly that it was unable to dive. Schlitt, seeing the game was up, gave the order to abandon and scuttle.

    Posted by Nicholas at 09:57 AM | Comments (0)

    Old hard drives

    I posted here about a month ago that the old machine I'd been using had fallen victim to static discharge, but that I'd been able to salvage the drives from the box. Perhaps I shouldn't have bothered . . . today the older of the two drives started to act up. I rebooted, ran a disk check, and everything seemed okay. About ten minutes after the disk check finished, I started to get "Delayed Write" errors from that drive, and then it stopped responding at all.

    A darned good thing I'd moved all the data off that drive to the newer ones!

    Posted by Nicholas at 12:25 AM | Comments (0)

    April 13, 2009

    Amazon still not clear of the "#amazonfail" zone

    The Twitterati were up in arms over the weekend as Amazon.com appeared to conduct a publication purge of Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender (LGBT) books and other products from their online catalogue. Brennon Slattery rounds up the state of play:

    Hundreds of LGBT book titles were stripped of their sales rank by Amazon.com over the weekend in what the online store is calling a "glitch." The books involved in the apparent snafu — which included such classics as D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover and James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room — were deemed "adult" by Amazon, which, due to an unexplained new adult policy, removes a title's sales rank. The problem was revealed by author Mark Probst.

    After discovering that the sales rankings for two new high-profile LGBT books were missing, Probst noticed his book, The Filly, was also devoid of this information. Without the ranking, titles are more difficult to find using Amazon's search function, as bestselling and high-ranking titles are predominantly displayed. Probst complained to Amazon and received this reply: "In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude 'adult' material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature."

    Since then, Amazon has informed various members of the press that the problem is a "glitch" and "it's being fixed."

    Amazon has always been a pretty media-savvy organization, and it's baffling that they'd either deliberately conduct a purge of this nature or that if it really was just a "glitch", that they haven't been far more pro-active about explaining and apologizing to their customers.

    Posted by Nicholas at 02:59 PM | Comments (0)

    QotD: Weird Al honoured

    Apparently SNL has just bestowed upon me the highest honor imaginable — my name has become a metaphor for masturbation. So proud.

    Weird Al Yankovic, Twitter, 2009-04-12 01:46

    Posted by Nicholas at 09:29 AM | Comments (0)

    Email users by their choice of provider

    PC World's Thomas Wailgum diagnoses the kind of webmail user you are by your choice of service:

    An Apple Fanboy to the extreme, you have either an elegantly-designed tattoo of Steve Jobs on your body or an iPod pocket sewn into all of your clothing.

    Typical user: Usually found in the hippest non-chain coffee shop, typing on a US$3,000-precision-aluminum-unibody-enclosed MacBook Pro, white earbuds in proper position and iPhone 3G at the ready. And if Apple invented a laptop with a cumbersome wheel instead of a keyboard, you'd buy it. Fact.

    Posted by Nicholas at 09:21 AM | Comments (0)

    April 12, 2009

    QotD: Australia's Anti-Tourist Board

    You probably know most of the cane toad story already because my country of origin, in order to ensure that its high standard of living should not be threatened by a population of excessive size, has a kind of anti-tourist board dedicated to making Australia look less attractive than it might be in the eyes of the world. After World War II, the anti-tourist board spread stories through overseas outlets about Australia's teeming range of poisonous spiders and snakes.

    There were stories of the red-back spider that hides under the toilet seat to avoid publicity, and the taipan snake that was so poisonous it could kill a man on a horse after killing the horse, and would do both these things unprovoked, because it liked publicity. The anti-tourist board was scarcely obliged to exaggerate.

    Australian spiders and snakes are really like that. So you're a prospective migrant and you're afraid of getting bitten a little bit? What are you, a man or a mouse? If you're a mouse, you've got no business going near a taipan anyway.

    More recently, the anti-tourist board positioned its enormous influence behind a film called Australia, which was plainly designed to put immigrants off going to Australia by presenting, at enormous length, a prospect of a country where nothing happened except a 150,000 cattle moving slowly across the parched landscape, each beast pausing for an individual close-up at any moment when the director thought the pace was too hectic. But the most reliable weapon in the armoury of the Australian anti-tourist board has always been the story of the cane toad.

    Clive James, "Raising cane", BBC News Magazine, 2009-04-10

    Posted by Nicholas at 12:38 PM | Comments (0)

    April 11, 2009

    "Heretic! Heretic! Burn him!"

    Geoffrey Pullum decides that things are too quiet in his life, so he pulls out his copy of The Elements of Style, pours on generous amounts of bile and lights a match:

    April 16 is the 50th anniversary of the publication of a little book that is loved and admired throughout American academe. Celebrations, readings, and toasts are being held, and a commemorative edition has been released.

    I won't be celebrating.

    The Elements of Style does not deserve the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates. Its advice ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense. Its enormous influence has not improved American students' grasp of English grammar; it has significantly degraded it. [. . .]

    This was most unfortunate for the field of English grammar, because both authors were grammatical incompetents. Strunk had very little analytical understanding of syntax, White even less. Certainly White was a fine writer, but he was not qualified as a grammarian. Despite the post-1957 explosion of theoretical linguistics, Elements settled in as the primary vehicle through which grammar was taught to college students and presented to the general public, and the subject was stuck in the doldrums for the rest of the 20th century.

    Notice what I am objecting to is not the style advice in Elements, which might best be described the way The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy describes Earth: mostly harmless. Some of the recommendations are vapid, like "Be clear" (how could one disagree?). Some are tautologous, like "Do not explain too much." (Explaining too much means explaining more than you should, so of course you shouldn't.) Many are useless, like "Omit needless words." (The students who know which words are needless don't need the instruction.) Even so, it doesn't hurt to lay such well-meant maxims before novice writers.

    It's been a while since this sort of heresy was bruited about the intertubes. It could get entertaining, for a while.

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

    April 10, 2009

    When auto designers do drugs

    See some of the least successful efforts of automotive design at the Peterson Automotive Museum:


    1974 Highway Aircraft Corp. Fascination
    Paul M. Lewis founded Highway Aircraft in 1962 with the dream of building "the economical, safe, smog-free, modernistic, quiet, easy-to-handle, easy-to-park car millions of people want." He built five of these instead.
    Photo: Jim Merithew/Wired.com

    I liked the Fascination, but I was perhaps more impressed by the Amphicar 770, which somehow achieved the impossible: an amphibious car with Lucas electrical systems (Lucas was a British manufacturer with an enviable reputation):

    • The Lucas motto: "Get home before dark."
    • Lucas is the patent holder for the short circuit.
    • Lucas - Inventor of the first intermittent wiper.
    • Lucas - Inventor of the self-dimming headlamp.
    • The three position Lucas switch - Dim, Flicker and Off.
    • Q: Why do the British drink warm beer? A: Because Lucas makes their refrigerators
    Posted by Nicholas at 12:15 PM | Comments (0)

    April 09, 2009

    Perpetuating a military myth

    Tony Long rounds up the technological advances which made the American Civil War so different from preceding wars. In the process, he continues perpetrating a modern myth about a genuine military problem:

    Although disease killed more men than actual fighting, technological advances in small-arms weaponry and artillery resulted in casualty figures disproportionately high for the numbers of troops engaged.

    The introduction of the Henry and Spencer repeating rifles, which allowed sustained, rapid and accurate fire from much farther distances than before, reduced the classic infantry charge to a virtual suicide attack. Pickett's desperate charge at Gettysburg is probably the most memorable example, but the futility continued to the end of the war.

    A few problems with this section: the Henry and Spencer rifles, innovative and deadly though they were, had little to do with the example given: they were primarily used by the Union cavalry, and Pickett's Charge was emphatically not a cavalry action. The horrific casualties in that action were inflicted by artillery and regular infantry rifles. The intended point is valid, however, that infantry weapons were becoming much more dependably deadly, yet infantry tactics were still quite similar to those used in the War of 1812 and earlier.

    (It's telling of the hidebound nature of the military mindset that a half-century later, the major combatants in World War I were still hurling infantry across open fields into the teeth of even more devastating firepower.)

    It's hard to deny that generals are often wedded to "the old way of fighting", but in this case, there's a damned good reason for it: They. Had. No. Alternative.

    Wars from the Crimea to the Spanish Civil War generated mind-boggling casualty figures for an insurmountable technological reason: command and control deficiencies that were not (and could not be) addressed until 1939. Let's step back a few centuries and walk through how the problem developed.

    Armies are unwieldy things to manoeuvre in the field, even without the presence of complicating factors like hills, valleys, streams, and woods. The limiting factor has always been the ability of the commander(s) to get their orders to the troops. In pre-gunpowder battles, the army commander would generally give his orders before battle was joined, face-to-face with his subordinate commanders, because issuing orders once battle had been joined was difficult-to-impossible. As soon as the armies came into contact, the only thing the army commander had to change the course of events was his reserve formation (if any).

    Troops in close physical contact with the enemy are too busy trying to kill-and-not-be-killed to pay any attention to shouted orders from behind, and anyone close enough to be heard by the front line was also close enough to be killed himself (in fact, shouting orders was a time-honoured way of drawing the enemy's attention on to you personally). Even if you could communicate orders successfully, getting them obeyed was unlikely — the quickest way of starting a rout was for troops to start backing away from the point of contact. Human self-preservation instincts quickly overwhelm obedience to orders and panic is contagious. Most battle casualties were actually inflicted after the battle line broke . . . and most of the casualties would be trying to get away from the enemy (see Keegan's The Face of Battle or Hanson's The Western Way of War for examples).

    Ancient and medieval battles tended to be head-on affairs because it was too difficult to arrange any sophisticated manoeuvering, except the reserve. It was a common adage that the commander who committed his reserve last would win the battle. Battles would follow a fairly standard timeline (please pardon the vast over-generalization here):

    1. The preliminaries — projectile troops engage their opposite numbers (slingers, archers, and javelin men), both sides trying to sweep away the enemy's light forces in order to reach the enemy's main body.

    2. The meeting engagement — the forward troops come into contact with the enemy (infantry or dismounted cavalry in the centre, light troops and mounted cavalry on the wings).
    3. The battle continues until one side or the other starts to suffer greater casualties and the line wavers.
    4. The weakening side breaks, and troops start to fall back from the battle line.
    5. The remaining front-line infantry either die or surrender, and the pursuit begins.

    Exceptions to this general timeline were when one side had a disproportional number of troops, or where a detached formation entered the battle after it had begun. In almost all cases, the army commanders had little to do with the eventual outcome after the armies were engaged.

    Gunpowder was a huge game-changer. Armies no longer needed to get into close physical contact with the enemy to cause casualties. This allowed subordinate commanders to actually exercise control of their troops during the battle. It was now possible — but risky — to move units even after they had engaged the enemy. But technological limitations still ruled what was possible: early firearms were inaccurate and very slow to load. You still needed masses of soldiers to provide enough firepower. The human voice is still the only way to convey orders, so unit size was practically bounded by the need to be large enough for maximum firepower, but small enough to be under command of a single leader.

    As firearms improved, it became possible to get the same effective firepower from smaller groups of men, allowing finer control of the battle, but still limiting the range over which a unit of troops could be spread to the range of the human voice.

    The arquebus was replaced by the musket, muskets by rifles, rifles by repeating rifles, but the range of the human voice hadn't changed at all. By the time of the American Civil War, a dozen men could be as militarily effective as a hundred men using older firearms . . . but the range of communication was still limited to the same as it had always been.

    In the ACW, armies became larger and larger, but the ability to directly command soldiers remained limited, which meant that even though the weapons were becoming far more deadly, the number of soldiers in a given area remained high (higher density of soldiers means more targets for the enemy to hit). By WW1, armies were now hundreds of thousands of men, but command-and-control still had the same limits. Artillery had become orders of magnitude more effective and deadly . . . and the densely packed infantry paid the price. Machine guns, mortars, and grenades also gave greater benefit to the defender, so that every attack was guaranteed to be a bloodbath for the attacking troops — win or lose.

    Until wireless communication became militarily practical, command and control of troops in the field had the same practical limit. Even in WW2, the physical properties of radio sets limited them to higher levels (in the French army of 1940, for example, only one radio was typically provided to a tank squadron, which seriously limited the ability of the squadron commander to use his tanks).

    I've obviously skipped a lot of detail here, and there's probably lots of points that real historians would argue over, but I think the main point is valid. It's said not to attribute to malice what can be attributed to stupidity, but it's also true that one can easily attribute to stupidity what is really a historical limitation. This is one of those cases.

    Update, 10 April: Darrell Markewitz commented:

    One military aspect to the Civil War — fighting from semi-prepared field positions. With increased weapon accuracy, effective contact ranges had increased. Now simple positions like kneeling behind a rail fence (a situation unthinkable to commanders in the early 1800's) suddenly gave a huge advantage to the survival and effectiveness of those troops. Actually *aiming* your weapon was suddenly important, if not critical, and accuracy greatly increases in a crouch!

    It would be interesting to have some idea how many of the individual soldiers were rural rather than urban — with the implication of increased skill in effective aiming.

    Your point about command and control is well stated. If anything, I would almost expect REDUCED ability for the small unit commander as improvements in firearms created more and more raw noise — being generated by increased firing rates ('fire at will' over 'volley').

    Is there a matching development of the 'squad' over the 'platoon' as the basic infantry unit?

    I don't have any information directly addressing the development of smaller tactical units/sub-units. It seems to make sense that actual "command" duties would be delegated to non-coms as the relative firepower of individual soldiers increased, but I haven't seen anything directly stating that this is how it occurred.

    Posted by Nicholas at 10:51 AM | Comments (0)

    Duckweed: low-tech solution to pollution?

    Some news on a possible use for Duckweed as a pollution control:

    The tiniest flowering plant could prove well-suited to two very big jobs: cleaning industrial animal pollution and providing clean biofuel.

    Able to thrive on nutrients in animal waste, duckweed produces far more starch per acre than corn, say researchers. It could be an alternative to corn-based ethanol biofuel, which is disfavored by environmentalists because of waste generated in farming it.

    "Based on our laboratory studies, we can produce five to six times more starch per unit of footage," said Jay Cheng, a biological engineer at North Carolina State University.

    More than a decade ago, Cheng and fellow NC State forestry professor Anne-Marie Stomp wondered whether fast-growing duckweed, commonly seen in shallow ponds, might remediate animal waste. Excrement from the billions of animals raised every year in America's factory farms has fouled watersheds, especially in the South, and fed oxygen-gobbling algae blooms responsible for rapidly-spreading coastal dead zones.

    A real two-for-one deal: cleaning up animal wastes and producing cheaper ethanol than corn. Sounds great . . . until the corn lobby gets their legislative act into high gear.

    Posted by Nicholas at 09:39 AM | Comments (0)

    April 08, 2009

    Led Zep meets the Bassoon

    My friend Jeff Burke plays Led Zepp's Kashmir on the bassoon, with a loop repeater (incomplete video . . . I guess Sean's cellphone has a maximum recording capacity).

    Posted by Nicholas at 05:49 PM | Comments (0)

    Another utopian dream ruined

    Samantha Brick had a vision: "a female-only company with happy, harmonious workers benefiting from an absence of men". Her experience wasn't quite in line with her hopes:

    Over in one corner sat Alice, a strong-minded 27-year-old who always said what she thought, regardless of how much it might hurt someone else. In the other corner was Sarah, a thirtysomething high-flier who would stand up for herself momentarily — then burst into tears and run for the ladies.

    Their simmering fight lasted hours, egged on by spectators taking sides and fuelling the anger. Sometimes other girls would join in, either heckling aggressively or huddling defensively in the toilets. It might sound like a scene from a tawdry reality show such as Big Brother, but the truth is a little more prosaic: it was just a normal morning in my office.

    The venomous women were supposedly the talented employees I had headhunted to achieve my utopian dream — a female-only company with happy, harmonious workers benefiting from an absence of men.

    It was an idealistic vision swiftly shattered by the nightmare reality: constant bitchiness, surging hormones, unchecked emotion, attention-seeking and fashion rivalry so fierce it tore my staff apart.

    When I read the other day that Sienna Miller had said there was no such thing as 'the Sisterhood', I knew what she meant.

    One of the most common features of "utopian" thinking is that humanity is somehow perfectible . . . whether by moral suasion or by physical force. Just because an office is all-male or all-female doesn't magically imbue it with some sort of mystical shield against all the standard human behavioural quirks — in too many cases, it actually magnifies them, as Samantha found in her experiment.

    The Fark.com thread included some wonderfully illustrative comments (along with the usual dreck, invective, and vented spleen):

    Women can be vicious, spiteful creatures hellbent on righting any wrong whether real or imagined. Insults become an art-form, often missed by any male within hearing range ( "I love your dress. I had the same one last year."; "Smith? That name is familiar. Oh yes, my housekeeper was a "Smith". Was that your mother?")
    BTW. I'm female

    Of course women in general are not inherently more co-operative and nice than men, especially in groups. But this is worse — it's women in television, one of the three most backstabby and superficial industries in existence. Did she really think kindness and a nuturing environment were likely to spontaneously appear in the depraved whorepit that it television?

    I'm in sales, which tends to have a LOT of female top-performers but very few female managers. All of my reps are female and I'm the only female manager in the entire NY Tri-state area. The other 11 are men. With the exception of the one crazy biatch who keeps going off her meds, my team gets along fine with each other & everyone else in the office. I interact perfectly well with my male colleagues. The only time any of them were uncomfortable around me was our first manager's meeting, where someone cursed and immediately apologized to me for swearing. I just told him, "What — do you think I f*cking care if you curse?" That was that.
    Hire people with a balanced personality (for the record, I did NOT hire the crazy biatch) and you'll be fine. Hire superficial, catty harpies, and reap what you sow.

    Scrophulous Barking Duck:
    My personal experience is that mixed offices with both female and male staff and managers works best. That said, it sounds like the woman's real problem was that she was a lousy manager and business person.

    Posted by Nicholas at 11:05 AM | Comments (0)

    The perfect gift for your friends with the aluminum headgear

    Dave Slater suggests that these would be appropriate gifts:


    Now wouldn't you feel like a twerp if you happened to get abducted by aliens . . . and don't have a way of finding your way home afterwards?

    Posted by Nicholas at 10:23 AM | Comments (0)

    Visual BMI reference

    I've posted (many, many, times) that the BMI is a pseudo-scientific scam, and is actively harming efforts to improve public health (by focusing on a mathematical formula which has no provable connection to actual human healthy weight). Kate Harding has posted a series of photos, showing what "normal", "overweight", "obese" people actually look like.

    H/T to Marna Nightingale for the link.

    Posted by Nicholas at 10:08 AM | Comments (0)

    April 07, 2009

    QotD: Problems with public service

    This whole they're-denigrating-public-servants complaint, a longtime favorite of Bill Maher's, has always struck me as willfully missing at least one important point. A core problem of government ineffectiveness has to do with incentives, and unintended consequences, not necessarily venality and incompetence. The do something mentality of elected officials inevitably leads to crude applications of blunt power, and just as inevitably that power has a tendency to get all mission-creepy, into areas of human existence that no government should really be messing with. And believe it or not, this can happen under Democrats, too.

    Matt Welch, "Washington: Crackling With Brainy Sacrifice", Hit and Run, 2009-04-07

    Posted by Nicholas at 02:49 PM | Comments (0)

    The cost of green jobs in Spain

    I'd always suspected that there would be a higher cost for a new "green" job created than for an equivalent non-green one, but apparently I was being too optimistic:

    [W]e find that for every renewable energy job that the State manages to finance, Spain’s experience cited by President Obama as a model reveals with high confidence, by two different methods, that the U.S. should expect a loss of at least 2.2 jobs on average, or about 9 jobs lost for every 4 created, to which we have to add those jobs that non-subsidized investments with the same resources would have created...

    . . .while it is not possible to directly translate Spain’s experience with exactitude to claim that the U.S. would lose at least 6.6 million to 11 million jobs, as a direct consequence were it to actually create 3 to 5 million “green jobs” as promised (in addition to the jobs lost due to the opportunity cost of private capital employed in renewable energy), the study clearly reveals the tendency that the U.S. should expect such an outcome...

    The study calculates that since 2000 Spain spent €571,138 to create each “green job”, including subsidies of more than €1 million per wind industry job...

    Each “green” megawatt installed destroys 5.28 jobs on average elsewhere in the economy: 8.99 by photovoltaics, 4.27 by wind energy, 5.05 by mini-hydro.

    These costs do not appear to be unique to Spain’s approach but instead are largely inherent in schemes to promote renewable energy sources.

    Original report here (PDF), link courtesy of Ronald Bailey.

    Update: Related concerns about "green" products from Megan McArdle:

    Er, industry also knew how to make low-flow toilets, which is why every toilet in my recently renovated rental house clogs at least once a week. They knew how to make more energy efficient dryers, which is why even on high, I have to run every load through the dryer in said house twice. And they knew how to make inexpensive compact flourescent bulbs, which is why my head hurts from the glare emitting from my bedroom lamp. They also knew how to make asthma inhalers without CFCs, which is why I am hoarding old albuterol inhalers that, unlike the new ones, a) significantly improve my breathing and b) do not make me gag. Etc.

    In fact, when I look back at almost every "environmentally friendly" alternative product I've seen being widely touted as a cost-free way to lower our footprint, held back only by the indecent vermin at "industry" who don't care about the environment, I notice a common theme: the replacement good has really really sucked compared to the old, inefficient version. In some cases, the problem could be overcome by buying a top-of-the-line model that costs, at the very least, several times what the basic models do. In other cases, as with my asthma inhalers, we were just stuck.

    Posted by Nicholas at 02:36 PM | Comments (0)

    F-22 orders to be reduced, F-35 increased in defense budget

    Updating a post from back in February (for which Chris Taylor was kind enough to provide the core material), the plans will change for USAF fighter planes in the latest Defense plans. Defense Secretary Gates makes it official — he's hoping to cut off the F-22 production run after four more planes are built (making it 187 in total, well short of the USAF's plan for 300), but increasing F-35 orders to 2,443 (which implies a worldwide production run of around 4,500):

    The budget rolled out Monday for Congress to consider looks remarkably different from the budget Gates authored while working for former President George W. Bush; so does the economy.

    North Texas congressional delegation members said ending the F-22 program was a bad call that could hurt local employment.

    "The world remains a dangerous place, and this vital program is integral to maintaining a strong national defense," said Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville. "Now is not the time to impose policy decisions that will only add more workers to the ranks of the unemployed."

    Other congressional leaders applauded the Pentagon's new direction.

    Posted by Nicholas at 01:42 PM | Comments (0)

    Damian Penny hangs up the keyboard

    I'm sorry to see this announcement (although, honestly, not as surprised as all that):

    When I started up my old Blogspot site in late 2001 — one of many, many sites which proliferated in the wake of the 9/11 attacks — I had no idea I'd keep at it as long as I did. And I've enjoyed every minute of it.

    With a child on the way, however — not to mention an ever-increasing workload at my firm — I think it's time to make a graceful exit. Or a hiatus, at least. This is something I've been mulling over for a while, as I've found it increasingly difficult to keep blogging at my usual pace, but I've never been able to pull the trigger. My dithering over the issue made Brett Favre look like the model of decisiveness. But today's as good a day as any.

    I've been reading Damian's blog since shortly after he started it, and I know I'll miss it on my "regular round" of blogs. Of course, blogging is one of those itches that comes back . . . he may find himself sneaking back to the keyboard in spite of the family and work . . . once you've had a soapbox, it's hard to go cold turkey (to mix a few metaphors).

    Posted by Nicholas at 12:16 PM | Comments (0)

    How to derail a train

    A military film the OSS sponsored in 1944 shows that derailing a train isn't as easy as you'd think.


    Compare how difficult it was to deliberately derail a train in 1944 with how readily the trains come off the tracks in 1974.

    H/T to Ken Olson.

    Posted by Nicholas at 09:34 AM | Comments (0)

    April 06, 2009

    QotD: Paranormal phenomena in Science Fiction

    Most folks who read my science fiction novels probably notice that, unlike Star Trek, Star Wars, or Babylon 5 (to name three examples), I never write about phenomena like telepathy, telekinesis, clairvoyance, precognition. There are reasons for this. Chief among them is that psychic doings make bad writing entirely too easy. Paint yourself into a corner, plotwise? Then have your hero teleport out of it.

    Another is that science fiction deals in real possibilities, based on our understanding of the universe, and the way science has let us learn and do more every century. I write about starships because I have reason to believe we'll have them someday. I also think faster-than-light travel will be possible, perhaps even time travel. The most fantastic thing I write about is the possibility that someday we might be free — yeah, I know it's a stretch, but the possibility is there, nonetheless.

    However psychic phenomena are an altogether different kettle of gagh. Very early in my life, I realized that, if such power actually existed, there wouldn't be a single politician or religious leader on this planet left alive and standing above his charred and smoking shoetops.

    L. Neil Smith, "Zenna", Libertarian Enterprise, 2009-04-06

    Posted by Nicholas at 02:36 PM | Comments (0)

    Victor's lament

    Victor is depressed at the realization that life can be viewed as a ditch leading from birth to death — a grave with the ends kicked out, if you will. I well remember the first time I had this kind of thought . . . it was shortly after I started my first full-time job. The feeling that I'd have to do the same thing every day for the rest of my life (let's just say that my first full-time job wasn't quite intellectually fulfilling). It's a horrible sensation, and I don't have any easy answers to offer that don't sound trite or even condescending.

    The world is the same size... There's just less in it.

    I guess you could say I'm having an existential crisis, but not quite. I've recently woken up to the fact that life itself has become rather pointless. I don't mean this as a "I'm going to kill myself" kind of way, but life just doesn't seem to have as many opportunities for one to fulfill himself if he's thinking like me.

    We go to school. Why? So we can get good grades and get accepted into University. We get into University, college, etc, and we study the higher learnings for what? a high paying job which will hold up you and your family... In my opinion, there's something missing there, and I realize it's why I always have a part of me that at its very core, isn't happy with things. Where is the freedom? Where is the ability to choose one's own destiny, over the established norm of society? [Captain Jack Sparrow in} Pirates of the Caribbean had it right in regards to the corners of the map being filled in.

    I want adventure, as deviant as I sound for saying so, and I don't want a desk job that pays 25$ an hour. I have looked at the offerings that society in general gives, and I'm not impressed. I've looked at the various artistic industries, like music, and there's no creativity left in it. None at the surface, at any rate.

    So, I ask the humble users of Facebook, hell, even approach me in real life to talk about this.

    What is there left to live for?

    What is there to do?

    Why have we accepted this monotony, this boring and dull life? Our ancestors would be laughing at our pampered lifestyles. Why has humanity faltered on it's foot path to glory and enlightenment? This stretches beyond politics, beyond religion. This is pure human nature. The nature that fought, tooth and nail to achieve dominance over it's domain. Why has it stopped? Have we actually conquered all there is to conquer? Is there no true challenges left, beyond helping out the poorer nations to achieve power, and the causes to fight diseases that haven't been cured? This isn't what freedom is. This is monotony, this is... Incredibly boring.

    What we have entered is a Fools Gold age. We are at our technological peak, it would seem, and our production of ideas and innovations has stopped, beyond what can get me easier to the grocery store, etc.

    The renaissance had it right. The mindset was impeccable. The pure creative thought of that time period is admirable, and I yearn for such an age where we stand now. With the advances the original renaissance made, we could probably take on anything, should humanity actually stop this monotonous cycle, which discourages creativity in favor of cold knowledge.

    Children in classes, who prefer to dream and learn about what interests them, rather than focusing on, say how to find the curve of best fit are frowned upon, deemed slow, or stupid. They aren't. They're the truly smart ones in this time, and with a little encouragement, maybe we could reach the legendary second renaissance. If we encouraged dreaming, and encouraged culture, more than encouraging people to fill desk seats and not to dream.

    Sometime over the last hundred years, we've been taught to not look at the stars, instead to keep our eyes on our feet, and on the path laid out for us. Adventure is left broken behind, ideas are few and far between. Is there no way to end this age of monotony, of robots, mindlessly doing their jobs?

    I appreciate the fact that we live in a relatively safe society, and that we're in the age of knowledge. But the more I look around, the more I realize that we aren't in the age of knowledge. We're in the age of "because we've reach a comfortable level of not needing to think for ourselves."

    I'm sure this will be met with either protest or agreement, for those of you who read the whole thing, and please do let me know. Knowledge and experience are everything, I'm interested.

    Originally posted on Facebook, reposted here with permission. Comments are open on this post (until the spammers find it).

    Posted by Nicholas at 11:24 AM | Comments (1)

    The horrific consequences of failing to pay your taxes

    Posted by Nicholas at 10:23 AM | Comments (0)

    April 05, 2009

    QotD: Lessons from the Great Depression

    The relevance for today is simple. The famous "multiplier effect" of public spending may exist. U.S. cities do indeed need new highways, new buildings, and new roads, maybe even from the government. There may also be a spillover effect, as historian Alexander Field has noted. When the government builds a road, it is easier for the trucker to get from one point to another, and the trucker makes higher profits. These merits should be weighed against damage that comes when officials create projects and jobs for political reasons.

    An emergency such as a Great Depression can serve as a catalyst for job creation. But the dire moral quality of that emergency does not guarantee that a project undertaken in its name will be more efficient than your standard earmark. In fact, infrastructure spending is often just a nicer name for what we used to call pork. Given the depth of modern capital markets, the New Deal's old argument that "only the government can afford this" looks particularly weak. The New Deal edifice is solid enough, but it doesn't form the best basis for the national future.

    Amity Shlaes, "Afterword to the paperback edition", The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, 2007, 2008

    Posted by Nicholas at 12:57 PM | Comments (0)

    April 03, 2009

    Will the Palm Pre live up to early predictions?

    Ross Catanzariti goes way out on a limb to predict that the upcoming Palm Pre will be an iPhone killer:

    The Palm Pre Will Be an iPhone Killer
    Palm's breakout touchscreen smartphone is worth getting excited about — why you should be waiting for it on pins and needles.

    Although a collective sigh may be raised at comparing yet another touch-screen smartphone with Apple's iPhone 3G, Palm's Pre has been generating plenty of buzz since it was unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year.

    After seemingly disappearing off the face of the earth while companies like Nokia and RIM released multiple phones, and while Apple's iPhone 3G has continued to enjoy immense popularity, Palm has finally hit back. The Pre is considered a make-or-break release for Palm — the smartphone is built on an entirely new Linux-based operating system called webOS.

    Although we haven’t yet had a chance to get our hands on this hot new smartphone, the reports coming out of the US have been largely positive so far. In particular, the webOS operating system is reportedly intuitive, easy to use and visually appealing, and looks like the closest competitor to the iPhone yet.

    I still have positive feelings towards Palm's products, even though I've been drinking serious amounts of Apple iPhone Kool-Aid lately (at least according to my virtual landlord). I gave up on Palm when my original Treo 600 started to get very long in the tooth, but there was no clear upgrade path that preserved my existing investment in software. At that point, I was free to consider other alternatives, as I'd have to buy new software (and input all the important data) regardless of which PDA or smart phone I chose.

    That being said, if you're in the market for a new smart phone and don't want to join us brainwashed zombies of the iPhone world, the Palm Pre might be a worthwhile alternative for you.

    Posted by Nicholas at 03:53 PM | Comments (0)

    The nicest way to say "thanks"

    . . . is to pay the bill. I've been doing some freelance writing and analysis work and after some legalistic snags I finally got paid for my first two invoices today. It's mere peanuts in dollar terms, but it's nice to feel that I'm being a productive member of society again. Even nicer was the strongly implied possibility of additional work after this short engagement is finished.

    Which is also a round-about way of explaining why I haven't done any blogging today . . .

    Posted by Nicholas at 03:20 PM | Comments (0)

    April 02, 2009

    TSA detains highly suspicious character

    Yet another indication that airport security is far less concerned with threats to travellers and aircraft and much more concerned with things outside their sphere of interest:

    H/T to Radley Balko:

    [. . .] a director of Ron Paul’s Campaign for Liberty is detained by TSA at the St. Louis airport because when asked to explain why he’s carrying $4,700 in cash (it was proceeds from book and ticket sales at the conference), he asks the agents to tell him what law requires him to do so. He managed to surreptitiously record his conversations with TSA officers on a cell phone. The audio is infuriating.

    Update, 7 April: Radley Balko has some additional information on the TSA response:

    The response raises a number of questions. How does carrying a large amount of cash impair the safety of air travel? Weapons I could see. But cash?

    Also, merely carrying even large sums of cash is not enough in itself for someone to be legally detained. There needs to be some other sign of illegal activity. What else about Bierfeldt made the TSA agents suspect him of criminal activity? What is the minimum amount of cash you can carry in an airport without being expected to explain to TSA agents why you’re carrying it?

    Will the public be told what disciplinary action is taken against the agents who acted inappropriately? Will Bierfeldt?

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

    Fake charities

    Johnathan Pearce looks at a useful new site for monitoring charitable organizations:

    The blogger at Devil's Kitchen has been doing fine work, as have others, in exposing "fake charities" — those organisations that while claiming to be autonomous, voluntary organisations, receive a substantial amount of funding from the taxpayer via grants and as a result, frequently take positions in terms of public policy that, unsurprisingly, fit in with the fashionable bromides of transnational progressivism, health fascism and environmentalism. The Fake Charities website does sterling work in listing those organisations that should be closely watched. The site is a great resource and well worth bookmarking.

    Charities are a valuable part of our social fabric, but those which operate like the ones identified in that post are not really charities at all . . . they're actually not-quite-arms-length creatures of the state. They enable more intrusion of bureaucrats into areas best served by genuine charities, bringing along with them the coercive powers of the state by slow degrees.

    I object to these fake charities for exactly the same reason I object to mandatory so-called volunteer work by students: they pervert the underlying good intentions of real volunteers and taint the whole notion of voluntary effort.

    Update: A comment on Johnathan's post by "Kevin B." is worth quoting also:

    The trouble is that 'charities' are such useful tools for the state that cutting them off from the statists is nigh on impossible.

    For a start, many of them are there to do 'research' or 'studies' that they then use to 'pressure' the government to do what the government wanted to do in the first place.

    So when the elite want to do something 'for the children' for instance, you will find one 'charity' producing the research to justify it, another to applaud the government for accepting it, and a third bemoaning the fact that the government hasn't gone far enough.

    Posted by Nicholas at 11:51 AM | Comments (0)

    QotD: Criminalizing "hate" speech

    If the pen is mightier than the sword, then criminalizing words is a way of disarming potential opposition, of inculcating a reflexive self-censorship in the citizenry. And, after all, self-suppression is the most cost-effective of tyranny. Political correctness isn't merely the blasphemy law of our time. It makes communication impossible. It renders a people literally illiterate: The conventions of language used by functioning societies throughout human history — irony, indirect quotation, period evocation, and, yes, even comic stereotype — are all suddenly suspect. What a strange fate to embrace.

    Mark Steyn, "No Laughing Matter", Macleans, 2009-04-01

    Posted by Nicholas at 11:35 AM | Comments (0)

    Making it even harder for Ontario's small wineries

    If you've read more than one or two posts here, you'll know I'm not a fan of big government, especially when that government moves into areas far better served by private enterprise. Ontario's liquor laws are still just emerging from the Prohibition era, and are strongly tilted in favour of large conglomerates and against smaller producers (it's much easier for the government to oversee a few giants than to actively interfere with oversee dozens or hundreds of smaller firms).

    In an ideal world, I'd prefer to see the government get out of the alcohol business altogether . . . but that's not likely to happen. In the real world, the Ontario government strictly limits how Ontario wineries are allowed to sell and market their wines. The vast majority of Ontario wine sold is through the LCBO/Vintages channel. The LCBO is the only way small wineries are allowed to sell their wines aside from direct sales at the winery itself (even the recent innovation allowing winery-to-home sales is tightly controlled).

    Given all of this, you'd expect (if you don't live in Ontario, that is) that the LCBO would be actively assisting small wineries to increase their market share and to increase the LCBO's proportion of domestic sales. But that's not the way things are done. Michael Pinkus explains:

    Early last week, a winemaker called me up to say that there was scuttlebutt in Niagara that the government "kickback" program, to help small wineries get their wines into the LCBO, is at risk of being axed. Known as the VQASP (VQA Support Program) it provided a 30% return to the wineries whose wines got into the LCBO and Vintages stores. This encouraged more wineries to submit wines to the LCBO (previously they were reluctant to put their wines into the provincial monopoly shops because there was no profit to be made, wineries realized more money by selling their wines out the cellar door, even if it was a slower process and to a smaller audience). This program subsidized the sale of these wines and allowed more Ontarians to see, and buy, a greater array of VQA Ontario wines from wineries they probably didn’t even know existed. (In the last three years of the program, the number of Ontario wineries in the LCBO rose from 15 to 50). It is because of this program that many small wineries saw light at the end of a long harsh tunnel; some wineries even increased production in the hopes of having enough wine to offer to the LCBO and get the exposure the shelves which they so desperately needed (in order to be listed the LCBO needs a minimum supply so that all their stores can get the required product). With the cancellation of the VQASP, those wineries are now at risk of being overstocked and putting themselves into a deeper financial hole then they were before. At a time when the government is ear-marking millions of dollars to bail out the car manufacturers, who are just trying to maintain the status quo — the government has decided to cancel help to an industry that is growing, creating jobs and brings tourism to this province. I have a colleague that calls Ontario "a have not province" and something we will not have is a wine industry if this continues to be the way wineries are treated. It seems that the current government is prepared to keep them down.

    Yes ladies and gentlemen, this is your government hard at work. Do they not realize that the "O" in LCBO stands for Ontario? How quickly we forget that when we walk into the store and are faced with shelf after shelf of Chilean, Australian and South African wine. I have noticed that when I enter a US liquor store, I have to search high and low for the "foreign" wines, having to wade through row after row of California, Oregon and Washington State wine. In the LCBO it's the exact opposite — I wade through every other country before I find my country's/province's wines and who knows, maybe I'm still buying Chilean, Australian or South African afterall, if you don't examine the label with a magnifying glass, you could get stuck with a Cellared in Canada wine.

    Again, I'd prefer the government got the heck out of the liquor retail/wholesale business altogether, but if they won't do that, they should at least try to make it a level playing field for both domestic and foreign products, and for both small wineries and large multinational conglomerates. I've written about this before.

    Posted by Nicholas at 10:16 AM | Comments (0)

    April 01, 2009

    The oddest April 1st story so far

    Radley Balko is an American journalist whose work I link to and quote from fairly frequently. Since he joined the staff at Reason magazine, he's pretty much been the go-to guy for law enforcement coverage, especially non-knock raids-gone-wrong. This, therefore, is a very strange event indeed:

    Not an April Fool’s Joke

    So at about 8:30am this morning, while I was in the shower, there was a loud banging at my door. I decided it couldn’t be important enough for me to cut the shower short, so I decided not to answer. The banging continued, louder and more persistent. I got out, peeked out the window, and see a bunch of Alexandria Sheriff's Deputies outside my door. Honest to God, my first reaction was, "Wow, this is one ridiculous April Fool's joke."

    So I got dressed. The pounding continued, and my dog was going crazy. I was a little freaked out now, given that I'm sorta' the main critic of police raids, and there are a bunch of cops banging on my door. I answered, and the cop flashed his badge. I could tell pretty quickly by the look on his face that I wasn't the guy he was looking for. He showed me a picture of a scary-looking fellow, and asked if the man in the photo lived at my house. I said no, and that I'd lived at the house for three years. Apparently the guy either lived in the house before me, or was using my address as a decoy.

    The comments are running about 50/50 between "good thing nothing happened" and "they've punked you, hoping you'd write it up as intimidation". The timing is another head-scratcher . . . were they (the police) trying to wind Radley up, in hopes he'd try to exaggerate the event or were they trying to demonstrate that not all police activity starts with a broken-in door and ends with occupants of the house handcuffed and their dogs shot dead?

    Posted by Nicholas at 03:56 PM | Comments (0)

    Best one-liner of the week

    Preston Gralla absolutely nails the question here:

    What Was Encarta? Look It Up on Wikipedia

    Read no further . . . there's no need. That is the answer.

    Posted by Nicholas at 03:31 PM | Comments (0)

    High Speed Rail: Japan ups the ante

    Although it's only in the planning stages, the successor to the newest generation of Shinkansen "bullet" trains may achieve speeds of 310 mph, according to Wired:


    Apparently 175 mph isn't fast enough for people in Japan, where rail companies are pouring money into a magnetic levitation train that will streak across the countryside at more than 310 mph. The train isn't expected to go into service until 2025, so in the meantime there's a plan to roll out a faster, sleeker version of the wildly successful Shinkansen bullet train.

    Here in the U.S., the clickety-clack of Amtrak is the standard for rail and a proposed high-speed line linking Los Angeles and San Francisco would make the trip in about 2.5 hours. The system Japan is developing would cover that distance in an hour, which shows how far behind we are.

    The new Shinkansen, called the E-5 Series and shown above, will hit the rails in 2011. It is based on the Fastech 360 prototype that JR East has been working on since 2002, and the company says it will do nearly 200 mph and offer greater comfort thanks to improved car-tilting and suspension mechanisms. Each E-5 will feature an 18 seat "Super Green Car" that JR East touts as something akin to a first class cabin on steroids.

    Of course, what's often missing from reports like this (contrasting HSR in other countries with regular rail service in the US or Canada) is that all HSR solutions require separate, reserved rights-of-way that never see non-high speed traffic (that is, no freight trains). The cost of developing and building the locomotives, coaches, signals, and control infrastructure pale in comparison to buying the land anywhere in North America on which to build the new railway. Passenger rail service, to approach sustainability — let's ignore the whole notion of profitability — has to be located in densely populated corridors . . . exactly where the costs of acquiring land are going to be highest.

    Posted by Nicholas at 02:39 PM | Comments (0)

    Rednecks for drug legalization

    Posted by Nicholas at 12:44 PM | Comments (0)

    Best April Fool pranks?

    Jesse Walker asks Hit & Run readers for their favourite April Fool's Day pranks:

    In college I staged a serious 04/01 sit-down with my boyfriend of three weeks to tell him I was post-op.

    My ego has never recovered from the fact that he seemed to believe it without much convincing...

    Pro Libertate
    ThinkGeek has some funny fake products today, including Squeez Bacon (bacon in a bottle from Sweden), an ice dagger mold, a Tauntaun sleeping bag with a light saber zipper, and a wristband that shocks you when you speak certain buzz words.

    NPR started a great one this morning. They reported that the Justice Department is seeking to toss out the conviction of former senator Ted Stevens. Ted "series of tubes" "bridge to nowhere" Stevens lost re-election after being convicted of corruption.

    It looks like most of the big news outlets have bit on this one. Ha ha ha ha

    Oh wait...

    Here in Boston, they were talking on the radio about the new "10 and 2" law, which means a $100 ticket for anyone caught driving without both hands on the wheel. This being Massachusetts, I actually thought it could be true.

    You know some jerk congressman heard that and thinks it sounds like a good idea. The radio guy should get sued by anyone fined after it becomes a law.

    Unfortunately, the comment thread went off the rails after that post.

    Update: Of course, the new Gmail Autopilot™ is full of win.

    Posted by Nicholas at 12:20 PM | Comments (0)

    The Guardian accepts the future, moves towards it

    You can call the old Grauniad a lot of things, but old-fashioned is no longer appropriate — they're converting to Twitter:

    Twitter switch for Guardian, after 188 years of ink

    • Newspaper to be available only on messaging service
    • Experts say any story can be told in 140 characters

    They're twitterating their entire archive, too:

    OMG first successful transatlantic air flight wow, pretty cool! Boring day otherwise *sigh*

    W Churchill giving speech NOW - "we shall fight on the beaches ... we shall never surrender" check YouTube later for the rest

    Listening 2 new band "The Beatles"

    Berlin Wall falls! Majority view of Twitterers = it's a historic moment! What do you think??? Have your say

    You'd have to admit that it really does capture the essence of Guardian coverage, wouldn't you?

    Posted by Nicholas at 11:26 AM | Comments (0)

    Britain's decline: from America's closest ally to "slightly smaller than Oregon"

    I guess it was inevitable that Britain's profile with the Obama administration would be lower than with any other, but the the descent from "World Power" to "just another country" has been faster than even the most dedicated declinist might have predicted. Tony Harnden reveals the contents of a recent press kit provided to American reporters:

    Those fretting about the demise of the term "special relationship" might not be reassured by this briefing book. There's talk of a "strong bilateral relationship", of the UK being "one of the United States' closest allies" and of "close coordination" and "bilateral cooperation" between two countries who "continually consult on foreign policy". Everything except "special".

    After the country sections, we're introduced the personalities, with information mainly culled from their websites. Queen Elizabeth "enrolled as a girl Guide when she was eleven, and later became a Sea Ranger", we are informed. During the war she "put on pantomimes with the children of members of staff for the enjoyment of her family and employees of the Royal Household".

    Gordon Brown's entry reads a little like one of those awful Christmas round robins. Young Gordon, we are told repeatedly, was very, very clever. He "did well a school from an early age" and then "excelled at sport and joined in every aspect of school life, quickly becoming popular".

    He "took his exams a year ahead of his contemporaries" and "went on to University at the age of 15", where he edited the student newspaper "in a prize-winning year" and won "a First Class Honours degree and a number of prizes for his studies".

    There goes the last prop for the "punch above our weight" folks as far as British influence with the American government. But I'm sure Mr. Brown will enjoy those storied DVDs . . . if he can find a DVD player that they'll work on.

    Posted by Nicholas at 10:39 AM | Comments (0)

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