Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Dillinger was here

A new Johnny Depp movie comes out tomorrow, about the 1930's crime spree of one John Herbert Dillinger. An enterprising library in the middle of Dillinger's old stomping grounds has a tie-in:

GIS Research and Map Collection at Ball State University

P.S. Speaking of Depp, I hear that he and Tim Burton are working on a new film of Dark Shadows, the campy/wonderful gothic soap opera from the 1960's. This could be awesome or awful, but I strongly suspect it will be the latter. It's one thing to go back and redo a bad show and this time get it right - e.g., Battlestar Galactica. But a show that was lovable for its low-budget challenges - how do you approach that? If you try to take it too seriously, you miss most of the charm. If you try to recreate camp - well, can that even be done successfully?

Thursday, June 25, 2009

You CAN buy this kind of press

Elsevier is caught trying to bribe 5-star Amazon reviews for one of its textbooks.

Congratulations and thank you for your contribution to Clinical Psychology. Now that the book is published, we need your help to get some 5 star reviews posted to both Amazon and Barnes & Noble to help support and promote it. As you know, these online reviews are extremely persuasive when customers are considering a purchase. For your time, we would like to compensate you with a copy of the book under review as well as a $25 Amazon gift card.

This is the same company that has been publishing fake journals that were designed to hide the fact that they were nothing but corporate advertising.

Here's my favorite part - the attempt at damage control that proves they really don't get it:
Cindy Minor, marketing manager for science and technology at Elsevier, said that the e-mail did not reflect Elsevier policy. She called the request for five star reviews "a poorly written e-mail" by "an overzealous employee."

Poorly written? Is there some clever way to write a bribe offer that would be something other than a bribe offer? Bribery is wrong only when it's done without a sense of style? Why do people always do this - you get caught in a bad action and you apologize only for the fact that it looked bad?

[via librarian.net]

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Protesting is terrorism

If you go to work for the Department of Defense, you will be taught that protests are an act of terrorism:

The written exam, given as part of Department of Defense employees’ routine training, includes a multiple-choice question that asks:

“Which of the following is an example of low-level terrorism?”

— Attacking the Pentagon
— IEDs
— Hate crimes against racial groups
— Protests

The correct answer, according to the exam, is "Protests."

Isn't that comforting, coming from the people who claim to be defending "freedom?" Even more interesting is the fact that I was tipped off to the story by the good loons at Worldview Weekend. Of course, they're still in a dudgeon over that report about potential right-wing extremists, but I find it notable that they link to this story without extraneous comment. The article mentions mostly anti-war protesters and quotes the ACLU, but WvW doesn't bother to mention that they usually see these folks as enemies. I know this isn't any sort of turning point in left-right relations, but it's still a nice little moment.

The day after the election, my Facebook status update said something to the effect that I was glad conservatives would start worrying about government overreach again, now that they were out of power. I'm feeling vindicated.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The end of Kodachrome

The end of an era: Kodak pulls Kodachrome in a blow to sentimentality

Before I moved to digital in 2002, I shot almost everything in Kodachrome. Occasionally I would use a higher speed Ektachrome, but the graininess was always an annoyance. I know some nature photographers preferred films with more vivid colors, but I usually considered those photos unrealistically garish; Kodachrome, with it's softer colors, was king.

It was also expensive - somewhere around $8 per roll to purchase and the same to get processed. That came to somewhat less than 50 cents per frame, but with my limited budged that was enough to discourage extravagant shooting. Since going digital, I can shoot with abandon, which is a blessing and a curse - I'm free to experiment and shoot less promising scenes, but I can also fall into a snapshooting mode that doesn't take as much care before the "shutter" button is pushed.

In memoriam to Kodochrome, here is the last frame I ever shot with this wonderful film, in autumn of 2003:

A bison grazes along the Madison River, working on his winter coat.

Useful tasks

If you have plenty of time on your hands, you might decided to, oh, maybe compile a list of all the minor characters in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Sounds like a task for Wowbagger, the Infinitely Prolonged.

Friday, June 19, 2009

That Big Sky resides between the ears

This is what happens when:
A) wicked people get put in a position of power; or
B) stupid people are too stupid to understand how anyone could doubt their innocent intentions.

Personally, I'm leaning toward (B).

The city of Bozeman is asking all job applicants to hand over the usernames and passwords to all internet sites to which they belong. You read that right - they even want your passwords!

Because maybe, just maybe, that guy who wants to be a policeman has been posting child porn somewhere and will be stupid enough to lead you to it. "This is just a component of a thorough background check," says Chuck Winn, Bozeman's assistant city manager.

No, no it isn't. On all my social site accounts, I've signed an agreement that I won't be turning my passwords over to another person and I wouldn't do it even I didn't care about violating terms and agreements. For starters, there are things about me that an employer has no right to ask - for example, my religious beliefs. Job application forms do not ask you list all of your club memberships because the employer has no right to ask it.

Yet these clowns not only want you to disclose all your internet memberships - "any Internet-based chat rooms, social clubs or forums, to include, but not limited to: Facebook, Google, Yahoo, YouTube.com, MySpace, etc." - but demand to be able to peruse all your activities there.

And that Google password? That's my email! They're asking people to give them unrestricted access to their email account!

Now, what kind of asshole would I be if, without asking your permission, I allowed some nimwit of a city official to go poking through everything I've written to you and everything you've written to me? Grade A, that's what kind. And that's before I even start worrying about what would happen if some jerk decided to start writing messages under my name.

The city attorney hopes this will be reassuring: "One thing that's important for folks to understand about what we look for is none of the things that the federal constitution lists as protected things, we don't use those." Need we even reply?

I chose (B) because I really think these folks are just too ignorant to comprehend why this is a big deal. When I see comments like, "They can show us what's on their face page," I'm pretty sure I'm listening to someone who's vaguely heard of Facebook, but has no idea what it's about. Heck, I probably don't even have to worry about him finding this blog that I publish under my real name.

That's doubly embarrassing when Bozeman is a nice college town that no doubt holds plenty of tech-savvy people; apparently, none of them are running the city.


PS. The Facebook entry that tipped me off to the story also mentions the Montana Constitution, Article II, Section 10:
"The right of individual privacy is essential to the well-being of a free society and shall not be infringed without the showing of a compelling state interest."

Thursday, June 18, 2009

I want one ...

... although I doubt my apartment's wiring could handle it.

Via Ironic Sans

Secret libraries

Well, you can't believe everything you read on the internet, but I so want to believe that this is real.

Via librarian.net.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Morality, schadenfreude, and the catch-22

I've been reading plenty of blog postings about how poorly conservatives have responded to the George Tiller murder in Kansas a couple weeks ago. There have been some vile responses, essentially praising the killer, it's true. But I notice that many on "my" side of the political spectrum are quite eager to criticize those conservatives who seem to praise with faint condemnation. You know, those folks who insist that they are appalled at murder, but let's not forget the evils this doctor was committing, etc. etc. If you can't condemn a killing without reminding us how much the victim deserved it, some reply, then you're really apologizing for and promoting murder.

I don't buy it. We're asking too much of the average person to not feel at least a twinge of conflict if an evil deed removes a person whom they also thought was evil. I say this because I know just how I would feel if the situation were reversed.

Thought experiment: think of someone that you believe has done great evil and justice doesn't appear in the offing. In my, case I tend to picture a certain avid fisherman from one of the mountain states, who recently held great power and abused it horribly, to our great shame, and bears a great responsibility for at least tens of thousands of needless deaths, perhaps even more. I won't mention his name.

How would I feel if this person were assassinated? I would be horrified, I would expect the assassin to face the full penalty of the law, and I would fear the political and cultural damage that might follow from someone believing he should become JJ&E. But it would be hard - really really hard - for me to feel sorry for the SOB. And no matter how much I deplored the act, the fact that I didn't consider this SOB to be any kind of innocent victim, or any tragic loss to the world, would probably show through.* In other words, I don't think I would perform any better than most pro-life Christians have after the murder of George Tiller.

So if they're evil for feeling conflicted about this murder, then I'm just as evil, because I know I would also feel conflicted in a comparable situation. Or, maybe we're not evil. We're just not so good that our abstract horror at murder would completely overcome our relief at the loss of a Bad Guy. Maybe Gandalf or Dumbledore, or some other fictional character, could do it. Not most of us real people.

So give it a rest and understand that people's motives and feelings aren't pure. Same goes with George Tennet claiming that Dick Cheney actually wants a terrorist attack on the US. That's unfair, every bit as unfair as saying that everyone who opposed the invasion wanted America to fail in Iraq. Even though there's a tiny bit of truth - that truth that when we say, "I hope I'm wrong," we still don't really want to be wrong. We're people and we're just that way. It's unfair to expect a whole lot more.

* On the other hand, this person has family and friends just like a good person would, and the pain they would feel is not one whit less than it would be if they had loved someone I thought more deserving. I hope I would remember that.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Is the internet a right, pt. II? In France - yes

A couple months ago I mentioned the efforts in France to pass laws that would allow illegal file sharers to be barred from internet service. At that time, the law had been defeated, but was since brought up again and passed.

Now it's been struck down again by the French Constitutional Council. You can read their decision here, if your French is any good. Mine isn't, but the accounts are saying that the Council ignored the practical considerations - do you punish a whole household for one person's misdeeds? wouldn't you just end up nabbing the less savvy and less harmful thieves? - and went straight for the big issue.* Invoking the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man, which are enforceable under the French constitution, the Council wrote:

But the Council found the law violated both the constitutional right to freedom of expression and the right to presumption of innocence.

“It follows,” wrote the Court, “that in principle the legislature does not establish a presumption of guilt in criminal matters”. The Court also said exercising freedom of expression and communication, including that performed over the internet, is a prerequisite for democracy.

“Attacks on the exercise of this freedom must be necessary, appropriate and proportionate to the aim pursued,” it said.
In particular, the Council strongly disapproved that a legal punishment would be determined by a political agency rather than a court of law.

* In marked contrast with US Supreme Court tendencies, which Ed Brayton critiques here.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

East German archives still busy

Requests to see Stasi files unabated 20 years on

Marianne Birthler, who manages the miles of intelligence files communist East Germany kept on its own citizens and many Westerners, told reporters that interest in the records had anything but abated two decades on.

"More than 100,000 applications to look at files were submitted in 2007, somewhat fewer last year with 87,000, but demand rose again in the first months of 2009" at a rate of about 10,000 per month, she said.

"It could be related to the (20th) anniversary year. At the same time, we have observed time and again that many people are only asking to see their files now because they have apparently needed time to prepare themselves to confront their pasts."

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Stumbled upon

The motion here is so funny, I think I'd laugh even if they'd portrayed someone I admired:

Try it!


Thursday, June 4, 2009

Is this why we buy health insurance?

Medical bills underlie 60 percent of U.S. bankruptcies

Harvard researchers surveyed some 2000 people who filed for bankruptcy in 2007. Their findings:

While only 29 percent directly blamed medical bills for their bankruptcy, 62 percent had medical bills that totaled more than 10 percent of family income, said an illness was responsible, had lost income due to illness or some other medical factor.

Even more shocking is the fact that 78% of these - or almost half of all bankruptcy filings - involved people who had health insurance. These were, in the main, middle class Americans with decent jobs and health insurance, yet a severe illness still throws them into economic distress. Part of the problem, as the report notes, is that too often you're only allowed to buy health insurance if you don't ask for health care:

"Nationally, a quarter of firms cancel coverage immediately when an employee suffers a disabling illness; another quarter do so within a year," the report reads.

And once you've lost it, good luck trying to ever get insurance again with a preexisting condition. So what good is health insurance? Hard to tell from the newspaper accounts of this study and, from the description of the method, I'm not sure this study adequately addresses the question. The key stat would be the proportion of insured families declaring bankruptcy v. the uninsured and I don't think the statistics are here to determine that. I don't find the study available yet at the American Journal of Medicine, but it will be worth taking a closer look at.

Edit: I neglected to point out that this data is from 2007, before the current economic troubles. This situation must be far worse right now.