Monday, March 30, 2009


I've always enjoyed re-imaginings of well-known tales, familiar stories told from an utterly unfamiliar point of view. Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon may have been my introduction to the genre, I can't quite remember, but I still recall my astonishment at how a completely original tale could be woven out of those old legends and I could be made to think, yes, this is how it might really have happened.*

So last weekend, when Heather mentioned Gregory Maguire's Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, I decided I needed to read it. That was a good move.

In a way, the book was not quite what I expected. I anticipated a more complete reversal, a story where the Witch was really the good person through to the end. Maguire, on the other hand, has said that he intended to write a story where the Witch was really evil throughout. What emerged was something in between, and therefore far more interesting. His Witch, Elphaba (a play off "L. Frank Baum"), is a woman who was early alienated from most of her fellow humans, made it her cause to fight evil (which the Wizard of Oz proves himself to be), but found that evil seemed to be winning every round -- and that all too often it was her own efforts that ended up contributing to tragedy.

Although never really a sweet or generous person, Elphaba is smart, principled, and mostly admirable. By the end of the book (Dorothy and her annoying little dog don't even show up until the last section), as her bitterness has grown and festered, the Witch is not a person who desire to perform evil, but she's even less nice and plays the part of a wicked witch convincingly enough. To the extent that she remains sympathetic, it's as a tragic figure: you've long stopped admiring her behavior, but you never wanted to see her become so unlikable.

If Tolkien thought that the will to dominate was the source of evil, Maguire reminds us that watching evil triumph can be a most embittering experience, leading an otherwise good person to wicked behaviors of their own. A timely lesson, too, in this era of Culture Wars, where both sides see wickedness on the march and are tempted to despair.

* Cynicism helps; from an early age I found it easy to believe that the standard tales might really be self-serving propaganda and that there could be another side to the story.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Stumbled upon

This has apparently been around for some years, but I just discovered it - someone bought a pirated DVD of Revenge of the Sith while living in China and discovered that the "English" subtitles were better than Lucas's dailogue. Okay, that's low praise, but this gets hilarious. If you didn't know that the ancestral languages of English and Mandarin had diverged long, long ago, this would convince you.

The Backstroke of the West
, in which it is revealed that the Jedi Council is actually ... the Presybeterian Church!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Stumbled upon

Immortality Blows

'Cause, it would.

Yeah, the planet had changed quite a bit since I'd last been there, but I still wasn't occupied for more than a million years or so. After that it was boring as hell. I remember once I just sat on the edge of a cliff and waited for whatever continent I was on to drift into another one. Jeez.

Stumbled upon

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Big Brother is still Big Brother

Obama Administration: Constitution Does Not Protect Cell-Site Records

The Obama administration says the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures does not apply to cell-site information mobile phone carriers retain on their customers.

* snip *
At issue is whether the government can require federal judges to order mobile phone companies to release historical cell-tower information of a phone number without probable cause — the standard required for a search warrant.

Ralph Maughn plausibly compares this to having a radio collar on almost every American, although the comparison isn't entirely apt: your cell phone records can plot your general location at a given time, but not with the same precision as a triangulated radio signal can. Still, is this really how we want to stand in relation to our government? They don't even have to prove probably cause to spy on us?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Left Hand, meet Right Hand. Right, Left.

At Worldview Times, Brannon Howse is railing against Obama's secret plan to advance socialism in the United States.

Meanwhile, over at Worldview Times, Stephen Kovaka gives us examples of economic "sin":

At the same time, ownership of the major sources of real wealth (land, buildings, farms, mines, factories) is being progressively concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority, a one-in-a-million Superclass.

I think I heard about this, maybe from some guy named Marx ....

It is God's opinion that economic health requires two things above all: debt must be liquidated regularly, and the snowballing accumulation of wealth by the few must be limited. When these two tendencies are unchecked, they eventually destroy the society in which they grow.

At which point, Kovaka* recommends the system advanced in Deuteronomy, where all debts are simply canceled - by law - every seven years. Apparently, nothing he's read recently would suggest that uncollectable debts pose problems for an economy.

So "No" to socialism, but we'll have the government cancel contracts at regular intervals and intervene to prevent the accumulation of wealth. Got it.

* In fairness to Kovaka, he's not advocating communism -- communal ownership of all resources. He just wants to ensure that ownership is widely distributed. He probably wouldn't say the government ought to cause this, but I don't know how else you would do it.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Open Access Week

This is Open Access Week at the University of Michigan and I wish I could attend the events; unfortunately, I have places I need to be (at another institution, no less) and won't be able to grace them with my presence. I have to content myself with having helped contribute a poster.

Free association

The Vermont Senate has passed a bill to legalize gay marriage, which has prompted some doodleheads called the Vermont Marriage Advisory Council to

[express] deep concerns about the risk of losing " the natural, inherent bonding right of a child to his/her own biological mother and father." It has said that "same-sex marriage directly increases the number of children who will be motherless or fatherless."

Which, for some reason, puts me in mind of this TV commercial:

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Stumbled upon

Stadium towing

Surprisingly small truck:

Bad wolf management

In a classic example of the dictum Ready, Fire, Aim:

Balyeat bill would cap wolves in state

Senate Bill 183 would enact a wolf plan that does not allow more than 225 wolves in the state and would have the animal managed in a way that ensured it was not affecting big game hunting or the livestock industry. The bill would void any element of federal control of the gray wolf, including enforcement of the Endangered Species Act.

Actually, the bill would bring the full weight of the ESA to bear and Montana would be out of the wolf-managing business in exactly the same way that Wyoming is, as the bill's critics point out:

“Senate Bill 183 will not give the state more control over wolves, it will diminish it. It will not accelerate the wolf being delisted, it will prevent it,” said Chris Smith, deputy director of the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Smith said taking on the federal government in court over their power to manage the gray wolf would be “similar to the legislative basketball team taking on the best NBA team in the league.”

But the bill's sponsor, Joe Balyeat of Belgrade, tried to claim that he's responsible for wolf delisting!

“I’ve been told by my contacts, who will remain nameless... that Senate Bill 183 was part of the reason the Obama administration decided to go forward with wolf delisting,” he said.

How boring ... most children give names to their imaginary friends.

The times

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Guns in national parks

They're good! No, they're not anymore! Wait, it's not over yet!

NRA appeals ruling blocking guns in national parks

One commenter at the LA Times article says,

The number of law abiding citizens who have qualified for concealed carry licenses in this country is now six times the number of peace officers. By sheer numbers we have a far greater chance of intervening than peace officers do.

Well, maybe, but I never seem to hear about any of these imagined vigilantes foiling any crimes.* And no matter how many gun safety classes they've attended, I'm not sure I'm comfortable with hordes of gun-toters thinking of themselves as surrogate peace officers.

Then again, the way policemen are allowed to beat, steal, and shoot with impunity these days, the gun-toters may be a rather small problem by comparison.

* I have, however, seen it claimed that this happens all the time but the media won't allow me to hear about it. I can't imagine a less likely line of press censorship in this country.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Fair use victory

'Family Guy' wins copyright battle over song

According to Reuters, a Manhattan judge has thrown out a lawsuit filed by music publisher Bourne Company in relation to the track, which appeared in the season three episode When You Wish Upon A Weinstein.

Bourne had claimed that the Family Guy version, named 'I Need A Jew', was in violation of their copyright, and that its "vile and outrageous anti-Semitic message" had caused "substantial and ireparable harm" to the company.

In essence, Bourne is arguing that parody should be illegal and the judge rightly pointed out that, as a matter of law, it is not. Case closed. Perhaps more surprisingly, the judge went on to demonstrate that she has a fair understanding of how parody works:

She added that copyright ownership did not provide protection from parody and noted that the song had enjoyed a "beneficial association" with "wholesome" films such as Disney's Pinocchio.

"It is precisely that beneficial association that opens the song up for ridicule by parodists seeking to take the wind out of such lofty, magical, or pure associations," she said.

Good on ya, yer Honor.

As a bonus, here's another article which provides a link to "The Freaking FCC", which is mandatory, NSFW viewing. This one's not about copyright; it's just a poke at the morals police.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Mill dams in the Midwest

Here's an interesting story from EARTH magazine:

Rewriting rivers: What it means for river restoration

Merritts began to look at the streams near Lancaster, Pa., in 2002, because she wanted her students to focus on geology close to the college. Surprisingly, the fine silts and clays she found in the layering along the streambanks did not look like material deposited by running water; the sediments were too thick and too laminated, plus they were underlain by a black, organic layer rich with seeds, pollen, roots and woody debris. The organics in turn rested on a gravelly bed. When Merritts showed them to her colleague, Robert Walter, he thought they looked more like pond sediments. The pair also wondered how the three-meter-wide, ankle-deep streams the students studied could deposit banks of sand and silt six meters deep.

Walter, who had grown up in the area, suggested that the sediments accumulated behind a dam. Despite finding stream after stream with similar sediments, Merritts says that she was initially skeptical that human-made dams could have such a widespread impact. To better understand what happened, she and Walter consulted historic maps, early census studies, county records and diaries. They also examined aerial photos and light detection and ranging (LiDAR) data (which removes ground cover to more easily reveal topography) and walked riverbanks in more than 20 watersheds, such as the Brandywine River, Seneca Creek and Watts Branch. All the data pointed to the same culprit: dams.

Those freakin' dams were everywhere, a fact that is easily overlooked today because most of them have been removed. But they so altered the riparian environment that engineers trying to restore rivers today may be trying to recreate the wrong kind of river.

Scratching bears

Via Ralph Maughan’s Wildlife News

Just to put a downer on all the cuteness, though, I expect the bears' pleasure is more or less proportional to the torment they're receiving from ticks and fleas. It's not all Disney out in the woods.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Murray Whyte asks, "Can you copyright a chess move?"

It began when the Bulgarian Chess Federation, citing copyright infringement, barred ChessBase, the world's biggest online chess portal, from broadcasting the match live, move by move, in a text format as it had been doing without the federation's permission.

ChessBase stopped, as ordered. "They issued a cease and desist, and we complied," ChessBase co-founder Frederic Friedel wrote in an email to Bond. "It is too expensive, time-wise, to get involved in protracted lawsuits with Bulgarians, and there is little to gain, monetarily, from a victory."


But the broader assertion that the moves themselves could become the exclusive intellectual property of their creators has nothing to do with the Internet era. Bond recalls such debates having been on the chess agenda "for a couple of decades, at least."

Imagine this: Joe Blowovitch devises a new attack with the White pieces, which he copyrights; there's an effective defense against it, but he's copyrighted that, too. If Blowovitch plays his attack against you, you may not defend in the best manner available. Maybe someone else has copyrighted the second-best defense, too. So you come up with a third defense, but after the game someone announces that they had originated those moves three months ago and they own the IP rights to it.

Result: the death of chess. Or at least the death of well-played chess, which has always relied on study of previous moves and the dissemination of good principles.

Okay, once upon a time that would have seemed silly, but today people want to claim IP rights over everything - it's getting hard to parody. Claiming to own copyright over the record of the moves of a game seems a bit far-fetched, too, since reporting them would just be ... well, reporting. As in reporting the news, which is entirely legal.

Speaking of which, here's a link which comments on the NFL's exaggerated claims to copyright over the contents of football games. According to the NFL, it's legal to watch the game, but you're not allowed to talk about it at work the next day. Really, that's what they claim.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Secrets of Lincoln's watch

Via Global Museum:

Museum finds "secret" message in Lincoln's watch

This is interesting. A watchmaker, 40 years after Lincoln's death, claims that he was fixing the President's watch on the day he learned that Fort Sumter had been attacked by the new Confederate States of America and that he had secretly inscribed the date and a message inside the watch, but never told anyone and that probably no one had ever seen this inscription since then.

Probably not. There are all sorts of funky reminiscences and legends that arise around famous people and stories that make their first appearance decades after the fact should be viewed with great suspicion.

But the guy's great-great grandson tells the story to someone at the National Museum of American History, which owns the watch, and they say, Sure, why not open it and take a look? And sure enough:

The engraving, by watchmaker Jonathan Dillon, is dated April 13, 1861, and reads in part: "Fort Sumpter was attacked by the rebels" and "thank God we have a government."

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Immigration map

From the NYT:

Immigration Explorer

If you want to really freak out your anti-immigration neighbor, show them what happens when you select "Mexico" and drag the slider from 1970 to 2000. But of course this is another way in which maps can mislead. The population circles are scaled so as to be proportional to the number of people they represent, but on the map those circles cover a certain geographic area, which is not what they're supposed to represent. You could easily think there are no non-Mexicans left in southern California, but I'm pretty sure that's not the case.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Wal-Mart enters the med-tech field

Bet you didn't see this coming: Wal-Mart Plans to Market Digital Health Records System

EHR - electronic health records - offer a way to improve health care and hospital efficiency by allowing easier access to patient records and easier sharing of critical information between different offices. The problem is that the systems are expensive, so while large hospitals may be using EHR, your private physician probably isn't. Which means, say, if you go to the hospital, your regular doctor can't easily give another doctor your file and all that potentially helpful information it contains. Enter Wal-Mart, who aims to make EHR affordable for the individual doctor or a small office.

“We’re a high-volume, low-cost company,” said Marcus Osborne, senior director for health care business development at Wal-Mart. “And I would argue that mentality is sorely lacking in the health care industry.”

Truer words were never spoken.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Forgetting how to make your bombs

This is why you keep records:

How the US forgot how to make Trident missiles

PLANS TO refurbish Trident nuclear weapons had to be put on hold because US scientists forgot how to manufacture a component of the warhead, a US congressional investigation has revealed.

The US National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) "lost knowledge" of how to make a mysterious but very hazardous material codenamed Fogbank. As a result, the warhead refurbishment programme was put back by at least a year, and racked up an extra $69 million.

But vital information on how Fogbank was actually made had somehow been mislaid. "NNSA had lost knowledge of how to manufacture the material because it had kept few records of the process when the material was made in the 1980s, and almost all staff with expertise on production had retired or left the agency," the report said.

[via Peter Kurilecz]

Monday, March 9, 2009

Leaking sensitive information

From ComputerWorld, :

Classified data on president's helicopter leaked via P2P, found on Iranian computer

Classified information about the communications, navigation and management electronics on Marine One, the helicopter now used by President Barack Obama, were reportedly discovered in a publicly available shared folder on a computer in Tehran, Iran, after apparently being accidentally leaked over a peer-to-peer file-sharing network last summer.

The classified file appears to have been leaked from a computer belonging to a Bethesda, Md., military contractor and was discovered Thursday by Tiversa Inc., a Cranberry Township, Pa.-based P2P monitoring services provider.

[Thanks to Peter's RAIN (Records and Archives in the News) drops.]

White House and YouTube

From Tech_sassy, at the Fayette Observer:

White House stops using YouTube due to privacy concerns

The White House received quite a bit of criticism when they decided to use YouTube to host President Obama’s videos on a government Web site — and for various reasons. There’s the government-business relationship with Google and more importantly, privacy and security issues resulting from “Google’s insatiable thirst for detailed data on the browsing habits of web surfers.”

But now the White House has done away with YouTube videos and, instead, is using a Flash-based video player:

“This solution, which appears to use Akamai’s content delivery network, does not make use of tracking cookies.”

However, they are still posting copies of the videos to their official YouTube channel for everyone to see. This is fine, considering the main issue before was running the Google tracking cookies on a government website.

Regardless, I still operate under the assumption that the government is always watching us. Not because I’m paranoid, but because I just give them way too much credit.

I like that last line.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Maps don't bomb people - people bomb people!

Joel Anderson, a California assemblyman, recently learned that terrorists use services like Google Earth to plan their attacks. Now he wants to pass a law requiring the blurring of all images of possible terrorist attack, including government buildings, hospitals, schools, and churches.*

[A] security expert, Bruce Schneier recently wondered what other things legislators might consider banning to prevent terrorism:

"Bank robbers have long used cars and motorcycles as getaway vehicles, and horses before then. I haven’t seen it talked about yet, but the Mumbai terrorists used boats as well. They also wore boots. They ate lunch at restaurants, drank bottled water and breathed the air. Society survives all of this because the good uses of infrastructure far outweigh the bad uses, even though the good uses are — by and large — small and pedestrian and the bad uses are rare and spectacular."

Of course, this would be a state, not a federal, law. Wait'll those international terrorists learn they have to leave California every time they want to plot an attack. Oooh, they'll be tearing their beards out by the roots!

* Yeah, churches. Not shopping centers or sports arenas or high-rise office buildings, but definitely the churches.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Köln Archives destroyed

Very sad news in the archives and history worlds: the building housing the state archives in Köln collapsed Tuesday with almost no warning.

The city without a memory: treasures lost under collapsed Cologne archives

The archives included the minutes of all town council meetings held since 1376. Not a single session had been missed, making the collection a remarkable resource for legal historians.

The earliest document stored in the building dated back to 922, and there were hundreds of thousands of documents spread over six floors, some of them written on thin parchment. A total of 780 complete private collections and half a million photographs were being stored.

Many of the documents had been recovered from library buildings smashed by Allied bombing during the Second World War.

As of this posting, at least two people are still missing and presumed lost under the rubble. As for the documents, while not everything will be irretrievably damaged, much of what is lost will be completely irreplaceable.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Conservatives know the Constitution

Rush Limbaugh loves our founding documents:

We [conservatives] love and revere our founding documents, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. We believe that the preamble of the Constitution contains an inarguable truth, that we are all endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty, freedom -- and the pursuit of happiness," he said, pausing several times for enthusiastic applause.

He loves the Constitution and Declaration so much, he can't even distinguish between the two.