Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Intelligence analysis

Jennifer Sharp posted a link to this WSJ article on her Facebook page, an article which includes this deliciously preposterous map of what the United States will be in just two years:

According to the article, a former KGB analyst is going around predicting that "an economic and moral collapse will trigger a civil war and the eventual breakup of the U.S," as soon as 2010. Now, I estimate a probability of .983754 that this guy is just a huckster who doesn't particularly believe a word he's saying, and anyway, we survived Margaret Sanger and the 19th Amendment, followed by the Great Depression, with no discernible threat to our geographic integrity. But just for fun, let's play along for a minute.

First, it's helpful to remember that intelligence analysts don't necessarily do a great job of predicting the future. If you're almost as old as I am, you might remember that the opening of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later came as a complete surprise
to our intelligence community and our foreign policy leaders. Some of these, like former ambassador to the UN Jeane Kirkpatrick, had made careers by arguing that nasty totalitarians who would do business with the US were fundamentally different from nasty totalitarians who called themselves "communist" and wouldn't work with us; the latter were said to be uniquely incapable of reform from within. Then came Gorbachev and Lech Walesa and the impossible happened.

Second, our KGB man's target audience is very familiar with large states splintering into many independent states, especially along ethnic lines, but probably not terribly well versed in US demographics. The truth is, our ethnic boundaries just don't conform to any geographic boundaries, not even if the former Mexican territories. We have nothing in our country that is at all comparable to, say, Quebec, let alone Kosovo or South Ossetia.*

Which brings us back to this imaginative map. Who that knows anything about the US could imagine these divisions? South Carolina goes to the European Union, no doubt due to their slavish imitation of everything that Massachusetts does first. Canada takes over Kansas and Missouri? Wouldn't the gun owners of the Upper Peninsula bleed them white before they ever got that far south? The Mexicans get nothing from California or Arizona, but they take Alabama and Mississippi? Poor bastards, but it would make some sort of sense: gathering all the third world countries under one roof.**

Interestingly, California stays in one piece. If anyplace in our country split into two parts, I would expect a break somewhere between Monterey and Santa Barbara. Our KGB guy probably thinks he can lump LA and San Francisco together as just "Californians."

My favorite part:

"It would be reasonable for Russia to lay claim to Alaska; it was part of the Russian Empire for a long time." A framed satellite image of the Bering Strait that separates Alaska from Russia like a thread hangs from his office wall. "It's not there for no reason," he says with a sly grin.
Hey, jackass, we paid fair market value for Alaska back in 1867. You can have the governor at a discount, but the rest of it is going to cost you.

* Although, from what I hear, there have been attempts to persuade all the most fundamentalist Christians to move to a single state (I think Idaho gets mentioned) so that they can take it over and create their own little theocracy. I don't think they've had enough takers, though.

** Although if they gain control of Texas, look for some serious payback.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Dick Cheney is the law!

Cheney claims power to decide his public records

"The vice president alone may determine what constitutes vice presidential records or personal records, how his records will be created, maintained, managed and disposed, and are all actions that are committed to his discretion by law," according to a court filing by Cheney's office with the U.S. District Court on Dec. 8.

I'm supposed to believe that a law enacted after President Nixon's infamous partial-erasing of his secret tapes was purposely written to allow a public official complete control over the disposition of his records? That wouldn't have required a law; that was the status quo ante. Cheney's argument is patently false, but when was that ever counted as a defect in this Administration's legal strategies?


Adendum: Actually, there might be a bit of a case here. Purely "partisan" records are allowed to be exempted and that covers pretty much every act and thought in the White House for the last eight years.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Lincoln Museum stays in Indiana

Indiana retains Lincoln Museum collection

The collection will be split between the Allen County Public Library and the State Museum, with the library in general receiving the collection's books, documents and manuscripts. The state museum will get the three-dimensional artifacts.

The Indiana consortium stressed a need for increased access to the collection. The library's goal is to digitize the document collection and make it available for research.

I'm a bit surprised about all this, since they had to cobble together a consortium on short notice and compete with the Smithsonian and the Lincoln Library at Springfield, IL. I wonder what this all looked like behind the scenes?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The persistance of culture

A reader at Strange Maps comments on this map:

“I looked at this map and thought, hmmm…where have I seen this divide before? Looks very familiar. This isn’t just some urban/rural, professional/worker, white-wine-and-brie/beer-and-sausages thing!”

Mr Hecht did some overlay work, and came up with this remarkable fit: “The divide between the (more free-market) PO and the (more populist) PiS almost exactly follows the old border between Imperial Germany and Imperial Russia, as it ran through Poland! How about that for a long-lasting cultural heritage?!?”

I expect those more familiar with Polish history would not find this surprising, in the same way that I don't find this map surprising at all:

I believe it was William Faulkner who said, "The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past."

You got served ... on Facebook

Australia OKs Facebook for serving lien notice

A court in Australia has approved the use of Facebook, a popular social networking Web site, to notify a couple that they lost their home after defaulting on a loan.

* snip *
The documents were sent last Friday after weeks of failed attempts to contact borrowers Gordon Poyser and Carmel Corbo at their Canberra home and by e-mail.

Interestingly, Facebook is highly pleased with the turn of events:
In a statement, Facebook praised the ruling. "We're pleased to see the Australian court validate Facebook as a reliable, secure and private medium for communication. The ruling is also an interesting indication of the increasing role that Facebook is playing in people's lives," it said.
I might have thought they'd be concerned that they could lose customers who would now have reason to be even more concerned about their ability to remain private. Guess that doesn't apply to Facebook people. The company seems ecstatic at how mainstream they're becoming.

Self-censorship after criticism

While doing some research into open access journals, I found this one at Public Library of Science:

The Chilling Effect: How Do Researchers React to Controversy?

The authors conducted interviews and surveys with researchers whose work had been exposed to controversy, mainly by accusations of wasted money. The findings:

The NIH defended each grant and no funding was rescinded. Nevertheless, this study finds that many of the scientists whose grants were criticized now engage in self-censorship. About half of the sample said that they now remove potentially controversial words from their grant and a quarter reported eliminating entire topics from their research agendas. Four researchers reportedly chose to move into more secure positions entirely, either outside academia or in jobs that guaranteed salaries. About 10% of the group reported that this controversy strengthened their commitment to complete their research and disseminate it widely.

As some others* have noted, all of the examples of "wasteful earmarks" that John McCain and Sarah Palin trotted out during the election campaign were appropriations for basic science or science education. It's bad enough that this encourages voters and lawmakers to think of these fields as wasteful; add to that the possibility that the researchers themselves will begin to shy away from their work and you get a double hit on science.

* At Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Panda's Thumb, or Pharyngula, can't really recall where just now. Doesn't matter - you should be reading them all, anyway.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Sharkey leaves the Shire, still not done

The Bush Administration's Parting Shot for Yellowstone

A last-minute regulation published today by the Bush Administration opens Yellowstone National Park, the country's most famous sanctuary for wildlife and natural quiet, to significantly more harm from snowmobiles than a federal court rejected in September as unlawful. The regulation authorizes double the level of snowmobile use recommended just last month by scientists and park managers in the National Park Service.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Don't go messin' with no librarians

Ann Arbor library director shows thief she's no pushover

On Sunday, Parker pursued a thief after he grabbed a collection box of money donated for a local charity called the Family Book Club. In the process, she broke her leg and the thief got away - but not with any money.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Sharkey leaves the Shire, continued

Years ago, just out of high school, an industrious friend of mine had a job closing houses that had been foreclosed upon. He would go in, clean up the place, and board up the windows so that the abandoned house didn't become any more of an eyesore than necessary. And one day, he invited me along for a particularly big job.

It will come as no surprise that people who lose a house feel no particular obligation to its maintenance. Only the most conscientious would do more than the most cursory cleaning. But these folks ... oh my. I've seen garbage dumps that were neater than this house. Trash everywhere, overflowing garbage all over the house. Used diapers strewn about the yard (which had to be fetched out of knee-deep grass before mowing the lawn). And the crowning touch: the toilet had been left unflushed when the occupants finally departed.

I don't like dealing with that kind of mess. My friend had to find other help after that day.

But that house keeps popping into my mind every time I read about the latest step George Bush has taken to mark his passage. This time it's the national parks beneath his lifted leg:

New rule lifts ban on firearms in national parks

Fortunately, it's not a blanket license for guns. You have to have a concealed-carry permit, and it has to be from the state in which the national park is situated. In Yellowstone, that will mean some small number of the spring and fall visitors (who tend to be local), but almost none of those who visit during the height of summer (half of them from outside the US, the remainder mostly from out of state). And if anyone else does draw a gun, they'd better have an awfully convincing reason for it, 'cause the rangers are federal employees who don't much care about the local culture of firearms and don't much care for anyone who denies that they're in charge.

So there's no need to so hysterical as, say, this guy. Still ... there's not one good thing to say about this change. Even in the demented US, you have to be clinically paranoid if you're afraid to go to a national park without a gun in your pocket.* I lived in one for years - never saw a need. I even worked with a murderer-on-the-lam a few summers ago in Yellowstone, but no need for a gun ever arose. Wild animals? Puleeze. Pretty much everyone I knew at Yellowstone had no particular fear of camping in bear and wolf country, so I'm going to laugh - with the greatest derision - at anyone who tries to claim they need to protect themselves from animals.

Politically, though, it's a clever move. It will be hard to undo, because the gun nuts can bring more hysteria to "Thur tekkin' 'r gnnnzzzz!" than the rest of the public can possibly match. Unless a massacre actually occurs - and I don't really expect it - there'll never be enough political will to revoke this rule. It gives the Right a potential rally point, with little risk of a sizable backlash. Kudos.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Islands of the orcs

Strange Maps has a good one here: the Atlas of True Names, where now-ancient placenames are rendered with their modern translations. So the Orkney Islands, for example, can once again be known as the Isles of the Sea Monsters. Which is still not as good as Eyebrow Head, but it's always hard to compete with the Irish.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

More Nixon tapes

The Washington Post emphasizes: Nixon Tapes Reveal Vietnam Strategy, while the LA Times focuses on Nixon archives shed light on his campaign to investigate enemies.

The new tapes contain conversations on the Christmas bombings of North Vietnam in 1972, while some of the memos touch on Nixon's campaign against anyone he saw as an enemy (which, famously, was just about anyone and everyone).

"The press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy. The professors are the enemy," Nixon told Kissinger in a recorded Oval Office conversation on Dec. 14, 1972.

One document in particular may reveal the beginnings of Nixon's so-called "enemies list." In a handwritten note on June 23, 1971, Nixon's top aide, H.R. Haldeman, documents Nixon's order to pressure former Secretary of Defense Clark Clifford using the IRS. Clifford was a vocal critic of Nixon's Vietnam policy.

Haldeman also references action to be taken against another Nixon enemy, "TK," whom many believe to be Senator Ted Kennedy.

"Get him -- compromising situation . . . Get evidence -- use another Dem as front," Haldeman writes of "TK."

... and ...

In a memo to Nixon on Jan. 16, 1970, presidential staffer Alexander Butterfield reported on the progress of Nixon's order to remove all pictures of past presidents from White House walls. Butterfield noted that of 35 offices occupied by White House support staff, six had displayed one or more former presidents.

Nixon, the memo reveals, had expressed special concern about an office in which he saw two pictures of John F. Kennedy. Butterfield discovered the office belonged to Edna Rosenberg, a low-level civil servant who had been on the White House staff for 41 years, longer than any other staffer. Butterfield said he "checked her file very carefully" and found the CIA, FBI and Secret Service all considered her a loyal American.

One of the Kennedy portraits, it turned out, bore a personal inscription. Still, she was made to take it down.

Embarrassing stuff, which makes it no wonder that some people have decided it's best to leave no paper trail at all.* There's the dilemma for historians and archivists: politicians were more comfortable keeping diaries and saving notes when they thought they would be able to write their history themselves, or control who had access to their files. But if you're never going to have the chance to edit your own records, it's very tempting to leave as impoverished a record as possible, just as a matter of self-preservation. For the sake of reliable history (eventually), it's a good idea to allow some things to remain sealed until the contemporary generation has left the stage.

* We could also say, If you don't want to be embarrassed, stop doing things you don't want people to know about. But let's be real.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Saving lives by visiting the archives

From the Archives listserv:

The Wall street Journal reports:
Looking for Bombs Buried in Germany? Start Your Search in Alabama

Expert Finds World War II U.S. Ordnance Using Air Force Photos

The trick is to read the shape of the crater. A big one that looks like a doughnut means the bomb detonated as planned. But a pinpoint blemish on a 65-year-old photo taken from thousands of feet in the air may well mark the spot where hundreds of pounds of TNT hit with a thud and became buried in the earth.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Restoring Cinnabar

Yellowstone Park land to be restored to native vegetation

The town of Cinnabar, Montana, was long ago erased from the map. Now the Park Service is trying to erase it from the landscape as well.

Ralph Maughan's Wildlife News posts this photo of an exclosure in this area:

Sharkey leaves the Shire, continued

EPA, with White House nudge, eases rule on lead emissions

Looking to bolster the fight against childhood lead poisoning, the Environmental Protection Agency last month approved a tough new rule aimed at clearing the nation's air of the toxic metal.

But at the last minute, federal documents show, the Bush administration quietly weakened a key provision, exempting dozens of polluters from scrutiny.
To help meet the new limit, the EPA had planned to require lead monitors next to any factory emitting at least half a ton of lead a year. But after the White House intervened, the agency raised the threshold to a ton of lead or more....
As a result, dozens of factories won't be checked regularly.

Monkey-pod tree

I found this image in Google Images Life Magazine archive and liked it.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Marriage, gay or otherwise

Stumbled upon at Religion Dispatches:

Yesterday I called a woman’s spouse her boyfriend.

She says, correcting me, “He’s my husband,”
“Oh,” I say, “I no longer recognize marriage.”

The impact is obvious. I tried it on a man who has been in a relationship for years,

“How’s your longtime companion, Jill?”
“She’s my wife!”
“Yeah, well, my beliefs don’t recognize marriage.”

Fun. And instant, eyebrow-raising recognition. Suddenly the majority gets to feel what the minority feels. In a moment they feel what it’s like to have their relationship downgraded.

I'm always amazed at the power of a little role-reversal to clarify an issue.

Friday, November 21, 2008

LIFE photos on Google

Here's something I learned about only yesterday: Google is scanning and publishing the LIFE magazine photo archives. The utterly cool thing here is that it not only will include their famous published photos, but the vast quantity of images that remained unpublished. Steve Johnson at the Chicago Tribune asks why LIFE is making these pictures available for free. The answer, of course, is that no one was making any money from them anyway. Now people will know they exist and perhaps become interested in previously-unknown photos. The modest resolution - about the size of a computer monitor - is fine for most uses, especially in educational presentations and the like. But no doubt there will some interest in high-quality prints and so now LIFE can turn a few extra pennies that way.

At the moment, some of the selection is limited. There's nothing under "1920's" that doesn't involve Charles Lindbergh, for example. But it's going to be fun to watch this project grow. If LIFE's published photos are a national treasure, how awesome will it be to see the rest of the stuff that they didn't have space for?

In the meantime, here's a photo of Mark Twain, six years before his death in 1910:

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Sharkey leaves the Shire

'I did not,' said Frodo. 'But I might have guessed. A little mischief in a mean way: Gandalf warned me that you were still capable of it.'

'Quite capable,' said Saruman, 'and more than a little. . . . It would have been a sharper lesson, if only you had given me a little more time and more Men. Still I have already done much that you will find it hard to mend or undo in your lives.'

That story keeps coming to mind as I watch the outgoing Administration create last-minute environmental rules that exclude science and put all power in the hands of ideological hacks and try to ensure that those hacks can't be removed by the incoming Administration.

Presidents can't use BlackBerrys

Lose the BlackBerry? Yes He Can, Maybe

But before he arrives at the White House, [Obama] will probably be forced to sign off. In addition to concerns about e-mail security, he faces the Presidential Records Act, which puts his correspondence in the official record and ultimately up for public review, and the threat of subpoenas. A decision has not been made on whether he could become the first e-mailing president, but aides said that seemed doubtful.

For all the perquisites and power afforded the president, the chief executive of the United States is essentially deprived by law and by culture of some of the very tools that other chief executives depend on to survive and to thrive.

Meanwhile, electronic records and the PRA are still not reconciled for the outgoing Administration.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Stumbled upon

That's quite the grin there, if you look at it right. More photos of "faces" here, and remember this the next time someone tries to make you believe in faces on Mars or Jesus in the peanut butter or stuff like that. Human brains have evolved to be hypersensitive to the sight of faces, to the point that we think we're seeing them in almost anything that's arranged like an inverted triangle.

Stumbled upon

Some gorgeous photography of snow crystals here. Photos by one Kenneth G. Libbrecht. Oh, winter is almost here and we even had a few snow flurries this weekend. Nothing on the ground yet, though.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Stumbled upon

Book review

If you want to pick a fight with a medievalist, you can always start by dropping the phrase "Dark Ages." So along comes the classicist Charles Freeman, whose The Closing of the Western Mind argues that the Christian era really did represent a sort of dark age, as faith-based theology put an end to the Greek tradition of rational thought.

Freeman argues that, while it is true that the high point of Greek rational thought had passed by the time Christianity arrived on the scene, it was not entirely dead yet. Although they based their theories on erroneous conceptions of the world, the astronomer Ptolemy and the physician Galen were still trying to apply reason to the observation of the natural world. In the Western world, however, both Ptolemy and Galen came too be regarded as unchallengeable authorities and there was no improvement upon their work for over a thousand years. Seriously - a thousand years of no progress in either astronomy or medicine. What went wrong?

In Freeman's telling, an unfortunate combination of events. First, Christianity fell under the influence of the Apostle Paul, who explicitly rejected rational thought and Greek philosophy (although he mimics their style - Paul sounds more like a Greek than he does an Ezekiel of a Jeremiah); it may also be no coincidence that Paul's writing is obsessed with justifying his dubious claims to authority. Paul was at odds with everyone, and so were the other early Christians, who made themselves obnoxious to Jews and Romans alike by refusing to do their civic duty to any other gods.

As Christianity spread, this contrarian spirit became more difficult to deal with. Persecutions ensued, without ultimate success. The emperor Constantine, trying to bring a little peace and quiet to the messy empire, decreed an end to religious persecution and legalized Christianity, along with all other religions/cults.* It was only then that Constantine discovered how bitterly divided Christians were over obscure points of doctrine. If the difference between Heaven and Hell weren't enough incentive to get it right, now there were large sums of imperial money to be had for the winners in these disputes. The Council at Nicaea in A.D. 325 didn't bring unity, but it did establish a tradition of secular authorities bringing ecumenical councils together and then choosing who would be the orthodoxy.

Doctrinal disputes continued, however, and they were fundamentally unresolvable by any kind of rational thought. The essential problem was that the theologians were arguing over things for which there was no particular evidence. Freeman points to the Trinity, for which there is no direct Scriptural support; the concept has to be teased out of writings by authors who aren't very clear on the subject - because they didn't know anyone would ever be discussing it. John's Gospel insists that Jesus was God, but the Synoptic Gospels say no such thing and seem to provide a lot of hints to the contrary. While the Greeks had recognized that the nature of the gods was unknowable, the Christians were obsessed with establishing unknowable things with certainty.**

Eventually, argumentation had to be suppressed altogether. Thus the rise of faith, which in practice meant uncritically accepting the authority of the Church.*** Although he doesn't say it as explicitly as this, this is what Freeman means by the word faith: it's really all about authority. In the ancient Greek world of squabbling city-states, thinkers could freely challenge those who had come before. No such thing occurred in the ancient Babylonian or Egyptian empires and the Roman emperors were equally comfortable with using their authority to define the truth. The centralized Church that inherited the Western empire stepped into the role as naturally as if they'd been born to it.

* Constantine did not actually make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. He put an end to official persecutions and built impressive churches in the time-honored manner of imperial patronage. Generally, the Romans would let you believe anything you wanted, so long as you didn't piss off the other gods by refusing to make the expected sacrifices; if you didn't, it made you a threat to public order and they dealt harshly with that.

** It's not coincidental that Christian theologians followed Plato and suppressed Aristotle. Plato's theory of Forms asserted a transcendent reality, which fit neatly with the Christian view of God, but likewise assumed that studying the physical world was no way to study reality. In The Republic, Plato says, "We shall approach astronomy, as we do geometry, by way of problems, and ignore what is in the sky if we want to get a real grasp of astronomy."

*** That is, when there was no longer an emperor to decree these things. By that time, the Church had long been thoroughly intertwined with the political power structure and the aristocracy was deeply embedded in the Church hierarchy.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Stumbled upon

(This one is much more effective at full size)

Stumbled upon

Stumbled upon

Ten Most Difficult Words to Translate

I do a lot tartling.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Reading Klingon - that's hard

And so is finding the machinery to read data tapes from the 1960s: Obsolete 1960s tape drive could help crack lunar mysteries

(Via The Canadian Archivist Blog)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Will the truth come out?

Bush Spy Revelations Anticipated When Obama Is Sworn In

New Yorker investigative reporter Seymour Hersh already has a slew of sources waiting to spill the Bush administration's darkest secrets, he said in an interview last month. "You cannot believe how many people have told me to call them on January 20. [They say,] 'You wanna know about abuses and violations? Call me then.'"

So far, virtually everything we know about the NSA's warrantless surveillance has come from whistle-blowers.

One encouraging sign for civil liberties groups is that John Podesta, president of the Center for American Progress, is a key figure in Obama's transition team, which will staff and set priorities for the new administration. The center was a tough and influential critic of the Bush administration's warrantless spying.
It got little play during the campaign, but it's been a huge issue for me. Let's hope Obama comes through and restores some desperately needed glasnost to America. I expect he'll at least refrain from acting against whistleblowers, but I'll feel better if he takes positive steps toward dismantling those programs that are secret and illegal.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

More Obama politics and archives

A librarian from Princeton University posts this on the archivists' listserv:

Since there has been discussion of this matter, I want to be perfectly clear that Princeton University Archivist, Dan Linke, and I argued strenuously to a number of senior university administrators that closing the Michelle Obama thesis would be a mistake and contrary to archival ethics and Princeton policy, both because it had been open, used and copied prior to the closure, because a resolution of the university faculty in the 1970s said that all materials in the university library open to one researcher must be open to all, and that in fact this would not be in the best interest of the Obama campaign. Nonetheless, the thesis was briefly closed at the request of the Obama campaign. Apparently it didn't take long for the Obama campaign to realize that fact because it soon reversed course and released the thesis to a member of the press who posted it to the Internet, but not bothering to inform the University which in my view was left looking foolish for having closed it however briefly. These of course represent my person view and not those of Princeton University.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

That was then, this is now

Via Millard Fillmore's Bathtub:

Look at this photo. It’s a shot of the crowd gathered in St. Louis on October 19 to see and hear Barack Obama — about 100,000 people. Study the buildings in the photo.

Elizabeth Kaeton wrote at Telling Secrets:
If you look in the distance there, you can see a building with a greenish-copper dome. That’s the Old St. Louis Courthouse. For years and years, slaves were auctioned on the steps of that courthouse.

The Old Courthouse used to be called the St. Louis State and Federal Courthouse.

Back in 1850, two escaped slaves named Dred and Harriett Scott had their petition for freedom overturned in a case there. Montgomery Blair took the case to the US Supreme Court on Scott’s behalf and had Chief Justice Roger Taney throw it out because, as he wrote, the Scotts were ‘beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.’

Hard to imagine, isn’t it?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Election map

I stumbled across this display of thematic mapping more or less by accident, but it's a nice discussion of how straightforward information doesn't necessarily lead to the clearest understanding.

From Mark Newman, Professor, Department of Physics and Center for the Study of Complex Systems at UM.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Snowmobiles in YNP

The latest plan: 318 'biles per day.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Defending faith ...

... by attacking art. Italian museum boss, Corinne Diserens, sacked after leaping to defend a crucified frog.

Pope Benedict XVl took offence while on summer holiday in the mountains near Bolzano, describing the work as blasphemous. The Vatican sent a letter in the Pope’s name to Franz Pahl, the president of the Trentino-Alto Adige regional council (who also opposed the sculpture), saying that it “wounds the religious sentiments of so many people who see in the Cross the symbol of God’s love”.

Tough. We nonbelievers have our sentiments wounded every day and we deal with it.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween!

A coworker passes this along:

Ghosts in the Library!

Oh to be ... irony-free

Pharyngula points us toward this image:

Jesus People Pray That False Idol Will Save God’s Economy

If you can't afford a golden calf these days, the bronze bull on Wall Street will have to do.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

My take on Obama's infomercial

I'm no great chess player, but one of the lessons I've been taught is that when you have a winning position, you take the time to "eliminate counterplay." Since things are going your way, your opponent would like to launch a counterattack, make some threats that distract you from your own plans, hope you make a mistake - anything to cause chaos, 'cause things are going your way; unless he changes something, he's gonna lose. The good player isn't in a hurry; he pauses to make sure there'll be no effective counterattacking and then proceeds to crush the helpless foe.

Obama's infomercial was an unspectacular, yet brilliant move that I'm betting has eliminated McCain's counterplay. A half hour of calmness, reassurance, gravitas - dare I say it? Class - is going to stonewall McCain's attempts to make people nervous about Obama. He can only look petty, mean, and small in comparison if he continues his attacks. And yet he has no other play - Obama has the better position and if McCain doesn't attack, he simply loses in the obvious way. So McCain has two ways to lose, but if I read this right - that those wavering people who just might have gone over to McCain at the last minute are now, in fact, safely in Obama's camp - then he has no way to win. A chess master at work.

Salmon survival

Dams Not Main Cause of Salmon Collapse, Study Says

This would be rather a surprise, if confirmed.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Bad map. Bad bad map.

I came across this map of African-American population that unintentionally illustrates some bad practices:

First off, the map uses confusing symbols. The colors are supposed to illustrate the percentage of Black population by county. You aren't told that the breakdown is by county - you just figure that out after looking at the less-populated areas of the country. Which brings up point number two: using large dots which actually obscure much of the map, and obscure each other. I can get an overall impression of Black distribution across the country, but I can't examine any of the Southern states to get a more precise look at the demographics - the symbols obscure more than they reveal. The large dots are meaningless in this context, which is error number three. They may be proportional to actual population - in fact, that seems the most likely explanation - but there's no information about that at all.

Bad practice number four isn't all that awful, but it's still worth mentioning: the categories break at very odd percentage values. I mean, really - 0.09% instead of 0.10%? What's happened is that the categories have been broken down along strict quintiles - the lowest 1/5 of percentages happens to top out at 0.09, so that's the breakpoint. Better practice, though, is to look for either natural break points (if the data tends to cluster very much) or just fudge to rounder numbers so you don't give a false sense of meaning to the category boundaries.

And finally, those colors. Given the association of red/yellow/green with danger/caution/safety in our culture, what can the map creator possibly have been thinking in assigning this color scheme to such a map? Ai yi yi yi yi.

Media and politics

Michael Tomasky writes in the New York Review of Books:

One of the most fascinating things about the current election is that Barack Obama's campaign is less concerned about coverage by blogs and television than any other presidential campaign in the short history of this media age, and that John McCain's operation seems utterly consumed by it. And it's not merely that this is fascinating: each side's attitude toward its media coverage may well determine who wins the election.
The McCain campaign is organized entirely around daily news cycles—the belief that winning the media war will win the election. The two defining decisions of his campaign make this obvious. First, Sarah Palin was selected as his running mate to shake up the conversation on cable television and in the blogs. The selection was announced the Friday after the Democratic convention to deny Obama a prominent place during the next two or three days of news cycles.

Second, McCain's cynical decision to "suspend" his campaign (which he did not in fact do) and return to Washington for the bailout negotiations was solely about his recognition that he was losing attention in the news cycles and he had to do something to staunch the bleeding. Virtually every major move McCain has made has been about trying to win that day's headlines.

Obama has tripped him up, and no doubt confounded him and his handlers, by not playing the game. Even in Obama's post–Labor Day nadir, when he slipped in the polls and liberals everywhere were panicked, Obama didn't resort to stunts or grandstanding hyperbole.

From a culture & media perspective, I'm not sure what to make of this. Perhaps chaotic times make sobriety more appealing. We've had self-described men of action* in office for eight years and some of their decisions can be legitimately second-guessed. I, for one, am finding the criticism of McCain as "erratic" rather convincing. If anything, this other fellow who keeps an even keel and doesn't bow to the news cycle appears to be his own man, more so than the "maverick" who's manically flipping through every page in Karl Rove's playbook.

* I believe "forward leaning" was the expression of choice. Still sounds off-balance to me.

arrested = guilty

There was an armed robbery on one the EMU campus last week and today we all received the following email from the campus police:

The Eastern Michigan University Police Department is pleased to announce that we have arrested the suspect who was involved in the robbery of a student that occurred last Thursday evening outside of Putnam Hall.

Because, you know, all suspects are perpetrators. I can't at all understand why we waste all this money on courtrooms and trials.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Silly lawsuits

Judge to rule on political T-shirts at Michigan polls

"Help! Help! I'm being repressed!" I have to take off my campaign buttons while I vote and can't put them back on again until I'm halfway down the block!

Update: Judge: Political T-shirts banned at Michigan polls

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Declaration of Independence, as the Truths Became Self-Evident

Among its treasures is a draft written by Thomas Jefferson, but what make the document even more interesting are the edits by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin that are written on it.

Interested? You'd better hurry. The document is so priceless that it must be taken off exhibit Wednesday in order to preserve it. It could be years before it is displayed again.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Those wild and crazy MBA's

Wildcats gone wild

Of course, it would be pure snark to compare this party with Wall Street under Republican government, so I'm not going to d-- oops, too late.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Spotless mouse minds

Now this is just freaky:

Memories Selectively, Safely Erased In Mice


Sticky tape generates X-rays

Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, have shown that simply peeling ordinary sticky tape in a vacuum can generate enough X-rays to take an image — of one of the scientists' own fingers (see videos).

"At some point we were a little bit scared," says Juan Escobar, a member of the research team. But he and his co-workers soon realized that the X-rays were only emitted when the kit was used in a vacuum. "We don't want to scare people from using Scotch tape in everyday life," Escobar adds.

Archivist Beth Heller disagrees with that last point:
Yes, actually. We do. We want to scare people from using Scotch tape on archival documents and works of art. Let’s not forget to mention radiation in our tape prevention lectures, shall we?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Caution! Do not approach wildlife!

Katie sends me these pics of an Elk at Mammoth Hot Springs. It's rutting season, the elk are excitable, and someone needs a new taillight.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Ancient not-cartography

Cartocacoethes: Why the World’s Oldest Map Isn’t a Map

This may be an excellent example of seeing what you would like to see.

Keeping good books

Via The Devil's Archivist comes this perspective on our economic woes:

Records-level view of the financial crisis (Part 1), and
Records-level view of the financial crisis (Part 2)

In working as an information and document auditor I was in position to witness the convergence of the “buy-now-pay-later” and “quantity-over-quality” mentalities indicative of the mortgage industry boom and bust. I’ve mentioned this before, but you can tell a lot about people’s motivations through the records they create. Though most of the records, files, and groupings were completely legitimate and probably have happy endings awaiting somewhere, one with my job couldn’t help but notice a great deal of the haste, sloppiness, and underhandedness that characterizes the mess in general.

This is where the sub-prime phenomena started to become a problem, simply because if broker’s chose to, they could fudge the documentation process for the scads of people willing to walk into situations they couldn’t afford. No amount of oversight was able to detect the subtle ways that companies met recordkeeping requirements without really thinking of larger consequences beyond the law. And at all levels - from broker to funder, to wholesaler, to other wholesaler, to final buyer - there was this notion that you could pass the buck and that someone else would be responsible for collecting the final bill.

Having worked in accounting (sort of), I know that people hate all those pesky rules and record-keeping requirements that slow things down. And I also know that when you make it easy to do things, a lot of things get done that ought not to have. It's really hard to work out a scheme where only the good activities are facilitated.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Wolves v. dogs

Wolves outperform dogs in following human social cues

Not as popular as pirates v. ninjas, but interesting nonetheless. Previous studies had indicated that dogs could interpret a human gesture better than wolves can, raising the possibility that millenia of domestication might have selected for better social cognition in dogs. This would be at odds with prevailing opinion, which suggests that domestication dulls the wits.

The present experiments suggest that the previous results may have been skewed by experimental bias, mainly by favoring dogs who had longer and more intimate experience with humans. The authors found some wolves that were also habituated to humans and discovered they do somewhat better than dogs. Just as suggestive, it turns out that pet dogs do pretty well at figuring out when a person is pointing at something, but dogs raised in animal shelters do not. Experience seems to count for a lot when it comes to understanding people.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Love thy neighbor as thyself

The circus continues on campus this week. This baptism under fire is, I'm suspect, intended to ensure that young Jeremiah-in-training here receives enough abuse to thoroughly alienate him from mainstream culture; the hecklers just provide what his master wants for him. "That campus is strong with the dark side. In you must go." Putting this fellow* into this situation is just warping him like a soggy book at the bottom of a locker. Intentionally.

I'm hearing that this group has been here in past years, but this time they're more offensive than ever.

* Is he the older preacher's son, I wonder? If so, the poor kid never had a chance.


I found that these folks call themselves Soulwinners Ministries International and consist of a crazy preacher, his wife, and their son, plus one other dude traveling around in an RV, and they are the sort of folk who crave hostility as proof of their own righteousness. It'd be kind of nice to place them in a locked room with the Fred Phelps gang and then forget you'd left them there.

The university is planning a sort of healing/cleansing ceremony next week; after a week of displaying more tolerance than most people felt up to, it might be a necessary catharsis. But at least by the end of the week, folks were learning to just walk past the preachers and deny them their drug. Good move.

The Lincoln Financial Foundation collection

Following up an earlier post about the closing of the Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, there are reports now that the consortium led by the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution are out of the running. That's not what I would have expected, so keep that in mind if you should someday hear me make any predictions about the disposal of dead presidents' papers and memorabilia.

It's now down to the Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, on the one hand, and the group who wants to keep the collection in Indiana. A statement from the Allen County Public Library, representing the latter group, can be found here.

I'm not privy to any of the details about the competing bids, but it certainly must be tempting to consolidate Lincoln materials. That would be a boon to serious researchers on small travel budgets, but not necessarily the wisest move from a preservation standpoint. Fire and flood and all that, you know.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Turing Test

Machines Edge Closer To Imitating Human Communication

One of the ACEs, the eventual winner of the 2008 Loebner Prize, got even closer to the 30% Turing Test threshold set by 20th-century British mathematician, Alan Turing in 1950, by fooling 25% of human interrogators.

However, the validity of the Turing Test is being reconsidered, now that computers can randomly generate plausible imitations of Sarah Palin's responses to interview questions.

Earning the Jesus points

So I come in to work this afternoon and notice a crowd outside the library. "Probably kids preaching the Columbus Day anti-gospel," is my guess, but I'm wrong. It's an honest-to-You-Know-Who, fire-and-brimstone threatening, preacher out of the Jonathan Edwards mold. In fact, I'm sure it's the same guy I saw at Hell, Michigan, for their nationally-famous 666 celebration in June of 2006. Apparently, out little university is presumed to keep good company in the vice department.

Apparently, some folks have complained and one good librarian here actually seems to believe that the campus is failing to keep its students safe by allowing someone to rant hatefully, even if there is no violence and little likelihood of any occurring. Free speech, baby, free speech. As for me, I'm just offended that he's lumping me in with all the (wrong) religion folk. Now them's fightin' words ....

This guy is such a Weebel

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Red meat politics

Because genies are notoriously difficult to return to their cozy little bottles:

McCain's attacks fuel dangerous hatred

McCain Booed For Telling Audience To Be Respectful of Obama

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Dissin' the rural folk

The chairman of the Pennsylvania GOP has this to say about city voters v. the rest of the state:

“I just think the voters are a bit more sophisticated maybe in the southeast — they’re not as susceptible to attack ads,” Mr. Gleason said

Seems to me a Democrat would have been fried for saying a thing like that.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Feeding strategies

Biggest Dinosaurs Grew Huge by Not Chewing Their Food

Uh huh. Mom always made me chew my food and what did she get? A 5'7" runt.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Stumbled upon

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Religulous, pt. II

I came across a section of the Detroit Free Press at lunch today and saw this column by Leonard Pitts, Jr.:

In the process, I noted "we all have questions" for Palin. Among them: "Does she really take the parable of Adam and Eve as literal truth?"

Which unleashed a flood of e-mails from people angry that I had demoted the Christian creation story to the status of parable and suggested by implication that anyone who believes it is, as one reader put it, is a "fool."

Which brings us to those seldom-used words:

You're right. I apologize.

These aren't the loonies; these are normal Americans insisting that homo sapiens originated at one time, with one fully human, talking couple who themselves had no ancestors. I don't meant to imply that anyone who believes this is a fool. I mean to say it outright, in no uncertain terms: anyone who believes in a literal Adam and Eve is a moron. There's no excuse for it. In light of modern knowledge, there is no more excuse for believing this than there is for believing the moon is made of green cheese.* It's not cheese and that's just a fact. Any geologist will tell you there was no global flood and that's just a fact. There couldn't have been an Adam and Eve and that's just a fact. You shouldn't have to apologize to anyone for saying so.

* And thank goodness that isn't claimed in the Bible, or ... well, poor Neil Armstrong.

Monday, October 6, 2008


Okay, so last night I went to see Bill Maher's new movie on religion. My take: mildly thoughtful, mildly funny. I was rather hoping for hilarious, but it didn't often reach that level. A favorite gimmick was the cut-away, in the middle of some schmuck's soliloquy, to some snarky film clip or another. To really work, this has to make a cogent comment on the schmuck's insanity, but the clips were often more interruption than commentary - shorter and snappier than a "Family Guy" diversion, but not much better targeted. Usually, it was funnier just to let the wackier people speak for themselves.

And some of these folks are seriously wacky. Maher preaches the tenets of Scientology to a pitying crowd in a London park, who can't distinguish him from any of the other ranting nutjobs nearby. At least Maher gains no followers there. But we also meet a Latino preacher who claims direct descent from Jesus and himself as the Jesus of the Second Coming. Or a bling-bedecked con man who leaves you wondering if he's in it for the money or for the pussy - it's hard to say. These folks have followers, followers who are not, by any standards other than an atheist's, especially crazy.

And that's the crazy part - ordinary people believing obviously crazy things. Those of us raised as Protestants and Catholics find it easy to laugh at Scientology and Mormonism, or mock the whole 72 virgins business, but c'mon - let's be fair. Talking snakes and globe-covering floods don't make a whole lot more sense, yet a lot of ordinary folks believe this is literal history - at least, that's what they'll tell you, with passion.

So we see Mormon musclemen chase Maher away in Salt Lake City*; he receives a similar reception at the Vatican. We meet an "ex-gay" who, with slight prodding, looks awfully damn gay still and gives Maher a goodbye hug that needs no punchline (although it might have been angling for one). We meet a Muslim woman who stands on the very spot where Theo van Gogh was murdered and insists that violence is no part of Islam.** Maher has received a lot of criticism for taking on the easy religious targets and there's a bit of truth to it, but that criticism also misses the point. And the point is this: it's not that there are a few crazy people out there giving religion a bad name. Religion has this way of taking perfectly ordinary, intelligent people and getting them to believe utterly crazy things. You don't have to be crazy to act insane, if you just have a dose of religion.*** That's what scares the rest of us.

There was one opportunity to look deeper into the subject that, disappointingly, Maher didn't follow up on. In the Vatican, he meets the official astronomer, who easily dismisses Bronze Age science in favor of modern knowledge and then, outside, he encounters an Italian priest who laughs at Biblical listeralism and breezily dismisses most of the Bible as just "stories." The question that needs to be asked then would be, "So, um, then why are you a priest? What does Catholicism mean to you that seems to escape the rest of the world?" I would have liked to hear those answers, but no. Perhaps they weren't going to be funny enough.

* As they go, you hear one of the crew commenting that this made better footage than if they had stayed. There are some scenes of religious folk listening patiently to the infidel, but not all that many. Theater.

** To his credit, Maher comments later that the defenders of Islam seem more disturbed about violence than they're willing to let on to a stranger. This is probably correct. One historian has noted a similar phenomenon with 19th century Mormon women, who fiercely defended polygamy against "gentile" attacks, but seemed pretty happy with monogamy when that finally came along. You dare not concede a point when the enemies are on the attack.

*** Even sports fans have a lot more sanity to them, outside game time. I mean, c'mon.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Self-erasing paper

Xerox to show off self-erasing paper at NEXTFEST

Dick Cheney says, "Doh!" Although Xerox is promoting this on environmental and economic grounds:

XEROX claims approximately 40% of all office printouts are temporary and discarded the same day they are printed.

Friday, October 3, 2008

The financial crisis

There's an error, here, though. The government isn't lending any money - it's giving it away. Specifically, it's going to give away perfectly good money purchasing securities that no one else on earth wants at any price. I still wonder why loans are off the table? Why does all this money have to go to lending institutions in a form that will never require any of it to be paid back? If restoring liquidity is the goal, why can't we make the loans that are required to keep the financial world functioning, allow the weakest lenders start to fail, and allow the others to strengthen their position by purchasing the better paper at fire-sale prices?

Could it be that the people running the show think their primary responsibility is to guarantee investments, rather than guaranteeing the functioning of the economy?

(Thanks to James for the link)

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Know your chimpanzee

Butts, Faces Help Chimps Identify Friends

"Many animals look at parts of the body, the voice, the hands, as separate entities and don't wholly integrate them," said study co-author Frans de Waal of the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Atlanta's Emory University.

"This study shows that they have whole body integration [because], at least if they know the individuals, they can match the faces and the behinds."

I'm a bit curious about that point. So your kitty cat knows your face, and knows your voice, but doesn't really think of them as belonging to a single entity? How would we know that?

The Police State

The Police State - rather popular with the police.

Kate Chopin museum burns

From the SAA listserv:

Some bad news today, the Kate Chopin Home / Bayou Folk Museum in
Cloutierville, Louisiana burned and we lost most of the content.
Archivist Mary Linn Wernet received a call, and we rushed down the highway
to find three walls and lots of embers.

Photos here. It's bad.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

EPA libraries

From Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility:

Of course, the damage is not so easily undone:

This ends a 30-month campaign by the Bush administration to restrict availability of technical materials within EPA but leaves in its wake scattered and incomplete collections.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Stumbled upon

Historical revisionism ...

Why Germany lost the war

PS. Oops, the link is dead now. Well, the joke was a picture of Churchill flashing 'V' and Hitler with his open-palm salute, with the caption "Scissors beats paper." Pretty lame joke when you have to explain it ....

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Wolf population shrinks

Wolf population shrinks

No one's entirely sure why, but some folks are pretending astonishment that the voracious varmints don't reproduce without limit.

Another perspective on "focus"

Dan Payne's take on McCain's announcement that he was suspending his campaign to address the financial crisis: "Multitasking is part of the job."

What I'm paranoid about

[I was originally going to title this post, "Why I'm paranoid," but that may not be the same question.]

Via Millard Fillmore's Bathtub:
Brigade homeland tours start Oct. 1

The 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team has spent 35 of the last 60 months in Iraq patrolling in full battle rattle, helping restore essential services and escorting supply convoys.

Now they’re training for the same mission — with a twist — at home.

... snip ...

The package includes equipment to stand up a hasty road block; spike strips for slowing, stopping or controlling traffic; shields and batons; and, beanbag bullets.

Now put this side by side with this event from Inside Iraq:
Yesterday, a force from the Iraqi army came to my neighborhoods to evacuate the governmental flats where about 600 families live in. One of my neighbors tried to inquire about the evacuation order. He asked the army force "why does the army implement the evacuation orders? This is not the duty of the army". The question developed into an argument and the soldiers lost their mind because they didn't use to listen but they used to beat, fight and kill. They beat my neighbor violently to give a lesson to others to obey and execute only "Execute and then discusses"

I know, I know, I shouldn't be comparing the American army to the Iraqi. But I keep seeing (and I'll continue posting) too many similar events from American police who react with only moderately more restraint if they're asked to explain their actions and commands. "Execute and then discusses." When authorities don't believe they should be bothered with questions, violence isn't far behind.*

And now we're going to have Army brigades especially trained to operate in US cities the way they operated in Baghdad. If I'm supposed to sleep better at night, it isn't working.

* And, yes, there are extreme cases when this has to be done. Army authority is built on the needs of the battlefield, where committees might not live long enough to pass a resolution. But dealing with reporters or escorting a student out of a library just aren't that kind of emergency.

The Elgin Marbles in the news

Italy returns piece of Parthenon Marbles to Greece

The British Museum still hasn't given up their holdings, which represent the majority of the marbles.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Friday, September 26, 2008

Boring writing

So, several weeks ago I stumbled across a site advertising 10 Awesome Fantasy Series That Are Not Potter or LoTR. Hmm, thunk I, fantasy fiction other than Potter or LoTR hasn't appeared on my reading list in many an age. Maybe I should give one or two of these a try.

Knowing that I will not be reading this entire list, I jumped straight to #1 and began reading Modesitt's The Magic of Recluce. And here is what I found:

Perfection, especially for a youngster learning about it from cheerfully sober adults, has its price. Mine was boredom.

A price Modesitt is happy to share ... and spread. Because that word keeps showing up, over and over again:
"But why does it have to be so flaming boring?

Besides, pots and vases bored me.

But I was still bored, even as I continued to learn.

"Just because I'm bored?" ... "No, because your boredom reflects a deeper lack of commitment."

[B]ut it was boring.

"... probably get more bored with each day.

Mind you, that's just the first 14 pages. A little while later, the writer does manage to come up with the word dull, but immediately defines it as "almost boring."

Since all fantasy novels have to be compared to The Lord of the Rings, let's see how Tolkien handles a similar concept:

So it went on, until his forties were running out, and his fiftieth birthday was drawing near: fifty was a number that he felt somehow significant (or ominous); it was at any rate at that age that adventure had suddenly befallen Bilbo. Frodo began to feel restless, and the old paths seemed too well-trodden. He looked at maps, and wondered what lay beyond their edges; maps made in the Shire showed mostly white spaces beyond its borders. He took to wandering further afield and more often by himself; and Merry and his other friends watched him anxiously. Often he was seen walking and talking with the strange wayfarers that began at this time to appear in the Shire.

I don't have time for such unimaginative writing. The Magic of Recluce may not be a book to be hurled with great force, but it will be tossed aside with a light flick of the wrist.

P.S. On the same trip to Border's, I also picked up Ender's Game, about which I kept hearing great praise. I join the chorus; it's a terrific book.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Mixing politics with religion

In case you haven't heard, the Pulpit Initiative is scheduled for this Sunday in churches all across the country, possibly in one near you. The strategy is to boldly violate the IRS regulations against tax-exempt organizations engaging in partisan political activity by endorsing candidates during Sunday sermons, provoke an IRS investigation, and have the rule overturned in a lawsuit.

The brains, loosely speaking, behind this ploy is one Erik Stanley of the Alliance Defense Fund, who argues that the rule itself violates the First Amendment by giving the government censorship powers over religious speech.

Barry Lynn, of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, points out the delusion: Stanley seems to believe that the First Amendment mandates tax-exemption for churches. It does no such thing.* The IRS rules are entirely religion-neutral, because they cover any organization which has been granted tax-exemption for performing a public service. Any pastor is free to say anything he wants from the pulpit - he just has to choose between being neutral and having to pay taxes. Every other organization in America has to make exactly the same choice.

Oh, and from Christianity Today, here's your moment of zen:

"If we can tell you what to do in the bedroom, we can certainly tell you what to do in the voting booth," said the Minnesota minister [Gus Booth], an evangelical leader of a nondenominational church, who expects to endorse Republican John McCain during his "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" sermon.


* (In fact, if tax exemption were granted solely to churches, for no other reason than that they are churches, that would raise serious First Amendment issues. But churches are lumped together with other public-service organizations, so the church-state entanglement is considered minimal.**)

** (Possibly unwisely, if the Pulpit Initiative is any indication.)

Animal training

Operant conditioning at the NC Zoo

Teaching history in US colleges

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute is out with the results of another quiz on college students' knowledge of American history and institutions and the report, as you might guess, is highly critical. I tend not to get into the sky-is-falling nature of these annual reports, especially when you attach letter grades to the percentages. I recall being a teaching assistant for two history classes one semester, both of which relied on multiple-choice tests. In once class almost everyone got a C or better, while in the other no one could get an A; the questions were just that much harder. Some of the questions here should be common knowledge, but others are certainly more obscure.

This is what caught my caught my eye [sorry about the formatting, but I just copied the table from the HTML]:

2006 NATIONWIDE RESULTSAverage Percent Correct by Subject and Class Year
Test Section Freshman Mean Senior Mean Value Added
Overall 50.4% 54.2% +3.8%*
American History 56.6% 58.8% +2.2%*
American Political Thought 52.0% 55.2% +3.2%*
America and the World 46.8% 50.8% 4.0%*
The Market Economy 44.9% 51.1% 6.2%*
* The difference between the freshman and senior means is statistically significant with confidence of 95% or greater across the 50 schools surveyed.

In other words, after four years of college, few students have learned significantly more than they knew coming out of high school. No matter how much you might want to praise the high schools, that's still a miserable performance.

You can take the quiz yourself. I scored a 95% (57/60) and was embarrassed about one of the errors (won't say which one).

New developments in the copyright wars

Bush administration opposes RIAA-based copyright bill
George Bush and I agree on something? Huh.

In other copyright news, a mistrial has been declared in the RIAA's high-profile lawsuit of a filesharing individual. The defendant, Jammie Thomas, had argued that it was true that she had uploaded copyrighted songs, but unless the RIAA could prove that people had downloaded them, she couldn't be found guilty. The trial judge had explicitly instructed they jury that this argument was invalid, but now he has changed his mind; thus the mistrial. It seems a patent fantasy that you could upload songs on a peer-to-peer filesharing system and not have other people download them, but the burden of proving that just shifted back to the RIAA. As IP owners have feared, it's loopholes like this that could make their copyrights worthless.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

$700,000,000,000 grant request

Fred Clark at Slacktivist is outraged at Treasury Secretary Paulson's request for lots of money + lots of discretion - any oversight at all. Well, many people are, but I especially enjoyed Clark's slant on the issue:

I'm not usually in a position to say that I have more experience, knowledge and know-how than Ben Bernanke, but he really should've talked to somebody like me before heading to Capitol Hill yesterday to help Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson present a three-page memo asking for $700,000,000,000 of the public's money.

Three pages. Seriously.

... snip ...

[W]e wrote a lot of grants. And the thing is that every one of those grants was longer, more detailed and better documented than the sorry excuse for a memo that Paulson threw together to request $700 billion from the public coffers. It means your $15,000 grant application gets turned down. Why? Because $15,000 is a lot of money, and if you're going to ask someone to hand over that kind of cash, then you're going to have to do your homework. You're going to have to explain, in detail, what the money is for, where and when it's going to be spent. You're going to have to explain how you intend to report back, with detailed documentation, after the money is spent. And you're probably going to have to describe a detailed plan ensuring that you won't need to come back six months later to ask for another $15,000 for exactly the same thing.

Fail to provide that kind of documentation and detail and your grant application will be rejected. Not only that, but you'll be lucky if you're ever allowed to come back and re-apply with the same foundation.

Clark helpfully provides this link:

Jose Perez

I came across a book of Jose Perez paintings this morning and thought I would share them. Rather Norman Rockwell-like, with more of a fantasy element..

This is the orthopedist:

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Bears fight back!

Matthew McLean sends me this video protesting Stephen Colbert's anti-bear crusade:

Cheney's records

Cheney must keep records, judge orders

From the ruling, it appears that attempts to negotiate a settlement failed because the OVP insisted on using their own private definition of Vice-Presidential records, which could exclude any activity which was not "specially assigned to the Vice President by the President in the discharge of executive duties and responsibilities." That's a loophole large enough to shovel any number of documents through, so the judge rightly concluded that there was a risk of irreparable harm if the OVP was allowed to operate as they see fit.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Stumbled upon

Friday, September 19, 2008

Lost Mozart music

Unknown Mozart fragment found in French library

Wind map

The Atlantic has a nice map showing wind speeds in the United States:

Notice how, with fine enough data, the wind shows you where topological features are. I was especially fascinated by how well-defined the river valleys on the northern plains are on this map.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Academic journals

Imagine that a movie studio just spent $100,000,000 on a terrific new movie, but if they want anyone to see it, they have to give it to a movie theater. Not just the film itself, but all rights to the movie forever and ever. And the theater owner says this is perfectly fair, because the studio doesn't pay for the screening or provide any popcorn.

Now you understand the “Fair Copyright in Research Works Act” and can appreciate the gall of an executive from the Association of American Publishers claiming, “Government does not fund peer-reviewed journal articles — publishers do.”

More at Au Courant.

[P.S. James asks the source for that last quotation. It was buried in the Au Courant posting and can be found here.]

Hacked email

This is a great thing, not because I admire the hacker or think he's striking any sort of blow for democracy.* But having such a high profile person fall victim to their own bad security habits is a terrific attention-getter and I'm all for that. It's also a good illustration of why I prefer sites that let me make up my own challenge question, rather than forcing me to choose from "What is your mother's maiden name," "What street did you grow up on," etc.

Hacker impersonated Palin, stole e-mail password

* (By his own description, he's a prankster who bailed out when he realized how much trouble he was getting himself into and not a political operative)

Computers in the movies

User interfaces in film are more exciting than they are realistic, and heroes have far too easy a time using foreign systems.

"Conservative" support for gay marriage

This is interesting: Support for Calif. gay marriage ban slipping

The interesting part is that the original description of the measure relied on the proposed text of the constitutional amendment: "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California." But since the Cali Supreme Court has already overturned legislative bans, the state attorney general decreed that the description must be changed to indicate that an existing right would be taken away. This seems to make a difference in how people react to the measure:

Among the 70 percent of likely voters who already were familiar with Proposition 8, the modification appeared to make little difference. Among those who knew about the amendment, 56 percent said they opposed it when they heard the original wording and 53 percent opposed it they were given Brown's revised version.

But among the 30 percent of those surveyed who were not previously aware of the measure, the ballot language appeared to matter. Within that subgroup, 42 percent of the respondents said they were inclined to vote 'no' with the original summary, a share that climbed to 58 percent under the new wording.

Which suggests that voters are suspicious of change, no matter what the buzzword in the Presidential campaign might be.