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.