June 30, 2009

Examples of how to "fix" things

By way of a quick link from The Agitator, the wonderful world of "There, I Fixed It:


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

June 29, 2009

QotD: Expanding online copyright rules

I'm with Jeff Jarvis: Good God. The scary thing here is not necessarily that we will see some new federal law requiring that the L.A. Times give expressed written consent every time I link to one of its pieces, but rather that some damn fool freedom-reducing scheme like this is likely to be introduced at the federal level in the not-too-distant future, given the economic and political clout of these very large, very troubled, and very connected organizations. And the fact that a respected judge is so breezy about jigging the nation's laws to prop up a single struggling industry reminds us afresh how ingrained is the bias toward seeing the government as a cost-and consquence-free solution to anything perceived as a problem.

Matt Welch, "Richard Posner: Expand Copyright Protections to Save Newspapers!", Hit and Run, 2009-06-26

Posted by Nicholas at 09:43 AM | Comments (0)

The illustrated "Snitchtown"

Emma Byrne has taken a 2007 essay by Cory Doctorow and illustrated it with photos of some of the disturbingly large number of CCTV installations in Britain today. Download the PDF here.

"Snitchtown: the photo essay" is a book of photographs of a (very small) subset of the 4.2 million CCTV in Britain. These have been put together with Cory Doctorow's essay on ubiquitous CCTV coverage, "Snitchtown" as part of the SoFoBoMo event, in which photographers work to put together a solo project in book form in one month.

I was inspired by some of the things that Cory said at an Open Rights Group debate. Not least of these was the fact that his daughter's pocket money was tied, in part, to her spotting the CCTV cameras on the way to school. This sounded so damned transgressive, and I realised how much we've been trained to pay no attention to the cameras that record our daily lives (I counted 21 on my exit from the tube station this evening alone.)

Cory's response: "This is, I believe, my absolute favorite CC adaptation of my work to date; in that it's the first adaptation that I prefer to my original. Great work, Emma! "

Posted by Nicholas at 09:00 AM | Comments (0)

June 28, 2009

Political mashup cartoon


Posted by Nicholas at 10:20 AM | Comments (0)

June 27, 2009

Tweeting California

Gerard Vanderleun sent this tweet last night, which ideally captures the destiny of California:

"The salvation of Calif. will be partition. The south gets Hollywood and Tiajuana. The North: All the water and marijuana."

Update: Bonus USA twitterage from Ghost of a Flea:

"My American cousins: Congratulations on cap-and-trade. You are now to the left of Canada."
"WAY to the left of Canada.

Posted by Nicholas at 02:35 PM | Comments (0)

June 26, 2009

Movie review of the year

It's not a movie I was ever likely to see, so it took a really amazing review to catch my attention:

Critical consensus on Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen is overwhelmingly negative. But the critics are wrong. Michael Bay used a squillion dollars and a hundred supercomputers' worth of CG for a brilliant art movie about the illusory nature of plot.

Oh, and I would warn you that there'll be spoilers in this review — except that, really, since I still have no idea what actually happened in this movie, I'm not sure how much I can spoil it.

[. . .]

Transformers: ROTF has mostly gotten pretty hideous reviews, but that's because people don't understand that this isn't a movie, in the conventional sense. It's an assault on the senses, a barrage of crazy imagery. Imagine that you went back in time to the late 1960s and found Terry Gilliam, fresh from doing his weird low-fi collage/animations for Monty Python. You proceeded to inject Gilliam with so many steroids his penis shrank to the size of a hair follicle, and you smushed a dozen tabs of LSD under his tongue. And then you gave him the GDP of a few sub-Saharan countries. Gilliam might have made a movie not unlike this one.

[. . .]

Where was I? Oh yes. So LaBoeuf, who's actually a fine actor, is the stand-in for the male viewers' greatest fears about themselves. No matter how great a loser they might be, they can't be as losery a loser as Sam Witwicky. And yet, Sam has awesome giant robots stomping around telling him he's the most important awesome person ever. And he has the hottest girlfriend in the universe, Megan Fox, for whom banality is a huge aphrodisiac. The more pathetic Sam gets, the more Fox's lips pout and her nipples point, like little Irish setters.

To make matters more awesome for the insecure males in the audience, Sam actually tosses aside his giant robot fanclub and his walking-pinup girlfriend, so he can have a normal life. Of course, this only leads to other robots and hawt chicks (who turn out to be robots too) throwing themselves at him and telling him how important he is. In the end, everybody learns to appreciate Sam just a bit more than they already did, and a booming voice tells him he's earned the "matrix of leadership" through his courage and stuff.

Posted by Nicholas at 12:54 PM | Comments (0)

Wallabies? Pull the other one, mate!

Making the rounds at the office today:

DarkWaterMuse: Here we go, another ploy at mind control: 'Stoned wallabies make crop circles'.

No doubt financed by elitist US conservatives who continue to perpetrate the crime of burring the truth about supernatural global phenomenon. We cannot let these CCD — Crop Circle Deniers — wash away truth in a torrent of ill-gotten US propaganda dollars.

Show me one Wallaby in Alberta wheat fields! How about Wales, any Wallabies? No? Do you suppose Stalin hunted wild Wallaby on The Steppes? Doubtful.

These CCDs cannot be left to deny science any longer: Crop Circle Research

By the way, let me remind you to fill this out, Questionnaire on Crop Circles and Health, if you haven't already done so.

And an immediate response:

PR: The UK crop circles certainly were made by mammals "as high as a kite" but I don't think it was wallabies.

DarkWaterMuse: Members of Parliament throwing lavish fiscal end of year Spend The Surplus parties, perhaps?

DarkWaterMuse also occasionally blogs at Dark Water Musings.

Posted by Nicholas at 10:45 AM | Comments (0)

June 25, 2009

The evolution of anti-antitank defences

If being cloth-eared is a term of abuse for someone who's not listening to you, what's cloth-armoured? Better protected against RPG attacks:

Cunning new UK technology will see British troops' vehicles in Afghanistan protected from armour-piercing rocket warheads — by cloth.

The MoD was pleased yesterday to unveil its new TARIAN "textile based" vehicle protection system, which will see lightweight cloth attached to the sides of military vehicles in Afghan combat. TARIAN is expected to resist strikes from RPGs, shoulder-fired antitank rockets in common use among the Taliban.

That might seem to be impossible, as an RPG warhead can blast a hole through thick armour plate. But in fact TARIAN, already on trial in Afghanistan, apparently works well.

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

How many colours do you see in this image?


If you see spirals of green, pinkish-orange, and blue, you'll want to get your eyes checked . . . the "green" and "blue" are actually the same colour.

Posted by Nicholas at 03:59 PM | Comments (0)

QotD: A missed opportunity for local wineries?

I wrote this article on Monday June 22, 2009, in preparation for a strike at the LCBO. I know it sounds funny that I would say 'I was hoping for a strike' (even if it was going to be a short one), but once again our province avoided a golden opportunity to discover the wines of Ontario first hand. While the LCBO reports huge sales on the day before the strike deadline (~$60-million), our wineries are struggling to stay afloat and our industry looks smack dab in the face of another record breaking (and I mean massive) fruit surplus. It would have been nice if the LCBO would have walked off the job and the wineries themselves would have been able to step in to fill that void. Alas, that did not happen. Our wineries will continue to struggle, the LCBO will continue to make record breaking profits while helping to break the collective backs of our wine industry. For all of you who ran out to grab cases of FuZion and Yellow Tail — you missed a special moment in time to try what's right in your own back yard, and wines that go much better with that Ontario raised BBQ'ed fare you had planned for the weekend or your Ontario grown summer salads. The article below might be a little dated now, but there are reasons why the LCBO didn't, or wasn't allowed to go on strike . . . and those points are not dated. One day it would be nice if a strike actually happened and Ontario wine stepped in to be the savior; one day . . . hopefully before it's too late.

Michael Pinkus, "What Could Have Been", Ontario Wine Review, 2009-06-25

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

June 24, 2009

Analysis of the Iranian post-election situation

I know very little about Iran, so I depend on informed folks to provide me with sufficient information to understand some of the issues at stake. This is a very interesting look at what may come next, and why:

What we can see in Iran today are two simultaneous struggles, one from below (people with legitimate grievances against their government), and one up above (a power struggle between factions).

Although many had hoped that the post-electoral struggle in Iran would be a one act play, this one seems more likely to be headed into a saga that is four or five acts long. Like many previous social movements throughout history, this has turned from a hundred yard dash into a marathon.

The dynamics of this struggle are also very different than those that have occurred in other countries. The Iranian system is kind of "a state within a state." There is an elected part of the government — the president and parliament — but they are answerable and subject to a Supreme Leader and the various bodies of Islamic clergy that choose him and that, on paper at least, serve as a check and balance to his powers.

That dual state apparatus, although designed to maintain those in power, has caused the regime of Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad — very much joined at the hip — the problem of having to defend itself on two fronts at once. If it loses control of only one of those institutions, it loses everything.

It's a fairly long article, and I'm not sure I agree with some of the interpretations, but it's well worth reading in full.

Update: Christopher Hitchens looks at the odd phenomenon of "My Uncle Napoleon" and the degree of detachment displayed by Iranian religious leaders:

Fantastic as these claims may have seemed three years ago, they sound mild when compared with the ravings and gibberings that are now issued from the Khamenei pulpit. Here is a man who hasn't even heard that his favourite conspiracy theory is a long-standing joke among his own people. And these ravings and gibberings have real-world consequences, of which at least three may be mentioned:

1. There is nothing any western country can do to avoid the charge of intervening in Iran's foreign affairs.

2. It is a mistake to assume that the ayatollahs, cynical and corrupt as they may be, are acting rationally. They are frequently in the grip of archaic beliefs that would make a stupefied medieval European peasant seem mentally sturdy and resourceful by comparison.

3. The tendency of outside media to check the temperature of the clerics, rather than consult the writers and poets of the country, shows our own cultural backwardness in regrettably sharp relief. Anyone who had been reading Pezeshkzad and Nafisi, or talking to their students and readers, would have been able to avoid the embarrassment by which everything that has occurred on the streets of Iran during recent days has come as one surprise after another to most of our "experts."

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

June 23, 2009

URLs on the move

Most of you won't particularly care, but the static quotes site has now moved to a new server and a slightly different URL. If you had it bookmarked as "www.quotulatiousness.ca" it's now at "quotes.quotulatiousness.ca". At some point in the near future, the main blog URL may change (depending on technical issues . . . specifically my ability to install and configure new software on a remote site). I'll telegraph any such changes well in advance . . .

If I can't get MovableType to play nicely on the new site, I have the option of switching to WordPress, so something in the blogging line will continue there. One thing I won't miss is the "too many connections" error message I see far too often when I'm doing work on the current site. I shouldn't really complain: Jon has been providing disc and bandwidth here free of charge (for which I'm quite grateful).

Posted by Nicholas at 09:28 PM | Comments (0)

Customer service really does matter

Loblaws has been our supermarket of choice for a number of years, since the Dave Nichol era, actually. They've often come up with new and interesting grocery products or packaging options that — even if they didn't pan out — kept up an unusual level of interest in the otherwise humdrum world of the food retailer. Lately, Loblaws has been changing many of their stores to "improve" the customer experience. One of the changes is in line with the current craze for eliminating plastic bags . . . encouraging shoppers to bring in their own bags.

I'm, at best, ambivalent about that notion1. I don't mind carrying a bag or two for occasional purchases, but if I'm going to be spending a few hundred dollars for groceries (the weekly family grocery order), I'm not likely to carry anywhere near enough bags to package that kind of purchase.

The latest "innovation" is to expect shoppers to not only bring their own bags, but to pack their own bags, too. This, I'm sure, is seen as a great step forward for Loblaws, but is a severely retrograde step for individual shoppers. It's apparently also company policy that cashiers are not supposed to help shoppers to pack their grocery purchases, even if they're not otherwise busy. This may not be actual company policy, but it's what we've heard from cashiers themselves, as reason not to assist.

As Megan McArdle pointed out in a slightly different context, "This is why customer service matters. It's often the first thing to be cut by companies, because bad customer service doesn't show up anywhere on the bottom line. Not until much later, and not very clearly even then. But I'm willing to bet they'll lose substantial sales to people who see the first post, but not the second."

1 I user the term "I", although Elizabeth does the vast majority of our grocery shopping.

Update, 24 June: Russ LeBlanc sent me this as a comment and (with his permission) I'm posting it as an addendum to the main entry instead:

The plastic bag scare is a classic example of PR corporate do-gooder spin that translates into increased profits. Plastic bags represent less than 1% of an average landfill. Not having to provide bags and getting praised to do it is a huge windfall for these companies. BTW, many of those re-usable bags are made in China and are comprised of "questionable" recycled material. Go figure.

Saving the environment is a good thing however much of the recycling movement is based on "junk" science that is right up there with mom's apple pie. If people only knew the real story they'd switch to cake.

While you can't blame a company for jumping on a bandwagon that will help increase corporate profits while improving the company's public profile, you'd prefer to see this being fact-based, not emotional-blackmail-based.

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

Another data point against single-payer healthcare

Megan McArdle points out another datum on whether nationalizing the U.S. healthcare system will actually provide the touted cost savings and quality improvements:

. . . here's the thing: Army hospitals have all the advantages that single-payer advocates love about the VA. They're unified. There's no profit incentive — indeed, the doctors are on quite low salaries. They have great incentives for preventive care. They certainly don't have any profit motive to provide bad care. So why did Walter Reed suck? And what guarantees that the VA is the system we'll follow, rather than the multiple other dysfunctional government systems everyone hates?

Bureaucracies are really good at doing bureaucratic things. Delivering healthcare services has a bureaucratic side — like almost anything else nowadays — but it's not the core functionality of the system. But it will quickly become the core function of the system if it is converted to a single-payer model.

Posted by Nicholas at 06:48 PM | Comments (0)

QotD: 30 years of Sony Walkman

The first Walkman weighed in at a solid 390 grams (plus 50 grams for the headphones). With its strong square lines and metallic blue finish, it was almost as streamlined as today's surge protectors. To emphasize its portability, Morito reportedly had a shirt custom-tailored with an oversized chest pocket in which to carry the 3.5 x 5.5 x 1.25 inch device.

Now, of course, any high-tech gadget that's not tiny enough to pose as a choking hazard to small children is not truly sexy. In 1979, stuffing a high-fidelity stereo into a shirt pocket — even a deviously engineered shirt pocket — constituted a miracle of sorts. At a time when microcomputers still appealed mainly to hardcore spreadsheet fetishists, the Walkman was the sexiest piece of personal electronics ever devised. It was a piece of the future you could hold in your hand.

Indeed, all that an LED watch could do was help you see the time in movie theaters, while the pocket calculator only helped you get bored with math faster. In contrast, the Walkman wasn't just a machine, something you used pragmatically, intermittently. The Walkman gave you your own personal soundtrack with which to dramatize your life. It was your faithful companion, an anthropomorphized buddy/servant who motivated you, palliated you, and simply kept you company throughout the day. It was your cassette pet.

Greg Beato, "The Soundtrack to Your Life: Celebrating 30 years of the Sony Walkman", Reason Online, 2009-06-23

Posted by Nicholas at 12:40 PM | Comments (0)

June 22, 2009

QotD: Get out while the getting is good

I have tried pointing Americans at the British example to show them what an appalling idea it is to have the state directing any industry, let alone medical care. But alas it is very hard to overcome that special kind of insular American optimism that does not think what happens in another advanced first world nation can teach them anything, because in the USA things will be different.

Well yes, it will be different . . . in that the control obsessed Obama's of this world will find new, innovative and oh so wholesome American ways to end up with a third rate health care system much like Britain has today.

This might be a good time for Americans to invest their money in Swiss medical clinics as I suspect in the coming years expatriated medical care will be a serious growth industry... plus it has the added benefit of getting your money out of the USA and US dollar.

Perry de Havilland, "A stupidity of voters'', Samizdata, 2009-06-21

June 21, 2009

Not for dieters: the ten quid breakfast

Mario's Cafe in Westhoughton:


It's free if you can choke it all down (without a drink) in twenty minutes.

H/T to Craig Zeni.

Posted by Nicholas at 10:47 AM | Comments (0)

June 19, 2009

Was Heinlein's Friday a forecast?

Friday, one of Robert Heinlein's later novels, postulated a world where America had lost its way to such a degree that it had fractured into numerous balkanized regions, including a fascistic nation based in Chicago, a California-on-steroids, a free-wheeling no-holds-barred Las Vegas, etc. (Canada was shown to be in a post-secession state of tension with an independent Quebec). Paul Starobin sees something remarkably similar in America's actual future:

Remember that classic Beatles riff of the 1960s: "You say you want a revolution?" Imagine this instead: a devolution. Picture an America that is run not, as now, by a top-heavy Washington autocracy but, in freewheeling style, by an assemblage of largely autonomous regional republics reflecting the eclectic economic and cultural character of the society.

There might be an austere Republic of New England, with a natural strength in higher education and technology; a Caribbean-flavored city-state Republic of Greater Miami, with an anchor in the Latin American economy; and maybe even a Republic of Las Vegas with unfettered license to pursue its ambitions as a global gambling, entertainment and conventioneer destination. California? America's broke, ill-governed and way-too-big nation-like state might be saved, truly saved, not by an emergency federal bailout, but by a merciful carve-up into a trio of republics that would rely on their own ingenuity in making their connections to the wider world. And while we're at it, let's make this project bi-national — economic logic suggests a natural multilingual combination between Greater San Diego and Mexico's Northern Baja, and, to the Pacific north, between Seattle and Vancouver in a megaregion already dubbed "Cascadia" by economic cartographers.

Update, 20 June: James Bow writes:

Regarding . . . the possible break-up of the United States, this is actually an older subject. Even late in the Bush Administration, there was talk that California and Washington might go their separate ways. I could see this happening, but more in the context of the gradual folding up of the Nation State as a world institution. Similar movements are pulling power up (to Europe, NAFTA, WTO) and down. So Washington and Ottawa's days may be numbered, AND I might be able to drive from St. John's to Los Angeles without encountering a customs booth.

Here's my post on the subject here:

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

If it's illogical, but it works, then use it

Guy Herbert reposts some fascinating tips on dealing with the police, on the off chance that you may have to do so:

But deleting from public knowledge what has once been on the web is difficult. Here is a celebrated sample, NightJack's advice to the arrested, which Samizdata readers may find both useful and enlightening (there is a situational irony in the sideswipe at those who have learned how to use the forces of law and order to score points and extract revenge):

[. . .]

Never explain to the Police
If the Police arrive to lock you up, say nothing. You are a decent person and you may think that reasoning with the Police will help. “If I can only explain, they will realise it is all a horrible mistake and go away”. Wrong. We do want to talk to you on tape in an interview room but that comes later. All you are doing by trying to explain is digging yourself further in. We call that stuff a significant statement and we love it. Decent folk can’t help themselves, they think that they can talk their way out. Wrong.

Admit Nothing
To do anything more than lock you up for a few hours we need to prove a case. The easiest route to that is your admission. Without it, our case may be a lot weaker, maybe not enough to charge you with. In any case, it is always worth finding out exactly how damning the evidence is before you fall on your sword. So don’t do the decent and honourable thing and admit what you have done. Don’t even deny it or try to give your side of the story. Just say nothing. No confession and CPS are on the back foot already. They forsee a trial. They fear a trial. They are looking for any excuse to send you home free.

Keep your mouth shut
Say as little as possible to us. At the custody office desk a Sergeant will ask you some questions. It is safe to answer these. For the rest of the time, say nothing.

Posted by Nicholas at 12:51 PM | Comments (0)

"You keep using that word . . ."

Paul Marks has his Inigo Montoya moment . . . "Capitalism. Newsweek keeps using that word. I do not think it means what they think it means."

The front cover of the edition has the headline 'Capitalist Manifesto' and this article is odd enough - page after page of standard statist stuff (supporting the bank bailouts and so on) written by one Newsweek's high ups. Why the high up is being given about half the magazine for his statist musings (rather than doing his job of editing the articles of real writers) is not explained - and the title of 'Capitalist Manifesto', for standard statism that one could hear and see on the BBC or American 'mainstream' broadcasters any day of the week, is also not explained.

However, this is by no means the most odd article.

There is also an article about a group of 'rebels' who are out to "save capitalism" from President Barack Obama. I was astonished to see such an article in the 'mainstream media' (especially in Newsweek) and read it. That is when the utter insanity of this edition of Newsweek hit me.

* Obligatory Princess Bride reference.

Posted by Nicholas at 12:41 PM | Comments (0)

New web application needed

I'm not much of a TV watcher — in fact, I can't remember the last time I turned on the TV to watch a program. Part of that is time constraints: I read a lot, and I'm busy blogging, gaming, or working on the computer for time that otherwise might be TV time. But there's another reason for it — I never know what's on, and I never know which channel it'll be on even if I did know.

We don't subscribe to the Toronto newspaper that includes a weekly TV guide, and I find that it takes far too long to scroll through the cable company's own online guide. Even though they helpfully provide some filtering options (by theme, with a fair selection of broad theme categories), it doesn't filter by which channels I actually have access to . . . and there are lots of channels in that category.

Here's an application that must be possible: a dynamic, customized TV guide that only tracks the channels I currently subscribe to. Just using a model like Amazon's recommendation mechanism would be a huge step forward. I could tell it that I liked certain shows and that I disliked other kinds of shows. By indicating the cable provider (assuming the cable provider wasn't also doing the guide) and the specific package(s) to which I'm subscribed, it should be able to let me know — in real time — what is on that I might want to watch, and where to find it.

So, for example, I could provide a list of "likes", both current and older:

. . . and it should be able to tell me immediately if something I've specified is currently on, or will be soon, and if there's nothing on right now, provide both suggestions for things I might like and advance notice for upcoming shows.

Having described it, I'm certain it's technically easy (given access to the appropriate programming data, of course), but does it already exist? Everyone else might already be using something like this and I'd be none the wiser . . .

Posted by Nicholas at 12:06 PM | Comments (0)

QotD: Sex lives of the powerful

Why do we care about the sex lives of the powerful? Mostly, we don't, because it's bad enough looking at these guys (and with the rare exception of someone like former Sen. Helen Chenoweth, it always seems to be guys) with their clothes on, much less imagining forming the beast with two, three, or more backs. But in the cases of folks such as Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) and New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, the rampant hypocrisy brings home the point that most of these people can't run their own lives, much less yours and mine. So there's a lesson to be learned here: Don't do this at home, kids. Or, if you do, then don't run for office. And if you do run for office and manage to get elected, don't moralize in a way that is grossly at odds with your lifestyle.

Nick Gillespie, "DC Pols Have Forgotten More Sex Than You'll Ever Have in Your Whole Lifetime!", Hit and Run, 2009-06-18

Posted by Nicholas at 07:39 AM | Comments (0)

June 18, 2009

Stimulus, dissected

If you'd like to find out how the American government is "stimulating" various parts of the economy, you'll want to bookmark Reason's Taxpayer's Guide to the Stimulus:

Reason Foundation's Taxpayer’s Guide to the Stimulus breaks down each section of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to explain just how all that money is being spent, who is spending it, and what the whole stimulus means in layman's terms.

Posted by Nicholas at 05:31 PM | Comments (0)

June 17, 2009

QotD: the importance of sleep

I am a gold medalist in the macho Sleepless Working Olympics. I once worked a 60-hour shift without sleep. (Yes, that's 2.5 days without any shuteye.) One stormy February, I put in 468 hours, almost 120 hours a week for four weeks straight, sleeping an average of less than 4 hours a night. I have enjoyed all the exciting side effects of prolonged sleep deprivation, like uncontrollable "microsleep" which once almost caused me to walk into the path of a cab, or the hallucinations that set in after 48 hours or so — not fun hallucinations, either, just long conversations with co-workers who turned out to have left the building hours or even days before. I was essentially dreaming with my eyes open.

So I know whereof I speak when I think about interns training on gruelling regimens. And you know what I learned on all those sleepless nights?

Well, actually, not much. It turns out that adequate sleep is crucial to memory formation. But I did manage to process and retain one fact: when you have not had enough sleep, you. are. stupid.

Megan McArdle, "Let them sleep!", Asymmetrical Information, 2009-06-12

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

Losing comforting myths of the past

Ta-Nehisi Coates looks at some of the lost myths of his childhood:

I think, when you're in your intellectual infancy, myth keeps your sane. When I was young I believed, like a lot of us at that time, that my people had been kidnapped out of Africa by malicious racist whites. Said whites then turned and subjugated and colonized the cradle of all men. It was a comforting thought which placed me and mine at the center of a grand heroic odyssey. We were deposed kings and queens robbed of our rightful throne by acquisitive merchants of human flesh. By that measures we were not victims, but deposed nobles — in fact and in spirit.

I don't propose that blacks are alone in our myth-making, or in our desire to ennoble ourselves. But given the power dynamics of this society, we're the ones who can afford the comforts of myth the least. This is doubly true for those of us who are curious about the broader world. By the time I came to Howard University, I was beginning the painful process of breaking away from the "oppression as nobility" formula. But the clincher was sitting in my Black Diaspora I class and learning that the theory of white kidnappers was not merely myth — but, on the whole, impossible because disease (Tse-Tse fly maybe?) kept most whites from penetrating beyond the coasts until the 19th century.

In no way does this excuse the whites who were the sea-going transporters and final auctioneers/owners of the enslaved blacks, but it does help to put a bit of perspective on an issue that for too many people is starkly black=good/white=bad. There's lots of historical blame to be shared, and it doesn't break down conveniently on racial lines.

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

" . . . a few common errors are occurring here"

Ryan Sager has some interesting thoughts on the western reaction to the Iranian election and its aftermath:

I believe the Iranian election was stolen. Millions of Americans believe the same. Millions of Iranians believe the same.

But how, exactly, have we come to hold this opinion?

[. . .]

Now, the strongest evidence that the election was stolen comes from the behavior of the regime since the voting took place. A ridiculous figure was apparently assigned to Ahmadinejad (upward of 60%), the votes were “counted” before any such thing could have taken place, and the vote totals by province are ridiculously fishy.

[. . .]

It seems a few common errors are occurring here (many familiar from our look at The Roots of Anti-Vaccine Insanity):

* Projection: Americans are projecting their hatred of Ahmadinejad onto the mass of the Iranian people.

* Confirmation bias: People, on both sides, filter all the information they take in through their own preconceptions — particularly easy to do when all the information coming out of Iran is a mishmash of rumor and propaganda.

* Halo effect: Thinking only bad (or good) things about the Iranian regime makes one think all of its characteristics and actions must be bad (or good).

While these are all good points, we should also keep in mind what Christopher Hitchens said yesterday: "any voting exercise is, by definition, over before it has begun, because the all-powerful Islamic Guardian Council determines well in advance who may or may not "run." Any newspaper referring to the subsequent proceedings as an election, sometimes complete with rallies, polls, counts, and all the rest of it, is the cause of helpless laughter among the ayatollahs."

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

Following the procedure matters far more than the children do

Do you remember as a grade-schooler just how long those last few school days seemed to be? Even the teachers seemed to be moving in slow motion, with no sense of urgency that the last day of school couldn't get there soon enough. Well, feel some pity for the grade 4, 5, and 6 kids in the Chino Unified School District:

School's out for summer — except for hundreds of children in western San Bernardino County who, because of an administrative snafu, must make up 34 days of school this summer.

The fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at Rolling Ridge Elementary in Chino Hills and Dickson Elementary in Chino exceeded the state's requirement of minutes spent in the classroom, and the last day of school was supposed to be Thursday. But because of the complexities of state law and a clerical error on a spreadsheet, the Chino Unified School District will lose more than $7 million in state funds if classes end at the schools before July 31.

It goes without saying that the procedure ranks far higher in the grand universal scheme of things than the children who will be incarcerated for an additional month and a half. No learning objective will be accomplished here, except for a deep loathing for bureaucracy . . . which, come to think of it, is a pretty good lesson to learn, but you can learn it in a lot less than 34 days.

Posted by Nicholas at 10:06 AM | Comments (0)

June 16, 2009

More from that "hatemongerer"

Mark Steyn looks at the recent speech by the embattled head of Canada's official inquisition:

I'm making a serious point there about the "human rights" enforcers' perversion of Canada's basic legal principles, and I stand by it. So just to up the ante: "Is Jennifer Lynch, QC a drunken pedophile serial killer? Maybe not. But no one has decided that."

About the rest of her plaint, one thing I've learned since 9/11 is that those who receive credible death threats do not brag about them in public. As for the unflattering descriptions of her commission, I was responsible for three of them: "human rights racket"; "a fetish club for servants of the Crown"; and "welcome to the wacky world of Canadian 'human rights'". I deeply resent Commissar Lynch lifting all my best lines without credit to perk up her turgid speech. I stand by all of them, and I see I've reprised the last up at the top. Must try to work the "fetish club" line in again.

So four of the six quotations Commissar Lynch is upset about are from what Pearl Eliadis would call the "hatemongerer" — or what proper legal systems would call "the accused". In other words, the Chief Commissar of Canada's "human rights" regime is complaining that the person she is investigating has had the impertinence to respond. Which gives you an interesting glimpse into Queen Jennifer's concept of justice.

It's distressing enough that Canada has a vast inquisitorial system both at the federal and provincial level, but it's even more upsetting to find that nothing from the Levant and Steyn "cases" has made any difference to the minions of those systems. They still clearly feel that they are above criticism — in fact, they feel that any such attempt to criticize should be punishable.

Posted by Nicholas at 12:46 PM | Comments (0)

QotD: The Iranian "elections"

Iran and its citizens are considered by the Shiite theocracy to be the private property of the anointed mullahs. This totalitarian idea was originally based on a piece of religious quackery promulgated by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and known as velayat-e faqui. Under the terms of this edict — which originally placed the clerics in charge of the lives and property of orphans, the indigent, and the insane — the entire population is now declared to be a childlike ward of the black-robed state. Thus any voting exercise is, by definition, over before it has begun, because the all-powerful Islamic Guardian Council determines well in advance who may or may not "run." Any newspaper referring to the subsequent proceedings as an election, sometimes complete with rallies, polls, counts, and all the rest of it, is the cause of helpless laughter among the ayatollahs. ("They fell for it? But it's too easy!") Shame on all those media outlets that have been complicit in this dirty lie all last week. And shame also on our pathetic secretary of state, who said that she hoped that "the genuine will and desire" of the people of Iran would be reflected in the outcome. Surely she knows that any such contingency was deliberately forestalled to begin with.

Christopher Hitchins, "Don't Call What Happened in Iran Last Week an Election: It was a crudely stage-managed insult to everyone involved", Slate, 2009-06-14

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

Cars, again

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

June 15, 2009

QotD: We'll take option three

Estimates of the cost of Obama care start at $1.2 trillion over the next decade. The administration believes it can cover about half that amount through tax increases on the rich and greater efficiencies in Medicare and Medicaid. But it's hard to find anyone else who shares that touching faith. When I asked Robert Bixby, head of The Concord Coalition, a bipartisan fiscal watchdog group, he said, "I don't see any plausible way of getting the savings they need to add the expanded coverage in a deficit-neutral way."

There are only three ways to pay for this expansion of health insurance coverage: increased taxes, reduced benefits, or shiny gold ingots falling out of the sky. Voters emphatically prefer the latter option, so that is the one most likely to be embraced by Congress and the administration.

Steve Chapman, "Indulging Our Health Care Fantasies: The problem with Obama's health care plan", Reason Online, 2009-06-15

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

Convicted by "super-dog"

This is an incredible story of judicial miscarriage:

Judges and juries apparently bought this crap for years. It finally came to an end when Judge Gilbert Goshorn ordered the dog to perform a basic tracking test after Preston claimed the dog had alerted to a suspect's scent at a crime scene six months after the murder. The dog failed.

So far, three people have been cleared after collectively spending more than 50 years in prison, all of whom were convicted primarily due to the dog's alerts, despite other evidence exculpating them. Florida criminal justice activists say there may be as 60 more people wrongly convicted thanks to Preston and his dog.

Yet Florida officials don't seem to care, and have no plans to proactively look for other people who may have been wrongly imprisoned.

Posted by Nicholas at 12:13 PM | Comments (0)

Irate iPhone owners still complaining

The din of frustrated iPhone users still hasn't died down, as new-phone lust overtakes common sense. Many people still don't seem to comprehend that they got their original iPhone 3G at a lower price because the phone company was subsidizing the hardware costs. This means that the phone company expects to get that subsidy back over the life of the contracts. No rational company is going to just give away money (shareholders have a very dim view of this, as you might expect). Just because there's a newer tech toy than the one in your pocket right now does not entitle you to walk away from a contract you signed only a year ago, without paying back the phone company's subsidy (plus profit).

Seth Weintraub tries to explain the situation again to folks who don't want to be told:

Let's get one thing straight before I defend AT&T. I think their service is poor and their voice plans are over-priced. Their telephone support is awful as well.

That being said, all of this pooh poohing about the iPhone 3GS upgrade pricing is just silly. AT&T is charging those who've had their contract less than a year (most iPhone 3G users) a $200 fee for upgrading to the new 3GS. That is on top of the iPhone 3GS's $199-$299 price tag.

The iPhone is a subsidy sale. AT&T's prices reflect the costs they have to pay Apple every month to sell the iPhone.

AT&T's price on an iPhone is probably close to $600 (Retail is $700-800, AT&T probably gets $100 off in bulk). Apple sells it to you for $200 and foots AT&T with the bill for the rest. That $400 is broken out over 24 months that you're obligated to pay for your iPhone. Without getting too fancy with interest and amortization tables, that's around $200/year of your bill going toward the purchase price of the iPhone. This is part of the contract you agree to when you buy an iPhone.

I find it amazing just how upset and hurt the folks on the various iPhone mailing lists seem to be that they can't just swap their phones for the newest model without paying the up-front costs. Entitlement mentality, writ very small.

Posted by Nicholas at 10:07 AM | Comments (0)

June 13, 2009

I guess I'll pick this one up

Jean Jennings looks at P.J. O'Rourke's latest collection of essays, Driving Like Crazy:

I was out of work and landed an interview with Mr. Davis in August 1980. It would be wise, I thought, to actually read the mag [Car and Driver] before I barged in for the face-to-face. So I went to the library and checked one out. This is where you Google "library check out magazines" to figure out what in God's name I just wrote. Google will not explain that the magazines in libraries are older than the ones moldering in dentist offices; the one I found was a little more than a year behind — July 1979 — but fell open to "Palm Beach Weekend," an O'Rourke classic in which he reviewed an Aston Martin Volante. These are the lines I remember thirty years later: "If you're paying $70,000 for an automobile, you obviously don't have the sense God gave seafood," and, on why he wasn't driving the wheels off of it, "How'd you like to inform the Ziff-Davis Publishing Company that it just bought $70,000 worth of burgundy freezer wrap?" We'll just skip the line that made me wonder what kind of magazine I was about to walk into, the line that almost shut down the post office with incoming hate mail. In fact, it could be why "Palm Beach Weekend" is the one classic that didn't make it into P.J.'s newly published, precious archive of some of the best automotive road-trip insanity ever written.

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

June 12, 2009

Cruise gets "Coshed"

One of the most brilliantly snide movie reviews I've ever read:

Valkyrie: Well, the son of a bitch did it. He found a way to make you cheer for Hitler.

Full list of mini-reviews here.

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

EMP is not your friend

Mark Steyn's lastest column is a potentially disturbing read, starting with the effects of an EMP blast and moving to odd investment advice:

And at that point I stopped thinking of One Second After as a movie-thriller narrative, and more in geopolitical terms. After all, the banks in America and western Europe are already metaphorically weed-choked, and may yet become literally so. In the Wall Street Journal a couple of months back, Peggy Noonan predicted that by next year the mayor of New York, "in a variation on broken-window theory, will quietly enact a bright-light theory, demanding that developers leave the lights on whether there are tenants in the buildings or not, lest the world stand on a rise in New Jersey and get the impression no one's here and nobody cares" — or, to put it another way, lest the world stand on a rise in New Jersey and get the impression Manhattan's already been hit by an EMP attack. A friend of mine saw his broker in February and asked him where he should be moving his money, expecting to be pointed in the direction of various under-publicized stocks or perhaps some artfully leveraged instrument novel enough to fly below the Obama radar. His broker, wearing a somewhat haunted look, advised him to look for a remote location and a property he could pay cash for and with enough cleared land and a long growing season. My friend's idea of rural wilderness is Martha's Vineyard, so this wasn't exactly what he wanted to hear.

And this is before EMP hits.

And North Korea would probably be quite happy to detonate a nice big nuclear weapon that would wipe out most of Japan's or North America's electronics . . .

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

QotD: The GM bailout again

We know what Obama is getting with this money — an empowered union that will back him when he runs in 2012 — but what are we getting? The Globe and Mail in Canada estimates that it will cost taxpayers $1.4 million per job saved. Had the free-market been left to be free, it would have cost us nothing to "save" these jobs. In fact one of the most compelling things for tax payers about a "free-market" is that it is free.

In absence of government intervention, GM would have gone into bankruptcy, like Delta Airlines and others did when they filed, keeping employees and operating. The reason Obama did not want this to happen is that in bankruptcy, the company can reject contracts and leases. The sweet UAW contract, which is the main cause of GM's demise, would be adjusted to fair market value. And "fair market" is nothing the liberals want any part of anymore. If only we had had a wise Latina woman on the board who could have used the richness of her experiences to make better decisions than the white males.

With the Democrats now running the car companies, look for quite a fall lineup of cars. My guess is that you will like the GM two-cylinder Geithner Midget. It veers hard to the left for no good reason, pays no taxes, blocks Rush Limbaugh on the radio and shows no remorse for past bad driving.

Ron Hart, "Government motors", The Destinlog.com, 2009-06-10

Posted by Nicholas at 12:33 PM | Comments (0)

Another future that wasn't realized

A quick look back at Monsanto's House of the Future from 1957:

The kitchen and two bathrooms — one for the parents and one for the kids — occupied the center of the structure. Out on the wings were a living room, a family room, a master suite and two small bedrooms crammed side by side: one, according to the literature, for the boy of the future and the other for his equally futuristic sister. One thing about the interior that was decidedly contemporary was the color scheme: Counter tops, rugs and furniture were bright and ghastly in a way that just screamed NINETEEN FIFTIES!

[. . .]

The future lasted all of 10 years in the Magic Kingdom. The house was removed in 1967 to make way for another Tomorrowland attraction. Actually, “removed” is a bit of an understatement. The House of the Future proved a tough nut, so tough in fact that the demolition crew failed to knock it down with a wrecking ball. Instead, hacksaws and torches were needed to dismantle the structure, piece by piece, in a process that took two weeks.

You look at the stuff they’re slapping up these days and wonder if maybe the architects should go back and have a look at Monsanto’s blueprints.

Posted by Nicholas at 10:21 AM | Comments (0)

June 11, 2009

The VQA shell game

Michael Pinkus reports on the latest stealth device for the VQA: hiding the VQA designator, to make it harder to find and (co-incidentally, I'm sure) boost the sales of pretend-Canadian wines:

What, you didn't know about the new guidelines for the VQA symbol on a bottle of wine? The VQA didn't consult with you? Well they sure listened to their membership — the vocal ones anyway — or maybe it was the ones with the deeper pockets. These wineries felt that the big VQA logo on the capsule made the wines look cheap and gaudy, so it’s out with the logo on the capsule (or at least it has become optional), where it's easy to spot, and onto the label, where it can be missed. Some wineries are putting the logo on the "back" label which in truth, should be the front label though you would think it the back label because it has all the info on it but . . . it gets so confusing. The bottom line is that the easy to identify VQA logo, which formally appeared on the capsule of every bottle of 100% Ontario grape wine, and we have been told to look for in countless radio ads, is no longer a pre-requisite. That simple to spot assurance that what you were buying was 100% homegrown is now a thing of the past. In my opinion, this plays right into the hands of those 'Cellared In' makers who don't have to have any large identifier on their bottles at all, and of course the LCBO conveniently mixes these in with the 100% stuff. What, you didn't know that either? Surely you knew that the LCBO is the biggest offender in mixing up the cellared and 100% VQA wines (they’re not alone mind you, both Peller and Jackson-Triggs do it in their private stores, you know the one’s you find in the supermarkets — Wine Racks and Vineyards Estate) — yup soon you’ll be playing the game of "Spot the Difference".

[. . .]

We may never get rid of Cellared in Canada wine, there's just too much money in it for the companies that are allowed to produce it. The least they can do is be honest and truthful about what’s in the bottle — clearly mark it on the label. Tell the consumer where the grapes are really from, give us a breakdown — and not just with those teeny-tiny letters on the back label which makes the small print at the bottom of contract look large. Put it right on the front label in a font and size we can all read: Jackson-Triggs Sauvignon Blanc (30% Chilean, 40% South African, 30% Ontario — stretched with 20% water), French Cross (70% Australian, 30% Ontario — stretched using 10% water) or whatever the breakdown may be. What your shocked that Jackson-Triggs makes Cellared in Canada wine? That French Cross is not from France? Nope . . . Jackson-Triggs white label brand is Cellared in Canada product from Vincor, French Cross is the same kind of wine produced by the folks at Andrew Peller — the only difference, Jackson-Triggs proudly splashes their name cross the front label, so you automatically assume that because they are a Canadian company you are buying a homegrown product. Peller at least has the decency to couch their name in small print on the back label or elsewhere. Ah, foolish consumer, think back to what Laurie MacDonald inferred with her comments: caveat emptor, buyer beware, read your back labels, bring a magnifying glass when you shop in the Ontario section, or visit your eye doctor for a stronger prescription, whatever it takes, but pay attention ‘cuz we don’t have your back.

Posted by Nicholas at 01:09 PM | Comments (0)

June 10, 2009

Making fun of Time, time after time

Radley Balko and Jeff Winkler have a lot of fun choosing the worst Time magazine covers of the last 40 years. There were many, many choices, but the judges finally cut the list down to only ten:

The Top 10 Most Absurd Time Covers of The Past 40 Years
Mr. Luce's mag does satanism, porn, crack, Pokemon, and more!

From William Randolph Hearst's ginned up hysterical stories about marijuana to the "10-cent plague" comic book scare of the 1950s to The New York Times warning of "cocaine-crazed Negroes" raping white women across the Southern countryside, the media has always whipped up anxiety and increased readership via thinly sourced exposes of the next great threat to the American way of life.

And since the British sociologist Stanley Cohen defined the moral panic phenomenon in the early 1970s as hysterical overreactions to imagined threats to social order, no publication has done a better (by which we mean worse) job of scaring the crap out of post-baby boomer America than Time, the top-selling newsweekly that's dropping subscribers like the mythical meth mouth drops teeth. (Hot tip to Time: If you're looking for a cutting-edge panic to get those ad rates up again, we hear people have been freaking out about "sexting" lately.)

The winners were:

Posted by Nicholas at 04:57 PM | Comments (0)

Not all iPhone users are bowled over by the new 3GS model

Well, the suspense among the Apple faithful was palpable, and Apple delivered enough to keep their enthusiasm at a high pitch. Mostly. Some were not convinced:

Apple's dog and pony show this morning touted iPhone 3G S's fully-functional 3MP camera and voice dialing capabilities. Big whoop. These may seem like some amazing features for the Apple faithful, who have not been able to verbally instruct their iPhone to switch songs or call Jane Doe before the update, but to those of us who have been on other cellphone networks using other brands of mobile phones, voice dialing and a video recording are tricks we take for granted. Just another example of Apple masking their last-gen inadequacies as ZOMG SHINY NEW FEATURES.

Rogers has not yet announced their pricing and upgrade policies for the iPhone in Canada, but I think it'll be unlikely to be much better than AT&T's policies for their US customers (which have set off mass whining and complaining on all the iPhone mailing lists and blogs). On that basis, I doubt that I'll be getting a new iPhone so soon after getting the current one . . . not to mention that aside from the extra 16Gb of memory, I don't think any of the "big" new hardware features would really be that important to me. The software upgrades are being released on the 17th, most of which will be fine for the current 3G iPhone as well as the new one.

Posted by Nicholas at 12:03 PM | Comments (0)

How can you not see a train in front of you?

More information here. H/T to Craig Zeni for the links.

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

Secret evidence means denial of fair trial

On first blush, this appears to be a setback to the kind of devious and wide-open-to-abuse way that many western governments have been treating terror suspects:

The law lords have dealt a major blow to the government's controversial use of control orders on terror suspects, saying that reliance on secret evidence denies them a fair trial.

The nine-judge panel led by Lord Philips of Worth Matravers, the senior law lord, upheld a challenge on behalf of three men on control orders who cannot be named.

The orders have not been quashed but the law lords have ordered that the cases be heard again.

The three had argued that the refusal to disclose even the "gist" of the evidence against them denied them a fair trial under the Human Rights Act.

Given the presumption of innocence (and if we lose that, we've pretty much given up on two thousand years of jurisprudence), it's incredibly difficult to present a defence when you are not allowed to know what evidence is being used against you. It makes a mockery of the very notion of a fair trial, and it is especially important in cases like these, where governments have been pantingly eager to avoid treating the suspects normally.

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

Zaphod, call home!

Betelgeuse may have had a slight accident:

The red giant star Betelgeuse in the constellation Orion — famed as the home sun of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy characters Zaphod Beeblebrox and Ford Prefect — is shrinking rapidly. Astronomers say that it has shrunk by 15 per cent since 1993, by which they mean that it actually did so in the mid 16th century. It may, in fact, already have exploded.

Betelgeuse, before it shrank, was thought by astro boffins to be so large that if it were placed in the middle of our solar system, Jupiter — out beyond the asteroid belt in reality — would lie inside it. Now it has shrunk by a distance equal to the orbital radius of Venus.

"To see this change is very striking," said Charles Townes, UC Berkeley emeritus physics prof and Nobel Prize winner. "We will be watching it carefully over the next few years to see if it will keep contracting or will go back up in size."

Fascinating, right? But wait — it gets even more interesting, in the Chinese sense:

The huge star, one of the brightest in the sky, is thought to lie about 430 light years from our solar system, so the changes being observed now actually occurred in 1579 AD. Many boffins believe that Betelgeuse is so vast that it's liable to go supernova — that is, blow up with stupendous, galaxy-shaking force — within a millennium or so. Indeed, it might already have exploded at some point in the last 430 years, in which case the flash wouldn't yet have reached us.

If Betelgeuse has gone supernova in the last 400-odd years, the impact could be rather impressive. The good news is, as far as we can tell, we're outside the kill zone of Betelgeuse. We think.

Posted by Nicholas at 08:28 AM | Comments (0)

June 09, 2009

QotD: Government Motors on dealership closings

The Edsel was one of the biggest flops in the history of car making. Introduced with great fanfare by Ford in 1958, it had terrible sales and was junked after only three years. But if Congress had been running Ford, the Edsel would still be on the market.

That became clear last week, when Democrats as well as Republicans expressed horror at the notion that bankrupt companies with plummeting sales would need fewer retail sales outlets. At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing, Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va)., led the way, asserting, "I honestly don't believe that companies should be allowed to take taxpayer funds for a bailout and then leave it to local dealers and their customers to fend for themselves."

Supporters of free markets can be grateful to Rockefeller for showing one more reason government shouldn't rescue unsuccessful companies. As it happens, taxpayers are less likely to get their money back if the automakers are barred from paring dealerships. Protecting those dealers merely means putting someone else at risk, and that someone has been sleeping in your bed.

Steve Chapman, "Government Motors: The trouble with Washington running a car company", Reason Online, 2009-06-08

Posted by Nicholas at 02:37 PM | Comments (0)

Busy, busy

Sorry for the dearth of new stuff here recently. The good news (for me) is that I'm still quite busy with a client . . . the bad news is that this means I have very little time free for anything resembling blogging.

Posted by Nicholas at 02:23 PM | Comments (0)

June 08, 2009

Blogging will be light . . .

I'm at a client site all day today, so blogging will be lighter than usual. As always, there are lots of good sites for all sorts of interesting information. Try clicking at random in the lists over to your left. You're pretty much bound to find something amusing or infuriating (or both).

Posted by Nicholas at 07:45 AM | Comments (0)

QotD: Writers as heroes

Netflix describes [Nim's Island] fairly accurately: "When the young island-dwelling Nim loses contact with her scientist father, she reaches out to her favorite author for help. Problem is, the writer — of adventure stories, no less — is a recluse who hasn't left her house in years . . ."

What is it with this recent mania of casting various writers, living, dead, or fictional, as story heroes? Don't people know how distracted and dissociative and generally unphotogenic we really are? There are *reasons* we live as we do . . . The ending of this one was sweet, but unconvincing, even though "and then the writer gets the scientist!" is deeply appealing. Although I did like the author's various interactions with her long-running series hero. "You've been working on Chapter Eight for three months! Either drop me in the bloody volcano, or figure out how I'm going to get out of this one!" "Quiet! I'm doing *research* . . ."

Lois McMaster Bujold, writing to the LMB mailing list, 2009-06-08

Posted by Nicholas at 07:41 AM | Comments (0)

June 06, 2009

QotD: Fix Medicare First

Think about this for a moment. Medicare is a huge, single-payer, government-run program. It ought to provide the perfect environment for experimentation. If more-efficient government management can slash health-care costs by addressing all these problems, why not start with Medicare? Let's see what "better management" looks like applied to Medicare before we roll it out to the rest of the country.

This is not a completely cynical suggestion. Medicare is, for instance, a logical place to start to design better electronic records systems and the incentives to use them. But you do have to wonder why a report that claims that Medicare is wasting 30 percent of its spending thinks it's making a case for making the rest of the health care system more like Medicare.

Virginia Postrel, "Medicare First!", The Dynamist, 2009-06-04

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

June 05, 2009

Local industry gets early boost

Mid-afternoon Friday in Oshawa turned into an impromptu "Let's all leave our houses and get acquainted with evacuation protocols" event:


Oshawa resident Charlie Stacey was getting ready to take his dogs for a walk around 2:20 p.m. Friday when, "all of a sudden, the whole ground just went boom, boom, boom."

Stacey, whose Montrave Ave. home backs onto the CP rail tracks, didn't know it yet, but his house was on the fringe of a derailment that saw some 27 train cars leave the tracks and pile up near Park Rd., north of Hwy. 401, perilously close to area homes.

"I saw all the cars start piling up against the Park Road bridge and then one of the rails curved up 15 feet in the air," Stacey said. "That's what really freaked me out ... it was surreal."

Stacey was one of about 1,000 local residents and students evacuated from their homes and two area schools after the derailment. Police said residents were evacuated from a 10-square block area surrounding the wreckage.

It lacks the full entertainment value of the 1979 Mississauga evacuation, but they'll do their best. Full story here.

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

The umbrellas of remembrance

The BBC's James Reynolds tries to get himself and a cameraman into Tiananmen Square on June 4th:

Bizarre. But still an improvement over tanks and rubber bullets.

H/T to Michael O'CC for the Twitter update.

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

June 6th is Canadian Tax Freedom Day

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

iPhone rumour round-up

The good folks at The Green Room have compiled as many of the floating rumours on what new features the next iPhone release may have, and graded them by estimated likelihood:


Given all the hype, I'd have to admit I'm not super-excited about this release . . . it'd be nice to have some of these, but (absent a really generous trade-in plan from Rogers) I doubt that I'll be swapping my current iPhone for the new hardware.

Posted by Nicholas at 10:32 AM | Comments (0)

June 04, 2009

20 years on

Steve Chapman looks at the progress in China since the suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests 20 years ago:

It was an intoxicating moment that didn't last. By the morning of June 4, the government had reversed course, sending the army to crush the long-running student demonstration in the capital's Tiananmen Square, leaving hundreds dead, and the Beijing Spring was over.

Since that day, China has undergone such a broad transformation that it is almost unrecognizable. The economy has opened up to markets, private property, and foreign trade. Living standards have soared. The government that once preached world revolution now provides credit to sustain American consumption. Chinese students go abroad to attend universities in bastions of capitalism.

China has indeed come a long, long way from 1989, and it's difficult to put it into perspective: few other countries could have changed that much without a bloody and destructive revolution or six. I may still have my issues about China's official statistics, but I do acknowledge and applaud the progress toward greater freedom for ordinary Chinese people:

By now, [the Communist Party] has had to abandon its own ideology and invoke Western principles. In his 2007 speech to the national party congress, President Hu Jintao used the term "democracy" some 60 times, while calling for the government to be more open, accountable and limited.

This declaration should not be taken on faith, but it's not just lip service. Democratic elections have become common at the village level. The government clearly strives to take public sentiment into account in making policy. When an earthquake devastated Sichuan province a year ago, foreign reporters were allowed unprecedented freedom to cover the aftermath. A system of law is emerging.

Democracy is better than dictatorship, but it's not a panacea. The rule of law, protection of the person and of property, and ease of redress are all more significant to the individual, and they are still not up to western standards. It does, however, make it much harder for governments to go back to older, more tyrannical practices. This is all to the good.

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

Act Now! Free Government Money!

Posted by Nicholas at 10:12 AM | Comments (0)

June 03, 2009

QotD: California today is America tomorrow

California is famously considered a bellwether state for social and political trends, from the positive (hot rod and surf culture, the human potential movement, tax revolts, digital culture) to the regrettable (murderous cults, carbon reduction mandates). With that in mind, a simple — yet terribly difficult for our political class — contemplation of the state's current cash crisis is both instructive and scary for the future of our nation as a whole.

California now confronts a roughly $24 billion deficit. Recent attempts to get voters to approve various fiscal shenanigans and cost-shifts got smacked down at the polls. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is now making a big show of proposing heavy spending cuts that will, we are told by the state's journalistic and political mavens, destroy the state, beggar its sick and young, and leave just enough cash to forcibly keep people out of various state parks, though not to "operate" them.

Of course, nowhere among the "serious options" under consideration is legalizing pot and other controlled substances, which would likely give the state an extra billion dollars a year in tax revenue. That simple act of political sanity would also save the state the $43,000 a year per inmate now spent incarcerating drug criminals, of whom a fresh nearly 19,000 were added in 2008 alone.

Brian Doherty, "California: Harbinger of Fiscal Doom", Reason Online, 2009-06-03

Posted by Nicholas at 03:38 PM | Comments (0)

Conference Board of Sleazy Reporting

Cory Doctorow has the latest hard-to-believe twist in the Conference Board of Canada's ludicrous "report" on copyrights:

The Conference Board of Canada's sellout on copyright just keeps on getting worse. To recap: the Conference Board is a supposedly neutral research outfit that was asked by the Canadian copyright industries to write a report on file-sharing and piracy in Canada. They hit up the Ontario government for $15,000 to fund an event where the findings of the report would be presented.

Then they hired an independent researcher who concluded that there wasn't anything particularly wrong with Canadian file-sharing. They threw away his research.

Then they plagiarized dodgy press-materials produced by the leading US copyright lobby group, quoting lengthy passages that were factually wrong.

Then they denied any wrongdoing.

Then they admitted they'd plagiarized, but insisted that the public money hadn't been spent "on the report" — it had been spent on the conference about the report, which is a Different Thing Altogether.

After all that, it still manages to get worse . . .

Posted by Nicholas at 12:54 PM | Comments (0)

"We ain't got no irony. We don' need no stinkin' irony!"

Irony, Apple's App Store screeners don't do it:

. . . Apple rejected the application because it contained "objectionable content".

This was a link to a blog post which mentioned, and linked to, a Downfall parody, the film which charts Adolf Hitler's last days in his bunker. This version portrayed Hitler as an furious movie executive and demanding takedown notices be sent to everyone using his clips for parody. His officers warn him that parody is covered by fair use, so they might get sued by the EFF.

Displaying a fine grasp of irony, Apple removed the app from iTunes.

The EFF said it had no objection to Apple picking and choosing what appears on iTunes, but did point out that anyone could use YouTube to watch the video on their iPhone whether they had the app or not.

Posted by Nicholas at 12:45 PM | Comments (0)

To dream the impossible dream . . .

The headline really caught my attention:

Canada considers selling Via Rail, CBC
As the nation grapples with a record deficit, two of Canada's most iconic companies may be up for grabs.

It's a summary of a report in the Globe and Mail, probably intentionally highlighting the things of most concern to their readership. I'd love to see the CBC privatized, but I doubt that the government will do that. VIA Rail wouldn't survive in the private sector — at least in its current form — as it's running too many uneconomical long-distance routes that don't come close to paying their way.

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

June 02, 2009

Charles Stross and Cory Doctorow on digital privacy

A very long panel discussion, but well worth watching (or, given the relative lack of visual action, listening to). Charlie gives an excellent potted history of privacy in the first few minutes: this is an artifact of the modern age. That is, until the modern era, there was no privacy as we now understand it. The poor lived cheek-by-jowl in 20-to-a-hovel misery, while the rich lived with 24/7 presence of servants, hangers-on, and other humans. In the same sense that the "nuclear family" is a very recent sociological phenomenon, personal privacy is something we think of as "normal", but it's only become possible in the last hundred years or so.

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

QotD: The Law, misused

IME, British businesses often lie "the law requires X" or "the law prohibits X" — absurd!

UK banks are the worst for inventing imaginary laws to excuse their BS. Eg, "law requires you tell us reason for funds withdrawal"

"The law requires it" is used interchangeably with "Our lawyers require it" by UK businesses — these are nowhere near the same thing.

Cory Doctorow, posting to Twitter, 2009-06-02

Posted by Nicholas at 10:48 AM | Comments (0)

The return of Stagflation?

Jim Davidson points out some uncomfortable similarities between our current economic picture and the nadir of hope that was the late 1970s:

Now, sure, that's just one price. Other prices will vary significantly. But if you thought high gasoline prices were a thing of the past, be assured they are not. The government is printing money as though Obama believes there is no tomorrow.

If the current rate of change continues, by 24 August 2009 we should see $4.08 per gallon gasoline. Which might be good for another major financial crisis just in time for the start of the new school year.

[. . .]

However, the way to bet is not that the rate of inflation in fuel prices continues at the current rate, and not that it drops, but that the rate of change increases, that the price of energy surges upward. Why is that the way to bet? Because the government has abandoned plans to tax their way out of economic calamity, has found no buyers for its debt instruments so it cannot deficit spend with increased indebtedness to solve its problems, but, rather, has fixed on a plan to print its way out of the economic mess. (The option of cutting entire lists of government programs has only been mentioned by Ron Paul, who was called a psycho for doing so on "the Ed Show" which tells us what the establishment thinks.

So, as they print ever more money, as the Federal Reserve monetises the debt by buying government debt which won't sell overseas, the rate of inflation should escalate. I would expect it to go up dramatically, as it did in 1979. Probably without any stop, this time.

Posted by Nicholas at 10:20 AM | Comments (0)

June 01, 2009

P.J. O'Rourke on the end of the American love affair with cars

P.J. O'Rourke bids a fond farewell to a different era:

The phrase "bankrupt General Motors," which we expect to hear uttered on Monday, leaves Americans my age in economic shock. The words are as melodramatic as "Mom's nude photos." And, indeed, if we want to understand what doomed the American automobile, we should give up on economics and turn to melodrama.

Politicians, journalists, financial analysts and other purveyors of banality have been looking at cars as if a convertible were a business. Fire the MBAs and hire a poet. The fate of Detroit isn't a matter of financial crisis, foreign competition, corporate greed, union intransigence, energy costs or measuring the shoe size of the footprints in the carbon. It's a tragic romance — unleashed passions, titanic clashes, lost love and wild horses.

Well, actually, it is a story involving a lot of managerial loss of will, union short-sightedness, and inconceivably bad planning . . .

Of course, the automobile had a very important role in shaping modern North American life:

But cars didn't shape our existence; cars let us escape with our lives. We're way the heck out here in Valley Bottom Heights and Trout Antler Estates because we were at war with the cities. We fought rotten public schools, idiot municipal bureaucracies, corrupt political machines, rampant criminality and the pointy-headed busybodies. Cars gave us our dragoons and hussars, lent us speed and mobility, let us scout the terrain and probe the enemy's lines. And thanks to our cars, when we lost the cities we weren't forced to surrender, we were able to retreat.

More on the grim details for GM in this New York Times story.

Posted by Nicholas at 11:19 AM | Comments (0)

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