Tuesday, March 30, 2010

All the world's your apple

From the Maps-L listserv and artist Kevin Van Aelst:

(Am I being unkind to wonder why the artist had to follow a Mercator projection, which makes Greenland look bigger than South America?)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Clark on Beck's "12 Values"

Fred Clark (Slacktivist) has a perceptive commentary on Glenn Beck's "12 Values," contrasting values versus virtues:

Here is another distinction between the cheapness of values and the costly commitment of virtues -- virtues must be practiced in relationship. The Scout Law requires them to be out in the community and in the world doing things -- helping the proverbial little old lady across the street -- and thereby becoming things. But Beck's list doesn't require any such movement or action on behalf of his followers. All his list requires is that one sit around thinking of oneself as a person who values those values and who is, therefore, better than other people who presumably don't because they haven't joined the club.

And that, I think, is the primary point of Beck's list of "values" for him and for his followers. It's not about becoming virtuous people who practice these habits and come to embody them as character. It's about the pretense that asserting them means possessing them in greater measure than the Others, in whom such values are presumed to be absent.

Worth reading the whole things, as Slacktivist always is.

Saturday, March 27, 2010


Nuts, I wish I'd thought of this:

Friday, March 26, 2010

Friday photo

Statue of Minerva, with lamp.
Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. March 2007.

The Jefferson Building's Great Hall opened in 1897, when the Library of Congress was almost a century old, and I like to think Jefferson would have loved the relentless symbolism with which the room nearly drips. It's the only place I know where even I respond to the heavy-handed effort to inspire awe and reverence. And if you have to fill the place with god-figures, they could have hardly have chosen better than to place statues of Minerva/Athena, goddess of Wisdom, all about the room.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Oops, we said what we meant

A brave pastor speaks out about an impending atheist billboard in his neighborhood:

"It does concern me," said the Rev. Armand Egnew, pastor of Crosswalk Community Church, an Assemblies of God congregation in Fleming Island.

"It throws confusion out to people ... who are not solidly grounded" in their faith.

Which translates into Honestese as: "I'm scared. We lose control if we can't monopolize speech."

Then he adds, "The church needs to step up and show these people there is a God." To which I add, "If you can."

Via Friendly Atheist

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Using social media, part Umpteen

Here's an interesting use for Flickr : reuniting stolen photographs with their rightful owners. It seems the FBI has caught a man who has been stealing photographs from archives and libraries, and returned the stolen property to the Denver Public Library. When DPL realized that not all of the stolen photos were theirs, they put the images on Flickr and invited archives and libraries around the country to examine them. At best, they can return them to their rightful owners; short of that, perhaps someone can tell them about the photos' subjects.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Herding cats

Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution is True links to one of my favorite commercials on all time:

Advertising v. royalties, QED

So are copyright owners harmed or helped when their material gets uploaded to YouTube? Are they being deprived of well-deserved royalties, or does the exposure count as free advertising that ultimately benefits them beyond any fees they could have realistically commanded?

The recently-released documents regarding Viacom's lawsuit against Google would seem to dispose of that question. It appears that even as Viacom was suing Google over unauthorized uploads, they were aggressively using YouTube as an indispensable marketing tool. The word-of-the-moment is "viral," the geometric expansion of attention as YouTube clips get linked from blogs, which get linked from more blogs, etc., until it's so famous that you can get a symphony orchestra to accompany a cat on the piano. Who, with anything to sell, wouldn't kill for that kind of fame?

What Viacom did (and it's surely a widespread practice) was not only post videos to YouTube, but go to great lengths to pretend that the clips were uploaded without authorization, or had even been stolen. They had third parties use untraceable email accounts, or reduced the quality to make it appear that they had been surreptitiously acquired, to disguise their advertising campaign as grassroots enthusiasm. Google charges that Viacom's smoke screen was so effective that they frequently lost track themselves, demanding their own clips be removed and later asking for reinstatement.

Google argues this as proof that they can't possibly keep track of authorized v. unauthorized uploads, if Viacom can't keep track of their own work. We'll see how that works out as a legal argument, but I'm more interested in the economic reality it indicates. As with radio play, free advertising benefits the bottom line far more than does trying to squeeze every last dime of performance royalties. At least, Viacom thinks so and they probably know their business.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Friday photo

Bison wallowing, Hayden Valley, Yellowstone National Park. August 2004.

Ah, that's the life.

Feeling let down

It all began with Hope, but I've lost my enthusiasm for our President. This morning was the last straw. Not only has his administration been no better on FOIA than Bush, but now this:

President Obama's NCAA bracket has No. 13 seed Siena beating No. 4 seed Purdue in the South Regional.

*Moan* The letdowns just keep coming.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

More on cultural referencing

Following up on a previous post ("Pirates!"), where Patricia posted a comment on "remix culture," I wanted to present a range of "borrowings" that I think reflect the problem we have with an "all borrowing is plagiarism" approach to copyright.

If you follow the link above, you can hear the "Kookaburra" reference in Men at Work's song, "Down Under." This reference is similar to an incident that is supposed to have occurred around Brahms's Fourth Symphony, where someone pointed out that a certain phrase resembled a similar phrase in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Brahms replied, "Any fool knows that." The listener was supposed to spot the borrowing. Brahms wasn't using the phrase just because it would sound good, but he wanted to make his own listeners think of Beethoven at that point. Plagiarism is nothing new, but neither is respectful cultural cross-referencing.

Here is a similar borrowing, which I immediately thought of regarding the Men at Work affair, by Ben Folds. At the end of his song "Philosophy," he makes first a vague, then an explicit, reference to George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue"* (starting about 3:55):

Here's an even more interesting performance, where he mixes "Rhapsody" with "Misirlou": (go to 3:40)

Any fool would catch that reference, and only a fool would deny Folds's creativity or claim his song was primarily plagiarized. Because, despite the borrowing, Ben Folds is no Shepard Fairey, who simply copies other people's work and hopes they won't notice:

There's a world of difference between the two: any fool can tell which one is creative and which one is not. But now for a slightly harder case: what do you make of a mashup like DJ Earworm's "Blame it on the Pop," which is "composed" entirely of snippets from other artists' music, but is remarkably original nonetheless:

See here for a color-coded reference to the borrowed music. I think I would defend DJ Earworm's use here on the grounds that it is a profoundly transformative work, which is a valid legal defense against claims of copyright infringement. And, unlike Fairey, the appreciation of this work is enhanced by understanding the source material. I certainly want our IP laws to preserve room for this much creativity.

* which I believe is still under copyright

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Just wondering

Am I the only person who's visited the website for the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities and thought the banner resembled - however improbably - the Christian fish symbol?

Texas Board of Education Follies

Scott Stantis nails it pretty well, I'd say:

via Millard Filmore's Bathtub

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Visual spring

From the Maps-L listserv, see how much snow has disappeared from the ground in Wisconsin between March 8 and March 15:

See more MODIS imagery at Wisconsin View

Friday, March 12, 2010

America-haters in the White House!

It's being reported in the foreign press:

Robert Gibbs, the press secretary to President Barack Obama, made good on a bet by sporting a red and white Team Canada jersey at the start of his daily briefing with the White House press corps.

On Fox News, the headline will probably read, "Obama Official Betrays America to Pay Gambling Debts!"

Friday photo

Eastern Gray Squirrel, Ann Arbor, Michigan. March 2010.

I saw this guy yesterday as I walked across the UM campus and decided he was worth a few million pixels. It looks like a precarious perch, but I suppose it's plenty spacious for a squirrel. I'm sure he finds it more comfortable than Daniel Radcliffe does sitting on a broom.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Whose side is God on?

That utter moron, Hugo Chavez, says that "God is a 'Bolivarian.' "

Oh, yeah? Then explain this:

ZIPScribble Map

From the maps-L listserv:

I'm sure you instantly recognized that this was drawn by connecting every US Zip Code, in numerical order. For more info, plus a color version, check out eagereyes.org.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Iran puts torturers on trial; US doesn't

Iran's judiciary last year charged 12 officials at Kahrizak prison for involvement in the death of three protesters detained there in July.

So why can't the United States do this?

Anger over the abuse emerged in August, after influential conservative figures in the clerical hierarchy condemned the mistreatment of detainees.

Oh, I see the difference now.

Via Dispatches

Jesus, the Sagebrush Rebel

Jesus wants you to join the Sagebrush Rebellion. It may not sound like something he would normally be concerned about. In fact, that whole "Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s" business would almost lead you to think he didn't care about government policies, while Luke 12:13-14 could easily be misinterpreted to indicate that Jesus doesn't take sides in property disputes. Good thing we have Henry Lamb to set us straight.

To be fair,Lamb doesn't say anything here about Jesus. It's just the venue that forces me to make the connection. What does a states rights view of public lands have to do with holding a "Christian world view?" As nearly as I can tell, the blending of religion and politics has gone so far that anything, anything at all, that can be associated with conservative politics is assumed to be godly, anything in Matthew or Luke notwithstanding. Public lands are an especially attractive target because many federal regulations involve environmental restrictions and we know that environmentalism is nothing but pagan nature-worship, with no other purpose than to destroy Christianity. Damn those Satan-worshiping tree-huggers at the EPA, anyway.

Lamb is under that old, preposterous delusion that the federal government cannot own land and that all the public lands were stolen from the states:

It is reasonable to conclude that when a state is carved out of a territory, it becomes a state subject to the powers and limitations of all the other states within the jurisdiction of the Constitution, and no longer subject to the federal authority suffered by the people when the land area was a territory.


How can it be legal for the federal government to own land in a state that it did not purchase with the consent of the state legislature? How can it be legal for the federal government to exercise sovereignty over land within a sovereign state? Why were the eleven Western states and Alaska treated differently upon admission to the Union than were the other 26 states that joined the Union? when all states were supposed to be admitted on an "equal footing"?

There is only one logical conclusion: the federal government should not own the land it now claims within any state unless it is purchased with the approval of the state legislature for the purposes set forth in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 17.

Lamb is terribly confused here. He's referencing the section of the Constitution that governs the acquisition of DC, which was understood to be land that was already owned or to be acquired by existing states. It has nothing to do with the public lands that the government owned on its own behalf, in places where no state yet existed. Those would be addressed in Article IV, Section 3, which states clearly enough:
The Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to prejudice any claims of the United States, or of any particular state.
I'm always amazed that some Westerners seem to think that the eastern states were given all the land within their borders as soon as they entered the union. That's not how it worked. The land belonged to the United States and, frankly, was almost the only asset the federal government had for many years. They didn't give it away for nothing; they sold it, or used it for debts they didn't have real money to pay for (many veterans of the Revolutionary War were paid this way). Until sold, the land belonged to the federal government and could be governed by the same.

Typically, the land wouldn't go to the states anyway.* Most of it passed directly into private hands, at which time the land and its owners became subject to (in chronological order, as political development proceeded): the federal government, then the territorial government, and finally the state government.

And I do get a tad indignant - for my ancestors' sake, not my own - that in Indiana much of the land was originally purchased by speculators and the eventual settlers had to purchase it at market value, whatever that turned out to be. The Western states benefited from the various Homestead Acts, which allowed a settler to live on the land for awhile and then purchase at quite nominal prices. In the great westward rush after the Civil War, the government was all but giving the land away to anyone who could make a living on it.**

That, of course, is the rub - Western land is damned hard to make a living on. Despite being the cheapest land ever seen, in over 70 years most of it never sold. The Jeffersonian dream of filling the land with small farmsteads foundered on the drought-prone plains and deserts and only the land with reliable access to water had much value. The people in the Western states had more than enough time to acquire the public lands - they just didn't do it, and for good reasons.

Remember, though, this isn't just about land ownership. Straw-grasping legal analysis, bad history, disdain for nature, and knee-jerk hostility to the government is all part of having a Christian world view. Don't leave the asylum without it.

* A notable exception: the Yosemite Valley was given to California on condition that it become a public park; it didn't take California long to realize that it was nicer to give it back to the Feds, who would pay the bills while the state continued to reap the benefits.

** And giving it away to railroads, too, who were expected to sell it to private holders; either way, it didn't go to the state governments.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A word is worth a thousand pictures

I'm reading the Final Report of the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access and I come across the following diagram:

Got it? Crystal clear, isn't it? Aren't you glad you didn't have to wade through a dozen paragraphs of text to get the point?

Oh, wait. You didn't get the point? Maybe the accompanying text will help you out:

Choices available to decision makers are conditioned by core attributes common to all preserved digital assets and those that apply only within specific contexts.

Okay, that helps. We're talking about preserving digital assets, which wasn't at all obvious before. And the point? It's that, when making decision regarding preserving digital materials, some of the factors you consider will be unique to your specific situation, but there are other factors that are true of pretty much all digital preservation.

That's a bit obvious, but a valid introduction to the real point: identifying the "core attributes," those things that all preservation will have in common and so you might as well be aware of right from the start. In this case,

Preserved digital assets share four essential attributes as economic goods.

1. The demand for digital preservation is a derived demand.
2. Digital materials are depreciable durable assets.
3. Digital assets are nonrival in consumption and create a free-rider
4. The digital preservation process is temporally dynamic and pathdependent.

The most significant point is #3, the nonrivalrous consumption. That's a key difference between digital goods and physical goods.

I just wish to Gog or Hell or whatever that people could make their points without those damned relational diagrams which add not one whit of clarity to the text. In fact, I'm more often slowed down trying to figure out what is supposed to be so damned significant about placing bubbles to the left or right and drawing lines between them. There's some sort of a relationship, but drawing a line doesn't tell me what it is. Drawing arrows instead of lines is usually less helpful than the writer imagines. In this example, why does the "context-specific" attributes sit between the "core attributes" and the "choice variables," and not the other way around? It would make just as much sense to say that the context-specific attributes are mediated by the core attributes as vice versa. Perhaps that's because neither formulation manages to say much at all.

I see these diagrams everywhere and it's very rare that I find one worth the time to look at it, let alone the time to construct it. They say nothing that the text doesn't say more clearly and often in less page space. Can't we be done with this ridiculous fad?

Sigh. Okay, back to reading the report so I can gather the real information contained therein - in the text.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

On chauvinism

British art experts bemoan the "loss" of famous paintings to foreign purchasers. It seems that the government came up with £100,000,000 to purchase two Titian paintings, which leaves a bit strapped when they try to compete with private purchasers for other works.

It's a strange complaint, coming out of the country that still holds the Elgin Marbles, removed from Athens 200 years ago, and still commonly referred to by the name of the Brit who removed them. Do you believe in world heritage or don't you?

Via Global Museum

Friday, March 5, 2010

Friday photo

Bison in Midway Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park. March 2005

I like this shot for the loneliness and bleakness of the scene. It looks harsh, although you can easily tell that the snow isn't at all deep - as is typical of the geyser basins, where the same source that heats the water keeps the ground too warm to sustain deep snow for very long.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Anne just sent me this:

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Mascots should be cuddly, shouldn't they?

Purdue University is planning revisions for the Purdue Pete mascot, that sledehammer toting plastic head that stalks the sidelines at Boilermaker sporting events. According to athletic director Morgan Burke, this face scares little children*, so revision is in order. Besides, Burke says, "It's been 25 to 30 years since he got a makeover," and you know what that means: 80's hair! Egad.

Personally, I wouldn't mind seeing Pete disappear, as I'm not fond of mascots anyway, except maybe the meanest Duck in the West. But if Pete is indeed getting a new look, maybe we'll be seeing something like this:

(Although that hardly constitutes an update, does it?)

* Not that mascots have to be scary in order to frighten children. ESPN's Andy Katz received the following email over this issue: "In high school I worked as Bugs Bunny for the Warner Brothers Studio Store. Do you know how many children broke into tears when their parents brought them anywhere close to me? "

God for a day

Via Bad Astronomy, here's an awesome time-waster: model your own solar system!

Bad Astronomy's headline uses the phrase "destroyer of worlds" and that is the most frequent outcome when you first start tweaking parameters. Too much velocity and planetoids get flung into deep space; or collisions will wipe out one or more of your planetary bodies.* Fledgling gods need practice, too. Here are a couple of the more interesting systems I've generated so far.

In this one, the tiny blue body began as a moon of the heavy Planet Pink, but with a highly eccentric orbit. After a few circuits, its apogee fell at right angles to Pink's orbit, taking the Blue Moon so close to the sun that it was captured in the eccentric orbit that runs from the one o'clock position to seven o'clock. Not long after, the Pink skewed Blue's orbit again, this time into a more circular path. Since then, it's been pretty stable.

In this one, Blue's orbit around Pink also has high eccentricity, but is also smaller, so it doesn't get away. But the path is interesting: where the long axis of Blue's orbit lines up with Pink's orbital path, a curlicue path results, but at other positions it the loop disappears and Blue's path resembles a distorted sine curve.

Cool stuff, even better than Spirograph.

* Unfortunately, collisions aren't modeled - the smaller body just disappears, rather than adding a fraction of its mass to the larger body and then bouncing off in some other direction.