Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Crazy and hateful

San Franciscans have long had a secret fondness for crazy people. Emperor Norton, possibly the only homeless man who was lauded as the Emperor of the United States, was our first. Although there was nothing remotely amusing about the savage mauling death of Diane Whipple, there was certainly a lot of talk about Marjorie Knoller and Robert Noel, the dog owners who were alleged to have had sex with the large Canary Island dogs who attacked Whipple.

A perennial favorite for nearly a decade now is Frank Chiu, the indefatigable "Chinese poster-carrying guy." I remember him appearing first during the Clinton impeachment controversy. He would walk slowly up the street, always wearing a sports jacket, slacks, and wraparound shades. From the beginning, he was carrying his large sign: by now, his deltoids must be like titanium.

The original placard in 1998 called for the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Apparently, he got some feedback on this, and he changed it to request the impeachement of Clinton and George W. Bush (still in 1998). Later, more presidents were added, and it all spiralled downwards from there. After the posters started mentioning "12 Galaxies" and the "Zegnatronic Rocket Society", no one could mistake Frank for a political enthusiast: he was plainly nuts.

Frank is nuts, but he's our kind of nuts. The terrific 12 Galaxies bar and music hall in San Francisco is named after him, and every Halloween, there are multiple men and women who dress as Frank Chiu. As with having more than one mental patient who think they're Jesus, it doesn't always go well when two of them meet. If Frank meets an impersonator, he does not appear to mind, but he usually asks them for money.

Fred Phelps, the notorious minister from Kansas, is crazy as well. In fact, Phelps is sui generis in the category of publicity-seeking priests blinded by their hatred of homosexuality. He's been well-known for years for his picketing of funerals, for his otherworldly pronouncements on current affairs, and for his large collection of semi-arbitrary hate sites: godhatesfags.com, godhatescanada.com, and my personal favorite, godhatessweden.com.

Phelps has been in the news lately because of his persistent picketing at military funerals. I can hardly imagine the insensible rage of someone at one of those funerals, being told that your son or daughter died and is actually in hell because America doesn't hate its gays sufficiently. Although I knew all this, and I thought I was holding Phelps in the proper level of contempt, that was before I read the Fred Phelps blog entry at wikipedia. As Forrest Gump would say, "he's every kind of bad there is!":
  1. Multi-substance abuser: amphetamines, barbituates, and alcohol.
  2. Physically, emotionally, and verbally abusive of his family and his sun-addled parishioners.
  3. Implicated in death of his daughter-in-law.
  4. Disbarred in state and federal court. The federal disbarring paper was signed by every federal judge in Kansas. More sanctions against him than anyone else in the history of Kansas.
  5. Multiple acts of physical violence, fraud, perjury.
  6. Deep, pathological hatred of homosexuals, Swedes, Finns, etc.
Amazing stuff. Do not read unless you have a strong stomach. It is funny, though, to imagine ordinary, decent Swedish or Finnish folks stumbling onto his web site, wondering just what in the world they had found. Do not worry, ordinary decent Swedish folks: most Americans do not actually know where your country is, much less hate you.

Personally, I'd rather hang with Frank Chiu and watch him scare the tourists. It is harmless fun. When he gets too excited, you can always distract him by asking him when he was on television last. He watches for the TV vans like a hawk so he can parade behind the poor reporters with his placard. He can tell you every broadcast that he was on, and it always seems exciting to him.

High-tech colonialism in India

Drug companies are finding it attractive to test drugs in third-world countries like India:

Companies are attracted to India not only because of the huge patient pool and skilled workers, but also because many potential study volunteers are "treatment naïve," meaning they have not been exposed to the wide array of biomedical drugs that most Western patients have, said Stefan Ecks, a lecturer in social anthropology at the School of Social and Political Studies in Edinburgh who recently published a paper on the marketing of antidepressants in India.

"Doctors are easier to recruit for trials because they don't have to go through the same ethics procedures as their Western colleagues," Ecks said. "And patients ask fewer questions about what is going on."

After the outcry against Shantha and Biocon, the Indian government adopted stricter ethical guidelines for clinical research, but it's too early to know whether companies are abiding by the new rules.

Atul Sath in the Financial Express (Mumbai/Bombay) points out that there are multiple advantages to going this route:
Pharma outsourcing to India has the potential to pick up due to several distinct factors. In US, the time to get the drug to market has increased from 7.5 years in 1970s to 12.5 years in 1990s. This is less by as much as 30-40% if done in India. Moreover, administrative costs incurred by pharma companies in India are 30-50% lower than those in the West.

AT Kearney Inc vice-president & managing director, Andrea Bierce attributes the attractiveness of India as an outsourcing destination to various aspects. “India has a huge pool of talented doctors. 20,000 new doctors graduate every year in India. There is also a distinct wage arbitrage in India. The regulatory requirements in this country are not as strict as those in US.” said Ms Bierce. Lower R&D costs is another major advantage.

Note that getting drugs to market fast is an extraordinarily profitable factor: drug patents only last 20 years after the patent is granted. If the drug approval takes 12 years to complete, then you only have 8 years of competitor-free profits for that drug until generics for it become legal. For instance, Viagra was released by Pfizer, explosively, in 1998, but the relevant patents will expire between 2004 and 2011. (After that, you'll probably be able to get boner pills down at the 7/11.)

Like so many things in modern life, this process seems unstoppable. It can only be shaped, not averted.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Bush approval numbers at record lows

I'm so happy

If you're against Bush, you may have had to supress a loud whoop after reading the news that Bush's approval rating are now at a staggeringly low 34 percent. This is fantastic news, in that it helps to cripple the administration from whatever inane plan they would like to accomplish. A hostile, suspicious congress will in many cases, be a every-so-slightly more centrist Congress. Not much, but I'll take it. The full study is here (PDF file, 18 pages).

However, there's a long wait between now and the November elections. Bush's numbers are so low that they must come back up: all he has to do is reach a few of the Republicans that he's lost in the ports brouhaha. Then come the inevitable horse-race happy talk in the press, "Bush is coming back!" We saw this sitcom before, during the last micro-rise in Bush's numbers.

Worse news yet, there's no corresponding bounce in the Democratic standings. People just hate Congress, no matter who is in charge.

The public continues to hold a dim view of Congress, with just 28% approving and 61% disapproving of the way Congress is handling its job.

Now 1/2006 2/2005
Approve 28% 29% 41%
Disapprove 61 61 44

One year ago the public was more evenly split, with 41% approving and 44% disapproving. While Congressional approval hovered in the low to mid 30s for most of last year, it dropped to 29% last month, and is currently the lowest job approval rating for Congress in almost a decade.

We really need to win both houses back, yet the Democrats aren't making the case to the public as a good alternative. The Dems should be much popular. There's every chance that anyone in the GOP with a survival instinct will do what it can to pull us out of Iraq within six months, while blaming anyone else, hence acquiring the credit for ending this unpopular and losing war.

Note also that, with both parties nationally unpopular, the Republicans can go heavily negative in assorted key races. This tactic typically pushes overall voting down in those areas, rewarding the party with the greater number of true-believers who always show up to vote.

Remember, the Republicans in power are like the Borg. They don't care that they're unpopular. Immorality means nothing to them, unless they can tie that word to two men fucking somewhere. They don't care if 100,000 people have died in the Iraq war. Nothing matters, not as long as it means they're still in power. For maximum alignment with reality, do not project your conscience or your ability to feel guilt onto these guys. They simply do not care, and they will not take responsibility for their hideous mistakes.

(Photo from cuteoverload.com.)

Chocolate still good for you

Another study on chocolate-y goodness visits a grateful world .

A 15-year longitudinal study of the elderly in Holland showed a strong correlation between cocoa intake and lower blood pressure. That is, cocoa intake is inversely associated with high BP and poor cardiovascular health. Here's the study itself.

Note that the actual decrease in BP the researchers found was quite small (2-4 mm Hg), but the relative risk is .5, meaning a little cocoa cut related health risks in half for the people being studied. Woo hoo! Even if I weren't nuts about chocolate, that strikes me as impressive. However, note that these were really old dudes, I mean, subjects (65-85). In fact, about half of them died by the end of the study. Your mileage may vary.

This is not the first good study on chocolate: one last year highlighted the flavanoids as good for you, and there have been others. Presumably it's a lot more fun for medical researchers to study chocolate intake than, say, slicing open rat tumors. To bring giddy chocoholics back to reality, do know that chocolate has about the same calories as the equivalent amount of butter. You can't live on it, although heaven knows that I have tried.

Chocolate is my most expensive vice, and knowing that it will extend my life a wee bit makes it all the more delicious. In related news, I think Gary Guittard should be nominated for the Nobel Prize.

V for Vendetta might not suck

Update: If you're looking for the script, here it is:
V for Vendetta: from Script to Film. You're welcome.

Original Post:

Alan Moore's and David Lloyd's graphic novel V for Vendetta has been turned into a movie, which will be released 17 March. Moore is a gifted graphic-novel writer (Watchmen, Promethea), who has been cursed with two disappointing adaptions of his work: From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Moore is known for bitterly denouncing the scripts of these movies, and he is particularly chafed about the V for Vendetta script: he has been trying to remove his name from it for months.

Today James Wolcott all but swoons in a heap after screening the movie. Perhaps it was the champagne, perhaps it was all the talented and beautiful stars at the screening; but it's an ecstatic review nevertheless, not of the movie per se, but of the kaleidoscope of impressions he had while watching it. There are no other reviews of the movie out yet. For what it's worth, there is one harshly negative review (NB: spoilers) of an early draft of the script at screenwritersutopia.com.

I hope it is a good movie: it is an excellent graphic novel. Also, despite his cranky protests, I want all good things for Alan Moore because he has brought me a lot of joy. Watchmen and Promethea are two of the most imaginative works I have ever encountered.

The Wachowski Brothers co-wrote the screenplay, and the movie is directed by James McTeigue, a first-time director who was 1st Assistant Director on a dozen good action movies. The cast is stellar: Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rea, and Stephen Fry, among others. Here's the official site for the movie.

(Cover Photo taken from the V For Vendetta Shrine)

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Arnold skittish about Bush

Schwarzenegger was on Meet the Press today. He can certainly churn out the politician-speak with the best of them. I wonder if they give him actual scripts. The two items that appeared to have a fraction of candor were his lack of denials in these two questions.
MR. RUSSERT: But if war is an issue in this year, 2006, you’re up for re-election in November. Are you concerned you could get swept up in an anti-Republican tide?
GOV. SCHWARZENEGGER: Yes, you know, that’s always a concern.
MR. RUSSERT: Will you run as a Bush Republican?
GOV. SCHWARZENEGGER: I will run as an Arnold Republican, which is that I am there to govern and to serve the people of California, meaning Democrats and Republicans. Even though there are some on the right wing that are not happy about that, that think I should only govern for Republicans, but that’s not what I promised the people of California.
Clearly, he's skipping past the opportunity to (a) deny that things could get so bad this year that the election could be an anti-Republican rout, and (b) pledge his love for Bush again.

This isn't evidence of anything much. It's just that they're clearly talking about it. The lack of support for Bush so early in the year is significant, even though Arnold has decided to wear a democrat's cloak ever since his political fortunes have radically dimmed in California. According to the normal schedule, they shouldn't be ignoring Bush until after the election.

Update: Infinitely more convincing than what I note with Arnold here is Froomkin's categorization of multiple lame-duck stories about Bush.

Supernova coming?

squeeze the star until the gamma-juice comes out the ends

A unique celestial explosion was observed by the new Swift satellite, unusual in both length (33 minutes) and spectra. The unusual explosion may be the beginning of a star collapse, which could mean that a supernova is happening "right now"(*). The supernova would reach peak brightness in a week. The last supernova visible to the naked eye during daytime appeared in 1604. The last one visible to the naked eye at night was seen in 1987.

NASA has a nifty mpeg showing how the star-collapse model would lead to gamma-ray jets, which is what we might or might not be observing. Newsweek has the short "scientists are baffled" wire copy article here. NASA has some good educational material on supernovas online, as does space.com in the equally brief article on this news.

Needless to say, that area of the sky is being closely observed.

(*) This is the definition of "right now" that actually means 440 million years ago, since that's how many light-years away the explosion was. Note also that this means the star is relatively "close", since it could be as far as ~14 billion light years away, the current estimated size of the universe.

This science stuff is kooky. Update: so much so that my brother straightened me out on the dates. I have edited the post accordingly, lest any other astronomy-minded folk come here and do spit-takes all over their keyboards. His comment also has some great quotes on the mind-bending magnitude of supernova.

(Image from NASA's MPEG.)

Groundhogs have a legend as well

It has nothing to do with shadows, and nothing to do with the length of winter.

If you're a bad little ground hog, then someday
an entire human will emerge from your ass.

(Photo AFP/Eric Feferberg. Link from Derenegade.)

Abortion Rights becoming a state-by-state battle.

Roe v. Wade has been the law of the land for the last thirty-three years, but it will likely be set aside by the fall of 2006 when South Dakota's recent complete ban on abortion is contested, then accepted by the O'Connor-free Supreme Court. The Washington Post covers one facet of that upcoming battle, the fight over Plan B contraceptives that has been occuring in nearly every state legislature. Plan B contraceptives can serve as an effective way to avoid pregnancy after contraceptive systems failed or were forgotten during intercourse, and also for women who were raped.

NARAL has a handy per-state bill-tracker if you feel like goosing your state legislator into doing the right thing on bills in your state. Naturally, there are a wide variety of pro-choice and anti-abortion bills to look into. South Dakota's anti-abortion law law is listed, but of course, it's just waiting for the Governor's vote, so unless you have pictures of Gov. Mike Rounds with a live boy or a dead girl, it's going to become law. As you probably know, Jane Hamsher has had it with NARAL, because of their continued, inexplicable support of the jelly-spined Lincoln Chafee and the contemptible, fake Democrat Joe Lieberman. But they don't seem to be screwing this battle up too badly in this area.

I'm too numb to be sad about the loss of Roe v. Wade, since I've been expecting it since Bush's election. This is what the majority of people voted for in 2004, and by god, they're going to get it, no matter how many young women die, no matter how many unwanted children are born. And once they get rid of Roe v. Wade, they can go after Griswold v. Connecticut and Lawrence v. Texas, because no matter how much the right wing talks about unborn lives, what they really care about sex.

Sex is what the right wing finds deeply disturbing, as shown by the provisos of "except in the case of rape or incest" that they usually stick on their anti-abortion laws. That proviso is not actually present on the South Dakota law, which some pro-choice people have incorrectly viewed as a sign of an even more inhumane law. It's not: this is actually intellectual consistency. The law against abortion is wrong because women should have complete control over their own bodies, not because it declines to include an exception for "innocent" pregnant women. To bring up the "rape and incest" omission as a flaw is to silently buy into the definition of "innocent" pregnant women.

I see no quick or happy to end to this. This issue will fester on in the United States for years. Ultimately, once federal protections for abortion end, the blue states will pass reasonable pro-choice legislation, and the red states will pass the opposite. Middle class women will travel where they must to get abortions, while the women who die or have unwanted children will be the poor and the resourceless. It's an old story. The middle-class has permitted the erosion of abortion rights for the poor for two decades now, so no one should be too surprised.

Update: Whoah, Plan B is also an organization by organization battle. Editors of a pharmaceutical journal in Canada were fired after they wrote articles discussing this issue.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Iraq is FUBAR

The situation in Iraq is FUBAR:
The streets of the capital already feel as unsafe as at any time since the 2003 invasion. As one U.S. major put it, Baghdad now resembles a pure Hobbesian state where all are at war against all others and any security is self-provided.
I can't wait until they start blaming the liberals and the press for this unmitigated, bloody disaster. Maybe Iraq was Clinton's fault as well. Perhaps now baby fascists like Sean Hannity will stop asking the question, "So, you'd prefer that Saddam Hussein would still be in power?" This is a classic "when did you stop beating your wife?" false choice. It used to be a silencing question, except now, things have gotten so bad there that a large number of Americans, 55% of them, think the answer is "Yes, I would prefer that Saddam was still in power, fuck you very much. Bring our children back home."

Glenn Greenwald writes about the hysterical abuse hurled at anyone who dared to question the war movement.
This grotesque exploitation for domestic political gain of patriotism, loyalty and bravery is the single most frequently used rhetorical tactic of Bush followers over the last five years. During this same time, we have been hearing all sorts of complaints about the "Angry Left." Similarly, that the "lefty blogosphere" is composed of enraged, epithet-spewing cretins has become the newly unveiled conventional wisdom among the status-threatened establishment media. And yet, it has become so common as to be routine for Bush followers to stridently accuse their domestic political opponents of being cowards, subversives and traitors, and,
increasingly, to call for their imprisonment and/or execution.
In a sane world, the people who made those statements would now realize that they were completely, 100% wrong about Iraq. They would beg for forgiveness from their viewers, readers, and most especially, from the people whose perfectly reasonable opinons they called traitorous and sedition. We don't live in that world. Limbaugh, Malkin, and Hannity are paid to spread their noxious opinions like Mr. Creosote spread his dinner, and apologies aren't acceptable to the vicious, hateful rabble they preach to.

Here's my unhappy promise. I promise that the neocons, the Vulcans, and all the brainless apologists of the Bush Administration that Billmon so perfectly characterized as "following every loop and corkscrew in the party line like a carload of zombies on a rollercoaster," all of them will be claiming that Iraq is not their fault. They will claim that losing Iraq to the forces of darkness and nihilism is not the fault of their lack of planning, or their hubris, or their sinfully arrogant belief that they could play geopolitics without actually understanding the rules.

This mistake has to be someone else's fault, and my first guess is the press wil be chosen as scapegoat, with the inherent ungovernability of middle easterners as a second choice. Note that these are not my opinions. This is what I am predicting we will hear from the right, as the full measure of this ongoing catastrophe starts to sink in, and we are forced to pull out.

What a disaster this war has been. 100,000 lives, and $250 billion dollars. The initial estimate was $2 billion, and they thought they'd lose a few dozen guys, like they did in Iraq and Afghanistan. The architects of this war and the geniuses who approved torture as official policy should all be in jail.

Update: Shadan7 at dailykos passes on a letter from an officer friend of his:
It says a lot about our country that Clinton was impeached and Bush has not been. The idea that a sexual indiscretion is more significant that entering a war under false pretenses, flagrantly breaking the law on domestic surveillance, and presiding over an immense squandering of national treasure is, frankly, ludicrous. I had a rather unhealthy personal hatred of Clinton in the 1990s, primarily because he was a draft dodger who had become Commander in Chief. Every US military death in Haiti, in Somalia, in Bosnia was a moral outrage. Now, though, I'm faced with a C-in-C who also evaded meaningful service and has ordered thousands to die in a war based on a lie. Clinton balanced the budget; Bush broke it.
If it weren't for hypocrisy and justification, the supporters of this immoral war wouldn't have the strength to get out of bed in the morning.

Basketball feel-good story

Crooks and Liars has a sweet story about a high-functioning autistic boy who is unexpectedly put into play at a high school basketball game. What made me cry was seeing the extremely excited reactions from his team and from the rest of the school. They really love that guy: his success obviously thrilled them all.

If autism interests you, you might try


Rolling Stone has a feature article on Scientology in the new issue with Shaun White on the cover. For those who have been following this mock religion for years, the story doesn't have much that is shocking.

Here, though, is the nut of it all:
[Scientologists] assert that 75 million years ago, an evil galactic warlord named Xenu controlled seventy-six planets in this corner of the galaxy, each of which was severely overpopulated. To solve this problem, Xenu rounded up 13.5 trillion beings and then flew them to Earth, where they were dumped into volcanoes around the globe and vaporized with bombs. This scattered their radioactive souls, or thetans, until they were caught in electronic traps set up around the atmosphere and "implanted" with a number of false ideas -- including the concepts of God, Christ and organized religion. Scientologists later learn that many of these entities attached themselves to human beings, where they remain to this day, creating not just the root of all of our emotional and physical problems but the root of all problems of the modern world.
That is it, that is the core idea of scientology: ancient, tortured beings are physically present in your body, causing your back to hurt, or causing you to be anxious about your parents.

Now you know.

Consumer Reports Nudie Hotline

"Hello, Consumer Reports Nudie Hotline. How may I help you?"

"Yeah, hi. I'm standing here with some friends, and they're trying to get me to rent Eyes Wide Shut. I've heard it's some artsy-fartsy thing. I think we should rent Porky's or American Pie instead."

"And your question is?"

"Well, do we get to see Nicole Kidman naked or not?"

"Yes, indeed, sir. She's naked as a jaybird during some fantasy love-making scenes."

"Good god-amighty! Is she hot?"

"Scorching, sir."

"Is there any other nudity?"

"Scads of it, sir. There are several scenes with exquisitely beautiful women, both totally nude and also clad in skimpy underwear."

"Holy jeez! I guess I was wrong about— hey, wait a minute."


"If this movie is so hot, why are there so many copies of it here to be rented?"

"It's dull, sir."

"How's that?"

"It's a dull movie, it's boring. Kubrick took an Arthur Schnitzler novella from 1925 about a man who is tempted by others, but who never gets laid, until he eventually realizes that his wife might also want to have sex. From that, Kubrick made an extremely dull movie. For instance, many beautiful women walk here and there, but no one ever actually kisses or has anything like realistic sex. By the end of the movie, you will be watching it in dull, listless apathy."

"You said it was hot."

"No, sir, I said that Nicole Kidman was hot. Her lovemaking scenes are quite enchanting."

"Well, I guess I co— wait, wait. How long are these scenes?"

"Oh, 20 seconds."


"Perhaps less. And they're split up into small fragments that are seen only when Tom's character is distressed to remember that his wife mentioned an erotic dream to him once."

"This is crap! Why did so many people go to see this boring movie?"

"The movie is so beautifully shot that you can spend the entire time keenly anticipating the next scene, which might actually be exciting. By the end of the movie, you've spent over two hours waiting for something to happen. But, it never does. Tom never gets laid. The conspiracy probably isn't real. Or, perhaps it was real. You still won't care. Ultimately, his wife mentions that she would like to have sex with him, but that is perhaps not as daring a stroke as it seemed in 1925."

"Why did they even make this movie?"

"My best guess is: Stanley Kubrick wanted to see Nicole Kidman naked. Or perhaps he enjoyed tweaking Tom Cruise with some homosexual references. I don't know, sir. In any case, Kubrick had some experiments in mind for interior lighting, which were breathtaking successes. For cinematography fans, this is one of the greatest movies of all time, even surpassing Barry Lyndon, which, now that I've brought it up, sir, was another beautiful snoozer."

"Bullshit, man. We're going to rent Porky's."

"Good call, sir. You can't go wrong with the classics."

Phishing for Dollars

Origins of phishing attacks

When I worked in a hospital, I was once given a task that led me literally through every non-patient room on every floor. What I used instead of an identification card or uniform was a clipboard and an air of determination. I was unchallenged that entire week, even though an apparent sixteen-year-old kid was rummaging through drug supplies and furtively going into back rooms like Harrison Ford in The Fugitive. The nurses were too busy to care, the doctors were far too busy to care, and most importantly, I had a clipboard.

Phishing works in the same way. Computer programmers used to smile at the way that merely having something printed out by a computer made it true. Well, now the entire credulous world is starting to come online, and it's a fine, profitable time to be an online con-artist. From now until April, there will be an increase in the fake IRS phishing attacks. The Anti-Phishing Working Group put up a 15-page Trends in Phishing report (15 page, PDF) with a few of the details. The bottom line? The incidents have doubled since they started monitoring them a year ago.

This is a difficult issue that won't go away soon, because it's a profitable, low-risk crime. As an individual, I am at risk of identity theft, and phishing is the flip side of that issue for corporations. A company I trust, like Schwab, has all of its hard-won authority abused by strangers who will winkle money out of my wallet.

I've struggled with what to tell my non-technical friends and family about this issue. "Believe nothing you get online" is a good shorthand, but then I still get multiple emails with silly cell-phone rumors. It would be nice to be more detailed. However, one elderly relative mentioned in passing to me that she was going to shut down her account with eBay because she was tired of getting those emails asking for her credit card over and over. My mother-in-law called me to ask what was wrong with her computer because every night the network traffic went crazy and the hard drive light was flashing nonstop. These are not people I can instruct to verify SSL certificates.

I don't know what the answer is. Even the security experts are amazed by the skill of some of the recent attacks. I know some people are working very hard now on authentication issues, but for now, it takes effort just to decide who to trust.

(Photo from antiphishing.org)

Friday, February 24, 2006

A love poem written on an exit ramp near Oakland Airport

This Is Just to Say
by Travis Carlos Anonymous

I have eaten
the powerbar
that was in
my pocket

and which
you were probably
for the flight

Forgive me
it's so nutrious,
my sweet.

Without you
I'm so cold

Not posturing

I'm a big fan of politicians posturing. It's gentle, harmless fun. When drug tests were all the rage in the late 80s, and politicians were both volunteering their own urine, and denouncing their opponents for hoarding their own, that was comedy gold. (This vital issue of state went away after that election, never to return.) When Japan seemed ascendant in all things in the early 90s, and politicians were throwing japanese radios down the steps of Congress — that was very, very funny. Probably my all-time favorite is when Oliver North bizarrely offered to go mano a mano with Abu Nidal during the Iran/Contra hearings. He won a lot of fans for that jaw-dropping, WWF moment; but honestly, what a narcissistic moron.

Howard Kurtz summarizes recent events concerning the Mohammed cartoons and the port issue as "posturing." No, sorry. Posturing, by definition, involves no deaths — even when the deaths of others are devoutly wished as part of your posturing. Iraq is starting on its civil war. Not posturing. A space-wasting congresswoman telling Bush "hell no?" Posturing. Nigerian Christians killing and burning Muslims? Not posturing.

Threatening to kill people for portraying Mohammed? I don't know. I really don't know.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Film Search for the OCD Movie-Goer

Hey baby, you must've been
something before electricity
Do you want to watch a comedy where the protagonist is a latino actor playing a lawyer with short hair and magical powers? What if he had a strong but gentle sense of humor? What if the plot involved scenes on ice caps and small town america?

You do? That's fantastic! Well, here's the movie search engine for you. You can specify a very large range of attributes for character attributes, scenarios, plots, styles, and it will find what you want.

I am utterly charmed by this web page and the obsessiveness that went into building the database and its query engines. Conceivably, its target audience might be struggling with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder or Asperger's Syndrome — but who among us would cast the first stone, after seeing Monk imitate fragments of our lives?

I can honestly say that I've never thought of looking for a movie based on "family, struggling with: grandpa". I try it, and shazaam, there's Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums. Can't argue with that.

Chinese government still not happy with Google

The Chinese government strongly objects to several things that google is doing:
  • Continuing to make the uncensored version of google available.
  • Flagging blocked searches as blocked on google.cn.
  • Declining to remove embarrassing items from their caches.
Google is not complying for the moment. Consider, though, that Google is now fighting two different governments at the moment: one the largest country in the world; the other the most powerful economically and militarily. This is not to say who will win or who is right, but it is interestingly similar to what people were raving about in the late 1990s, back when Wired Magazine was totally unreadable and Red Herring weighed as much as copies of Vogue.

Spam recipes from Gmail

Not everyone is aware of this, but the software behind gmail examines the text of your email very closely. If you mention Britney, there might be a text ad relating to Britney. If you talk about your Hello Kitty backpack, here come the related ads. It's more than a little creepy; but as with so many other Google features, they suck you in with tremendous, nearly perfect execution.

Here's the ad that appeared when I looked at my spam folder.

No, I didn't click the recipe. If you think you would like spam fajitas, you should just eat that crap right out of the can. (Apologies to any Hawaiians in the audience.)

The Confederate States of America

Slave Shopping Network

When I was a boy of six or so, I remember excitedly reading a biography of Abraham Lincoln. It told a terrific story. There was a young man who worked hard, and gradually overcame obstacles until he eventually became president. And there was a war, too! The war had good guys and bad guys, and after a few years of struggle, the good guys won! It was a ripping yarn. I loved it.

The fuller context, unfortunately, is that I read this book by myself, a white boy growing up in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, in the 1960s. I don't remember if I had finished reading it before I was stunned to realize the obvious: we lost. We were the bad guys, the South, the entire white South that fought in the war. My little friend Lisa across the street was black, but I didn't know she was black. Sure, her skin color was coal black, but who would care about that? I loved her. (Thank goodness my mother never polluted my mind on this issue. It would have been so easy.)

We were all innocent once. I am glad I can remember at least a few moments of my innocence. I grew up, and over time, I came to a semi-coherent worldview on politics. Now I'm a progressive liberal, secular humanist, blah, blah, rah rah. Go, team. But for all the thought behind these positions, I'm a liberal because of that one searing moment: realizing that I personally could find myself aligned with a despicable, historic outrage.

Kevin Willmott is a professor of film studies in Kansas. He has made a new mock-documentary called CSA: The Confederate States of America. It depicts life in America as it might be now if the Confederate South had won the war back then. Slavery is the law of the land — across the continent. There are slave shopping networks where you can buy whole families on TV. Lincoln was shot and killed, in blackface, shortly after the Civil War ended. The entire history is told as if it were a BBC documentary, which covers the aftermath of the civil war, and our alliances with countries like Nazi Germany. It is interrupted by modern life: advertisements show high-quality shackles, Sambo-like cartoons, and restaurants you enter through huge grinning negro mouths. It is intended to be as funny as it is shocking. I will not see it until tomorrow, but it sounds fantastic.

If you live in the San Francisco bay area, you can see this at the Roxie this week. The details are here.

Here's NPR's On the Media segment on CSA, 8 minutes, RealMedia format, all audio. They interview the director and play short segments of the movie.

Here's the CSA movie web site, which also has schedules of cities where it will be showing. Obviously, it has been difficult to get a distributor for this movie.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Appointment in Samarra

Astonishingly, Iranian terrorists have seized a foothold in New York City, using a blitzkreig form of attack. Skillfully deploying light tanks and fighters on motorcycles , they maneuver their way to the middle of the city. Their goal is unclear: they do not take territory, but they move through the city as if with a purpose. They use shotguns and grenades as anti-crowd weapons, causing New Yorkers on every street to flee for their lives in an utter panic. The New York Police fight bravely. They make the invaders pay for every block, but the local police are completely outmanned, outgunned, and underarmored. In the wake of the fighters, there are only dead bodies, empty streets, and the smell of cordite. Blood is everywhere.

The New York National Guard has barely made their way to 66th street by the time the invaders reach their target, 460 Madison. Fighters rush into through all five entrances of the building, machine gunning the priests and worshipers where they stand. After filming their defiling the interior with explosives and excrement, the invaders make a final televised stand. They pledge eternal jihad to the infidels, and they pledge their lives to Allah.

Then they detonate the explosives inside, killing themselves and atomizing the former St. Patrick's Cathedral. Hundreds more die as two of the surrounding buildings partially collapse. Thousands have died in the lightning attack.

Sickened? Angry? Ready to fight?

Then consider yourself a shiite after hearing about the destruction of the Askariya temple in Samarra. This is the first step of Iraq's civil war. Look at what these people have destroyed.

Invading Iraq made no more sense than whacking a hornets nest with a rake. America's leaders are idiots, and we will all pay a bitterly high price for their mistakes. We have created a fighting mad theocracy.

Juan Cole has a reader who writes:
An hour ago [my Iraqi Shiite fried] recieved a call from Najaf. You know the Najaf boys are losing their heads over what happened.

No wonder. 80 years or so ago their relatives bought some land up there [at Samarra] and established Shia communities around the mosque and in Samarra. So the boys had been working there living there from time to time and some really settled down for good. A month or two ago lots of Shia were expelled, thrown out of town or scared off.

And now this.

They told B. how the demolition was carried out. You see, it was nothing like a hipshot sneaking up bombing by night. It was meticulous, skilful piece of work, taking a lot of time, the guards knowing all about what was going on. At least that´s what they told him today.

So now they all gather downtown Nejef rallying, preparing a gruesome revenge. Sistani tries hard to stop them, they told him, but the boys won´t listen. They're heading for Samarra.

A big bowl of bad

Letterman drops the bomb on Cheney. 60 second video. It's not so much funny as it is amazing that this is appearing in mainstream media.

After years of the Bush administration fuck-ups, are they really going to go down after a trivial shooting incident and a port deal? The look on Bush's face in the CNN interview was anger, but was it anger because he really cares about the port deal, or was he just amazed that bang, here he is, taking it up the ass for yet another problem that came out of nowhere?

The only serious interest — outside of baseball, drinking, and cocaine — that Bush has ever had is politics. His grandfather was an important senator, and his father held every major type of post one can have. He was deeply involved in the campaigns of his father, and he never lacked interest in the mechanics of his own campaigns. He doesn't care about dead iraqis and he doesn't care about global warming, but he really does know and care about politics. He knows what it means when Republicans and Democrats start uniting to block him, and he knows what it means when senior citizens send in teeth-gnashing letters to CNN calling for his impeachment. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, he's not a smart man, but he knows what polls are.

Video link via this diary at dailykos.com. There are many more videos and amazing pictures there.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Art Films online

Cinematic Film has a large series of short, arty films available online. All the ones I saw were in Quicktime, and lasted 2-5 minutes. They did not load particularly fast, although it was much better at night. They claim they have 60 hours of film available online.

I recommend Chris Oakley's The Catalogue, which is a short commentary on our fascination with surveillance technology as a cure for all ills. Although if you do watch it, then you should mute your sound until after the color bars disappear — don't know if that's art or just crappy post-production. All of Oakley's films touch on the potential futures that we could have with technology.

Teaching middle-school kids in Japan

An African-American named Jeff Azrael who taught middle school in Japan for several years has a long series of posts on the subject at this web site:


It's hard to know what to make of it. At first I was laughing at the silly grab-the-dick anecdotes, then I was actually feeling embarrassed for him as he complained about his girlfriend, then later I was really touched by some of the genuinely sweet things that he writes, and so on and so on. He returns to the same themes and people very frequently, moving just to the edge of being boring, then completely surprising you with vivid stories. His writing skills get noticeably better as the articles proceed.

It's like reading someone's personal letters, unedited. Azrael is very direct and immediate about what he's experiencing, and he writes with a sweet and open heart. The overall effect is surprising somehow — perhaps because of the sexually explicit topics, perhaps because some of the kids are little demons, perhaps because he depicts himself as so fallible. In America, this blog would lead directly to multiple lawsuits because of his complete frankness and also because of American hysteria about sex and teachers. (Note that this is emphatically not the Japanese Mary Kay Letourneau story.)

The essays remind me strongly of James Herriot's stories of being a country vet in Yorkshire, the one that started with All Creatures Great and Small.

Invasion of the Computer Snatchers

Brian Krebs has a fantastic slice-of-life article on a hacker who is paid to install spyware.
A small dog with matted fur enters the living room and winds through 0x80's feet. 0x80 gives the dog a gentle shove with his foot, without even looking up from his laptop. He furiously stabs at the keyboard with his two forefingers, punching out a short command that produces a mesmerizing blur of black-on-white text that scrolls up the computer screen at several pages per second. 0x80 makes it halfway through a cigarette before the text flying across the screen finally stops. The command he typed -- "pstore" -- is short for "password store." On the screen in front of him is a listing of every user name and password that the owner of each infected computer has stored in the Microsoft Internet Explorer Web browser on his or her computer.

A quick scroll through the first few dozen pages of the file reveals credentials his victims have used to log in to online accounts at PayPal, eBay, Bank of America and Citibank, to name just a few. Many of the Web sites for which user names and passwords are stored are harmless, such as sports or hobby sites. Others are potentially far more revealing, such as hard-core sex and fetish Web sites. 0x80 has also found credentials for thousands of e-mail accounts, including dozens at ".mil" and ".gov" (U.S. military and government) addresses.
I'm now forwarding the article to every one of my non-technical friends and family who I've had to berate and cajole over the years into keeping their computer fully patched.

(Picture of a broken computer from this inexplicable Norwegian site.)

Monday, February 20, 2006

Anti-semitism and cartoons

In an unpredictable response to the ongoing controversy over the Mohammed cartoons, an Israeli group announced an anti-Semitic cartoon contest. Only a couple of cartoons are posted so far, but they promise a gallery soon. (NB: I make no promises if you click on that link: there are genuinely offensive cartoons mixed in with genuinely funny ones.)

From the official announcement:
Eyal Zusman ... and Amitai Sandy ... have followed the unfolding of the "Muhammad cartoon-gate" events in amazement, until finally they came up with the right answer to all this insanity - and so they announced today the launch of a new anti-Semitic cartoons contest - this time drawn by Jews themselves!

"We’ll show the world we can do the best, sharpest, most offensive Jew hating cartoons ever published!" said Sandy "No Iranian will beat us on our home turf!"
I discovered this news at the Alien vs. Predator's hilarious "official response" to the Mohammed cartoon controversy. Further, as another reason why you should always turn to Alien vs. Predator for your breaking news, it reveals (via Haaretz) that Jdate.com has been using porn models as the typical lovely ladies that one could encounter via jdate. Too funny — and not at all covered in my BBC summary news of the day. Elsewhere, the Danish editor who deliberately commissioned the Mohammed cartoons explains his reasons, and they're all surprisingly good ones. The mere act of publishing them seemed pointless: both thoughtless and provocative.

For Christmas, I received a copy of Will Eisner's "graphic history" The Plot: The Secret Story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It's good, perhaps a touch too earnest. Eisner was feverish to tell the story of the life of this infamous document. He touches on its initial forging in Russia during the time of the Dreyfus affair, the two novels that it was copied from, and its eventual — and endlessly repeated — unmasking as a fraud. Eisner managed to complete the book just before he died. The Museum of Comic and Cartoon art in NY will have a retrospective on Eisner "soon."

There's a good interview at NPR that puts the Protocols into its historical context and modern contexts. The interview is with Steven Bronner, the political science professor (12 minutes, no transcript). Surprisingly, the very first caller on the NPR believed the Protocols are real, and the professor sets him straight quickly. How nice to see someone with such calm mastery of the facts.

Incidently, I have no idea why I've posted a few things recently about anti-Semitism. I don't plan on it being a theme on this still-new blog, although I do think that racism in all its forms is insidious and evil.

The Economics of Prostitution


There's a filler article at Forbes for Valentine's Day called "The Economics of Prostitution." Embarrassingly, it is written by the magazine's executive editor, Michael Noer.

The one-pager at Forbes is a breezy summary of a reasonable, substantial economic paper. The two economists who wrote the paper, Lena Edlund and Evelyn Korn, examine the relative utility of marrying and prostitution.

Here's the abstract of the paper:
Prostitution is low-skill, labor intensive, female, and well paid. This paper proposes a marriage market explanation to this puzzle. If a prostitute compromises her marriage market prospects, she will have to be compensated for forgone marriage market opportunities. We discuss the link between poverty and prostitution and show that prostitution may decrease with male income if wives and prostitutes are drawn from the same pool of women. We point to the role of male sex ratios, and males in transit, in sustaining high levels of prostitution, and we discuss possible reasons for its low reputation and implications for marriage patterns.
And you can read the whole paper here: "A Theory of Prostitution" (PDF file, 34 pages). It is thoughtfully and densely written, but with fun details in the literature summary. I can imagine Jane Hathaway reading the article aloud.

If the subject interests you more than the economic modeling, then I highly recommend this collection of writings collected by sex workers of all kinds. Sex Work: Writings by Women in the Sex Industry. The different essays are written by women who loathe the sex industry as well as those who have relied on it for their income. It is written by prostitutes, strippers, phone call operators. It's an excellent book, especially in the way that they try to convey the complexities of the industry.

(Photo of the Major Award from 80tees.com, where
related items are for sale. No affiliation.)

Remember how Whitewater was kind of complicated?

Whitewater was a tricky story to summarize and understand. Even Ken Starr and Robert Ray were somehow unable to find a prosecutable criminal offense in the six years that they spent investigating the case. I am sure that they tried their level best.

We would not want that same kind of incomprehensible storyline to interfere with the potential conviction of assistants or impeachment of presidents in the Plame/Wilson matter. As a public service, Juan Cole explains it all for you — with pictures!


"If the top of the mountain hadn't still been shrouded, witnesses might have seen a thin crack arc across the slope, announcing itself with a boom that was likely lost in the ratcheting wind. At first the crack would have looked like a tear in the clouds, a rent easily stitched up with white thread and forgotten. But, in a blink, it would have wrapped more than a half mile around the bowl and, as if yawning, widened as a plate of snow more than six feet thick lost its grip on the mountainside. More ruptures would have shot along the sides, through the middle, and along the bottom edge of the plate until, for one suspended moment, it resembled a child's jigsaw puzzle. And then there would have been too much motion for the eye to track, the pieces buckling and breaking into smaller and smaller shards, the whole slope a shattering windowpane. Falling and tumbling, shoving forward a tongue of displaced air, gathering speed, the avalanche would have vaccumed up the massive quantities of loose snow that lay in its path, building a thundering cloud of its own that ballooned higher and higher into the sky, becoming the only view. This boiling cloud would have looked soft and cottony, its advancing edge dancing and surging like an ocean wave, but it was a barrage of stinging icy particles, a vortex of loud punishing wind. Behind the cloud, bumping along the craggy ground, was an unstoppable torrent of millions of pounds of snow.

The term avalanche stems from the French verb avaler, which means "to swallow" but originally meant "to descend." WIthin four seconds, the 5.5 Mile avalanche was dropping at freeway speeds, still accelerating as it pounded down even steeper slopes and flew over the edges of cliffs. The avalanche had already plunged almost the height of the Empire State Building when it reached the narrow squeezing gut in its hourglass-shaped run. There it erupted, the cloud shinnying up the gully walls and shooting more than four hundred feet into the air. Acres of trees two or three feet in diameter that had stood for nearly a century snapped like raw spaghetti and shredded into strands almost as thin. A behemoth spruce, six feet thick and four hundred years old, sacrificed limbs. Inside the turbulent, deafening snow cloud now were hurling branches and sheared tree trunks, errant missles seeking targets.

Jerry didn't see the avalanche until it was about twenty seconds and almost two thousand vertical feet into its life, on the last steep drop above the Copper River Highway. It didn't fall so much as pounce upon the road, obliterating nearly a thousand linear feet of pavement under piles of snow as deep as thirty feet. Its forward edge now smoking 90 to 120 miles per hour, the avalanche tore through the subdivision as though the houses were made of paper, dissipating the last of its energy only when it was more than a quarter mile out onto the ice of Eyak Lake. From start to finish, the avalanche had taken less than thirty seconds."

Sunday, February 19, 2006

George Will's fantasies about Ken Blackwell

George Will writes that Ken Blackwell will win the Republican primary for Ohio governor in May. According to Will, this politician's primary asset in the race is that he's black:
He appeals to blacks by being black and because many blacks are cultural conservatives: George W. Bush won 16 percent of Ohio's black vote in 2004. In Blackwell's three statewide races, he has received between 30 and 40 percent of the black vote. If in November he duplicates that, he will win, and Democrats in many blue states will blanch because if their share of the black vote falls to 75 percent, their states could turn red.
Well, Ken Blackwell is indeed black, but after that, the paragraph skids off into the thin ice of wishful thinking and naïveté about race. Steve Gilliard, in particular, strongly believes that this line of argument is ridiculous because conservative whites will not vote for a black man. That's completely plausible to me, but I cannot say more without research. Steve also makes the excellent point that Blackwell has done well only in low-profile races, where his race may indeed have helped him. In a maximum profile race for governor, his intensely conservative beliefs will be widely covered, and will repel more voters of all races, more than they will attract. As several people have noted, he is more conservative than most Republicans.

When I look at the polling data for Ohio, I see primarily fulminating hatred for Bush from the black population, with an approval rating that ping-pongs between 10 and 15% among blacks. Bush has no coattails for Blackwell to hang on to. Further, as Will points out, the existing Republican machine in Ohio has completely screwed things up:

In 1998 party elders pressured Blackwell into stepping aside to clear the path to the governorship for Bob Taft ... . Today, Taft's job approval rating has plunged to 18 percent among Republican voters. The rest of the electorate is more hostile. Republicans hold 12 of 18 U.S. House seats and both Senate seats. Unfortunately for Ohio Republicans, they also control both elected branches of the state government, and their record of scandals and un-Republican governance — substantial tax and spending increases — have Blackwell ... running against his party's record.

So Blackwell has several big strikes against him.
  • Black candidate who requires conservative whites to vote for him.
  • GOP candidate in a state with a mind-boggling history of scandals and corruption.
  • GOP candidate in a country where the Republican president is universally unpopular, and frequently mentioned as a likely candidate for impeachment.
In other words, one way of looking at Blackwell is that he is the sacrificial lamb, much like those poor deluded 20-year-old conservatives that the Republican party would occasionally run against super-liberal congressmen like Ted Weiss or Jerrold Nadler on Manhattan's notoriously liberal West Side. I never knew if those kids were trying to pad their resume for law school, but they didn't have a snowball's chance in hell.

However, that is not what is going on here. The GOP is following a branding stategy with this flurry of black Republican candidates. Ken Blackwell, Michael Steele, and Lynn Swann are all being encouraged to run for office not to win, but instead, to shift people's thinking about the Republican party: "We're not racist! See, we have several black candidates." One reason why car manufacturers run so many advertisements is to comfort people who have already purchased their cars, not just to get new customers. Running black candidates is a way of changing the branding of the Republican party, which has become associated with virulently anti-Black attitudes. If the re-branding does not work, no loss: the Republicans weren't going to win those races anyway. If it does work, it will let people everywhere feel more comfortable about their votes going to people who were obviously indifferent to the death of thousands in New Orleans or Darfur. After all, even racists don't like to think of themselves as racist.

Update: Carpetbagger reports on Blackwell's new alliance with anti-Catholic, anti-Muslim lunatic Jerome Corsi. It's interesting that a few conservative folks commenting on this page believe that it's inconceivable that conservatives are racist. Please understand that if you think black voters will vote for Blackwell because he is black, you're making a claim for racial allegiance. It's the hope that every white voter will ignore Blackwell's race while no black voter does. That's just implausible, not even taking into account the vicious race-baiting that the GOP has done in Ohio and elsewhere.

(Flying pigs picture from mariah.stonemarche.org.)

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Anti-semitism and short-circuited thinking

Bernard Lewis is a professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies at Princeton. He is a well-known scholar of the Ottoman empire, and has written several books on Islam, including some that were influential in the neoconservative community. He has occasionally been a controversial figure among Middle Eastern scholars. In particular, Juan Cole wrote a strongly negative review of What Went Wrong: The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East. (Note that the hardback subtitle of the same book is the anodyne "Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response" and the paperback subtitle is the peppier, more barbarians-at-the-gate subtitle, "The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East")

The American Scholar has an essay titled "The New Anti-Semitism" in the February issue — not available online — that seemed interesting. Only a few paragraphs in, I was startled to find the following:
Anti-Semitism is something quite different [from racial prejudice]. It is marked by two special features. One of them is that Jews are judged by a standard different from that applied to others. We see plenty of examples of this at the present time. But there too one has to be careful. There can be different standards of judgement on other issues too, sometimes even involving Jews, without anti-Semitism or without necessarily being motivated by anti-Semitism.

For instance, in mid-September 1975 in Spain, five terrorists convicted of murdering policemen were sentenced to death. European liberal opinion was outraged that in this modern age a West European country should sentence people to death. Unheard of! There was an outcry of indignation, and strong pressures were brought to bear on the Spanish government. But in the Soviet Union and its satellite states during the same period, greater numbers were being sentenced to death and executed; and, in Africa, Idi Amin was slaughtering hundreds of thousands, a large part of the population of Uganda. Hardly a murmur of protest in the Western world.

The lesson is very clear. Right-wing governments (General Francisco Franco was still in charge) are not allowed to sentence offenders to death; left-wing governments are. A further implication: slaughter of or by white people is bad; slaughter of or by people of color is normal. Similar discrepancies may be found in responses to a number of other issues, as for example, the treatment of women and of ethnic or other minorities.
This is flabby thought and flabby writing. I include the complete first and third paragraphs here only so that this essay can generally be seen for its inchoate beliefs and meaningless padding, and not just for the outrageous, false assertions.

His conclusions are monstrous: they are vague charges based on no evidence that try to associate the "left-wing" label with two of the most sickening political regimes in our planet's history. They are also incoherent. What is the meaning of protests over executions in Spain 30 years ago? What lesson should we draw from Idi Amin's rampage through Uganda, particularly since he was deposed in 1979? Even if we were stuck in the 1970s, as this superannuated historian apparently is, what definition of "left-wing" and "right-wing" governments should we use that could support these conclusions?

Idi Amin was a politician/murderer who was motivated by the visions he received. He was not the leader of a "left-wing government." There may be people who believe that slaughter of or by people of color is normal. Yet, it is equally true that Amin's action received world-wide condemnation, and no one who didn't have a white hood in their closet believed that this homicidal maniac was excused on the basis of his color or his victim's colors.

By sloppy writing, we are also met with the assertion that the Soviet Union received "hardly a murmur of protest" for the executions it performed, and it was excused somehow because USSR was a "left-wing government." This assertion is so profoundly untrue as to border on the psychotic. The cold war versus the Soviet Union engulfed the entire world. The nearly five decades it took, the trillions of dollar it spent, the lives it lost in regional and proxy conflicts around the globe, all of that may be considered as more than a murmur of protest. There were literally innumerable ways in which the Soviet Union was more than condemned for its actions, it was openly attacked and its demise feverishly plotted.

The next paragraph begins:
These examples show that even a wide disparity of standards of judgement is not necessarily in itself evidence of anti-Semitism. ...
No. No, they don't. Those examples show nothing of any relevance whatsoever to anti-Semitism. It is true that Idi Amin was allied closely with the PLO — but that is not referred to above. It is true that anti-Semitism has been an essential part of European and Christian history, and it was occasionally virulent in the Soviet Union — but that is not referred to anywhere in this essay.

This essay is crap, unworthy of an undergraduate. I know little of Bernard Lewis that is not directly referenced in this essay. Based on what I have read so far, however, I think he is ready to be put out to pasture.

(Photo courtesy of hungaro.us, run by my friend Tibor)

Richard Cohen, blithering idiot

Richard Cohen is the columnist who made waves this past October when he instructed Patrick Fitzgerald to "move on", smugly certain that the concerted attack on Ambassador Wilson was just politics, and there was no crime that sophisticated people need be bothered by. I am not the only person who thought this was one of the dumbest things ever written about the Valery Plame scandal.

Recently, while looking for reviews of Syriana, I was surprised to find that Cohen wrote openly that he simply didn't understand the plot, and further, that he saw that as a defect of the movie, not of his own obvious inabilities. The two people who read this blog regularly may have thought it unjustified that I denounced Cohen as a noted imbecile.

Yet, I was right. Yesterday, he decided to tell a high-school girl that algebra was completely useless, since he personally had never found a use for it. Naturally, this made real scientists apoplectic.

The entire column is idiotic, but I'll just highlight this part.
I confess to be one of those people who hate math. ... I let others go on to intermediate algebra and trigonometry while I busied myself learning how to type. In due course, this came to be the way I made my living. Typing: Best class I ever took.
Later, when the shitstorm of letters arrives at the Washington Post from outraged scientist, mathematicians, and engineers, that is the specific paragraph he'll point to when he says that he was only joking. Maybe he is; in the next paragraph, he conventionally praises more education in the liberal arts.

It hardly matters. His favorite high-school class was freaking Typing. Truman Capote criticized Kerouac's On The Road by saying "That's not writing, that's typing!" What Richard Cohen writes is not thinking, it is just typing. It enrages me that he is supposed to speak for the liberal side at the Washington Post. He is not my ally, whatever his political beliefs. He is thoughtless, uninformed, and unapologetically stupid.

Cohen is one of the incompetent people who are completely unaware that they are, in fact, incompetent. There was a terrific analysis of this pattern in a 1999 paper by Justin Kruger and David Dunning at Cornell, "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments" (PDF file, 14 pages).

I am frankly jealous of people like Cohen. They must surely be happier than someone like me. I am quite competent in many areas, yet I am also acutely aware of my many failings. Life must be one long bed of clover when you are blithely certain that you are a gifted writer and thinker, when in fact, you're just an idiot.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Exploding fireballs in the sky

Run for your lives

While trying to find something that was actually work related, I found this incredibly neat simulator of Near Earth Objects, which is a soothing way of describing orbiting stones that could smash into the earth and destroy life as we know it. It appears that we're still in luck for the next 30 years or so.

The simulator requires that java applets be enabled. It works in Firefox 1.5 and IE 6. The simulation can simply be played, watching the future bomblets zoom around the solar system along with our semi-cherished home, Earth, until they nearly run into each other. You can also change the point of view using the sliders on the right and bottom of the graph, and zoom in and out. It's very nicely done.

(Photos of Comet Hyakutake by John Chumack at GalacticImages.com. There is a terrific gallery of astronomy photos there, all of which are for sale. No affiliation.)

Cheney shot a liberal

Here is Molly Ivin's latest and greatest: Cheney Shoots a Texas Liberal. It's typically excellent. it turns out that Huffington actually was a liberal, by Texas standards.

Here's the part that really got to me.
Texas still keeps the nonviolent, the retarded, senior citizens, etc. locked up for ridiculous periods—all at taxpayer expense. If we could ever get to where we spend as much per pupil on education as we do per prisoner, this state would take off like a rocket. In 2003, we spend nearly $15,000 per prisoner, while average per-pupil spending was just over $8,000.
Why in the world doesn't this bother their voters? What is wrong with Texas?

In comparison, California spends six times as much on education as it does on correctional services (Per RAND report in 2004 (nb: 250 page PDF file).

Note that California's education spending still sucks: it is substantially below the average for all states, the next four larger states, almost any way you want to slice. It's almost nice of Texas to serve as something that we can be better at, what a booby prize. This is like having a more robust economy than Albania, or being a nicer guy than Dick Cheney.

The RAND study analyzes the education issue in exhaustive detail. It also states clearly that the low educational spending in California started with Prop 13 back in 1978, and Prop 98 in 1988. This information should be tattooed on every California's voter's chest; yet it continues to elude too many. California needs to raise its housing taxes. I don't know when "too late" is for an entire educational system, but I'd rather not find out. And I really, really don't want to be a liberal in Texas.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Don't be evil in China

Google VP Elliot Schrage testified before Congress today about their decision to open google.cn and to censor results according to the Chinese government's wishes.
Some governments impose restrictions that make our mission difficult to achieve, and this is what we have encountered in China. In such a situation, we have to add to the balance a third fundamental commitment:

(c) Be responsive to local conditions.

So with that framework in mind, we decided to try a different path, a path rooted in the very pragmatic calculation that we could provide more access to more information to more Chinese citizens more reliably by offering a new service – Google.cn – that, though subject to Chinese self-censorship requirements, would have some significant advantages. Above all, it would be faster and more reliable, and would provide more and better search results for all but a handful of politically sensitive subjects. We also developed several elements that distinguish our service in China, including:
  • Disclosure to users -- We will give notification to Chinese users whenever search results have been removed.
  • Protection of user privacy -- We will not maintain on Chinese soil any services, like email, that involve personal or confidential data. This means that we will not, for example, host Gmail or Blogger, our email and blogging tools, in China.
  • Continued availability of Google.com -- We will not terminate the availability of our unfiltered Chinese-language Google.com service.
Many, if not most, of you here know that one of Google's corporate mantras is "Don't be evil." Some of our critics – and even a few of our friends – think that phrase arrogant, or naïve or both. It's not. It's an admonition that reminds us to consider the moral and ethical implications of every single business decision we make.
(emphasis in original)
I'm glad this is not a decision I'm making. China has been an extraordinarily repressive and cruel government, and any interaction with the official government could reasonably be seen as collaboration with evil — very effective collaboration with evil. I wouldn't be surprised if some employees have quit over this issues. However, my suspicion is that Google is fully aware of what the Chinese government would like to accomplish, yet they know what kind of an untrammelled firehose they are dealing with in the internet. Accordingly, I suspect that Google believes that Chinese leaders will ultimately never achieve their goals.

When the Soviet Union was in power, I marveled at the stories of repression. Typewriters were registered, and typing samples were always carefully taken. Xerox machines were registered and padlocked. Yet, it was out of this desert that samizdat publications like The Gulag Archipelago were born, writing that was genuinely revolutionary at the time. On the internet, at least up to the subpoena time, you can have true anonymity — no one knows that I am a dog, for instance. (Shhh).

I hope the internet enables the equivalent flowering of free expression to happen in China, and they can take their real great leap forward.

Kiss me, you conservative bastard

Remember the split between economic, small-government, "leave me alone!" conservatives and the social, prudish, "stop having sex right now!" conservatives? That divide is not going away. If you're a minor in Kansas, the government wants your doctor to tell them who you've been kissing.
[T]he attorney general in Kansas, Phill Kline, has given a new interpretation to that state's law, requiring providers to start reporting a wide range of sexual activity, not just intercourse, even when it's consensual between young people of the same age

Presumably, a good many of the people behind this law in Kansas would be appalled to see themselves classified with Muslim fundamentalists, but there is no appreciable difference. If there is a God — a mighty, omnipotent being who personally created the galaxies and the quark — then he, she, or it does not care who I kiss.

(Puritan photo courtesy of the GMU history department.)

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