7 December 2013

Rightwing think-tanks plan coordinated assault on healthcare, taxes, and education

The Guardian has just come out with a good article on the latest plan to emerge from conservative think-tanks.

24 November 2013

How academia is like a drug gang

Alexandre Afonso has an excellent post (Nov. 21) about how the structure of academia, with it's countless desperate and low-paid temp-workers, resembles the structure of a drug gang. The article (and the very nice blog) is recommended to all who work in academia. I strongly suspect that this trend isn't just in academia--the economy of many nations--especially that of the U.S.--seems to be structured more and more like a drug gang.

21 November 2013

The new existentialist threat is upon us!

I can't believe our government's just sitting back and doing nothing about this! OMG!

WASHINGTON—In a 45-minute video posted on Tibetan websites Thursday, Tsuglag Rinpoche, leader of the Buddhist extremist group Kammaṭṭhāna, threatened to soon inflict a wave of peace and tranquility on the West.

Speaking in front of a nondescript altar surrounded by candles, burning sticks of incense, and a small golden statue of the Buddha, Rinpoche did not specify when or where an assault of profound inner stillness would occur, but stated in no uncertain terms that the fundamentalist Buddhist cell plans to target all Western suffering.

“In the name of the Great Teacher, we will stop at nothing to unleash a firestorm of empathy, compassion, and true selflessness upon the West,” said Rinpoche, adding that all enemies of a freely flowing, unfettered state of mind will be “besieged with pure, everlasting happiness.” “No city will be spared from spiritual harmony. We will bring about the end to all Western pain and anxiety, to all destructive cravings, to all greed, delusion, and misplaced desire. Indeed, we will bring the entire United States to its knees in deep meditation.”

“Wisdom and virtue to America!” continued Rinpoche. “Wisdom and virtue to all living things on earth!”

According to reports, Rinpoche stressed throughout his address that Kammaṭṭhāna soldiers would continue waging a tireless holy war on Western feelings of emptiness and negativity for as long as necessary, noting that “a jug fills drop by drop” and that “it is better to travel well than to arrive.”

The extremist leader specifically criticized the United States for its “blatant disregard of karmic balance within the universe” and ominously claimed that Americans will “one day soon” experience the highest form of metaphysical equilibrium through a union of both body and mind. Rinpoche also said all Western nations would “pay a heavy price in negative thinking and self-doubt” if they do not immediately engage in serious introspection and true spiritual liberation.

Sources confirmed the video then featured an uninterrupted 19-minute clip of water quietly flowing between rocks in a small forest creek.

20 November 2013

Kshama Sawant

Kshama Sawant, from the Socialist Alternative party, has won a seat on the Seattle city council! She has some great ideas, ranging from a $15 minimum wage to massive cuts in the U.S. military. Seattle always appears to be a step ahead of the rest of U.S.

5 November 2013

Herbal snake oil

A recent article in BMC (an academic journal) has found that a large portion of herbal substances contain none of the herbs they're supposed to contain, contain related herbs that are toxic, and/or contain fillers that cause allergies in many people. Since many of these herbs haven't been shown to work in the first place or aren't effective in the small doses shoved inside a capsule, this news is just one more reason for all of us to reconsider whether these pills are really worth the money. This is from the article's results section:

We recovered DNA barcodes from most herbal products (91%) and all leaf samples (100%), with 95% species resolution using a tiered approach (rbcL + ITS2). Most (59%) of the products tested contained DNA barcodes from plant species not listed on the labels. Although we were able to authenticate almost half (48%) of the products, one-third of these also contained contaminants and or fillers not listed on the label. Product substitution occurred in 30/44 of the products tested and only 2/12 companies had products without any substitution, contamination or fillers. Some of the contaminants we found pose serious health risks to consumers.

30 October 2013

Discretionary spending 2014


I'm always amazed by the size of the U.S. military budget. With so many people on the left and right unhappy about this, how does this continue to go on?

24 October 2013

What the wealth distribution means

This is a nice discussion of the current distribution of wealth in the U.S. This talk, by Robert Reich, asks how long can this go on before the system breaks.
As Richard Wilkinson points out in the following talk, income disparity, even when considered apart from the issue of poverty in absolute terms, creates havoc in society.

12 October 2013

Michael Sandel on markets and civic life



Around the 11- to 12-minute mark, Sandel makes a very profound point about Americans' inability, as a society, to reflect and evaluate their social practices. We could really use a modern-day Confucius or Mencius to carry out such a debate. I fully agree with his main point that the push to make everything in life into a commodity is extremely damaging to society (and, I might add, to the human spirit itself). In the end, it leads to the paradoxical situation we see in the U.S. where a small group of extremely wealthy individuals are doing all they can to create poverty and insecurity within one of the planet's wealthiest regions.

By the way, I see that Sandel's Harvard course titled "Justice" is all available online.

11 October 2013

Warp fields and other stars

The Interstellar Journeys blog has a nice (albeit, quite short) documentary on interstellar flight, focusing on some recent research into the possible creation of a warp drive. My gut feeling is that if we ever make it to the stars, it'll be because we've managed to colonize the planets and asteroids in our own solar system first. I think the real turning point will be when the off-world population and economy surpasses that of Earth and is no longer dependent on the Earth. At that point, the amount of labor, creativity, and assumption of risk that we could throw at the problem would surely lead to some major breakthroughs.

7 October 2013

What would Boehner do?


6 October 2013

It's high time for some "cross-national learning"!

I think that Obama Care didn't go nearly far enough, but since the Republican's alternative is to go back to the status quo, we should really consider the fact that according to research, Americans pay much more for far less when it comes to their health system. This, for example, is from a 2011 study by Squires

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) tracks and reports on more than 1,200 health system measures across 34 industrialized countries. This analysis concentrated on 2010 OECD health data for Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Health care spending in the U.S. towers over the other countries. The U.S. has fewer hospital beds and physicians, and sees fewer hospital and physician visits, than in most other countries. Prescription drug utilization, prices, and spending all appear to be highest in the U.S., as does the supply, utilization, and price of diagnostic imaging. U.S. performance on a limited set of quality measures is variable, ranking highly on five-year cancer survival, middling on in-hospital case-specific mortality, and poorly on hospital admissions for chronic conditions and amputations due to diabetes. Findings suggest opportunities for cross-national learning to improve health system performance.

We could really use some cross-national learning!

An article by Woolf and Aron (2013), summarizing the current situation, begins: The United States spends more on health care than does any other country, but its health outcomes are generally worse than those of other wealthy nations. People in the United States experience higher rates of disease and injury and die earlier than people in other high-income countries. 

Unfortunately, nothing's changed in the last decade. Going back to 2003, an article laments that the U.S. has the priciest system and has nothing to show for it.

3 October 2013

In spite of reports to the contrary, the sky's still up there.

Badtux the Snarky Penguin has an excellent post that provides some needed context for the latest Republican concern over the sky falling:

A common thing I hear is that “we’re broke”. Except the numbers don’t say that. The U.S. is the least-taxed major economy on the planet. During the horror of peace and prosperity that was the Clinton Administration taxation reached 29% of the economy, today it is at 26.9% of the economy. The OECD average is 35%. The deficit for the last fiscal year is estimated to be at 4% of GDP, so we could eliminate the deficit by raising taxes to 30.9% of GDP. That would still be lower taxes than every Western nation including all of Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, and lower than Japan if you use comparable figures, though slightly higher than South Korea. And we already know how to raise taxes to 30.9% of the GDP: just eliminate the tax loopholes that allow millionaires like Mitt Romney to pay only 15% of their income as taxes when you and I pay 30% or more of our income as taxes (if you count all taxes, including sales taxes, state taxes, property taxes, and Social Security/Medicare taxes).
As for the notion of the accumulated deficit being too high, the accumulated deficit currently stands at around 100% GDP. As in, if we paid off the entire accumulated deficit over the next 30 years similar to the way you’d pay off the mortgage on a house, we’d have to raise taxes roughly by 3.3% of GDP to do it, and we’d *still* be less taxed than the OECD average. Of course, there’s no real reason to do so since current Treasury bond offerings are going for 0% effective interest. As long as people are willing to let us use their money for nothing, why pay it back?
In other words, the notion that the United States is “broke” is utter nonsense. The numbers simply don’t support such a statement. The numbers are the numbers (and BTW, I got most of those numbers from the right-wing Heritage Foundation’s web site, so don’t claim the numbers aren’t the numbers).

1 October 2013

Too bad it had to end...

So what did you all think of the ending of Breaking Bad? Personally, I felt that everything was wrapped up a bit too tightly without enough loose ends. But all told, it was a great show. I hate to see it go.

28 September 2013

Global warming

Another IPCC summary for policy makers titled "Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis" is now out. The basic message seems to be that change is significant, far-reaching, and caused by human beings.

25 September 2013

Is the world's policeman retiring?

If the Syrian accord goes through and Iranian-U.S. relations thaw, Obama will be able to declare some major foreign policy successes, taking some of the wind out of the sails of Republicans hawks and naysayers during the next election cycle. That said, the U.S. military, if it's going to continue its skimming of all the cream from atop the U.S. economic pie, will have to justify its existence somehow. Since the U.S. public doesn't have much appetite for African adventures, this would leave the Middle East. Unfortunately (for the masters of war), the American public has seen the movie countless times. I'm not so sure they'll sit quietly through yet another rerun.

17 September 2013

14 September 2013

The Seager equation

The shift in the quest to detect extraterrestrial life is rightly shifting toward the detection of any type of life--to include the unintelligent kind that swims in mud puddles. Centauri Dreams has a post on Sara Seager's new reformulation of the Drake Equation:


In Seager’s view, there is at least “a remote shot” that we’ll detect a biosignature within the next ten years. Inferring some kind of life on a distant world isn’t like being handed the password to the Encyclopedia Galactica, but it would tell us that life is not confined to our own world.
How striking to think that the first discovery of life elsewhere may come from the light of a distant exoplanet rather than from an object in our own Solar System! But ponder: Seager is talking about a possible biosignature detection within a mere ten years. Are we likely to have unambiguous evidence of life on Mars, Europa or any other nearby object as soon as that?
This is exciting stuff. To think that we could be just a decade away from seeing our first sign of distant life in the universe!

8 September 2013

"I feel as if I should be doing something now..."

Dilbert, which usually isn't a very political comic strip, has been repeatedly poking fun at the government in the wake of revelations of government spying on the U.S. public.

The last strip is truly a masterpiece of sardonic humor!

4 September 2013

Joy as experience vs. joy as memory

Daniel Kahneman, an expert in behavioral economics, has an excellent talk on the difference between happiness as a moment-to-moment experience (the actual experience of happiness while immersed in life) and happiness as a reflection (being happy with one's life). The talk is important when we consider polls, which usually only take into account the latter type of happiness (which, as Kahneman suggests, should actually be considered less important). During the short question period, Kahneman also mentions recent findings that show that increases in wealth beyond $60,000 a year makes no difference at all to experienced happiness but does influence people's evaluation of their happiness with their life. The finding has significant policy implications since it essentially means that the easiest way to increase a society's overall happiness would be to focus on the lower and middle class. (In other words, turning U.S. policy around from its previous three-decade trend).

China surpasses U.S. on yet another metric

A recent study has shown that China now has a greater diabetes rate than the U.S. On the one had, this surprises me since Chinese are still much thinner and seem to be more active than their American counterparts. (The report did mention that Chinese are getting diabetes at lower BMIs.) On the other hand, the last time I was in China, I was taken back by how much junkfood everyone ate. The junkfood was Chinese junkfood, but junkfood all the same.

3 September 2013

Framing the progressive worldview

I just finished watching Deflating the Elephant and was very impressed. The film is essentially a long lecture by George Lakoff on how conservatives have cleverly framed discourse during the past couple decades. Lakoff provides some very sound advice on how progressives need to go on the offensives to ensure that their fundamental ideas are understood within the overarching structure of ideas that inspire their worldview. Unfortunately, the Rockridge Institute, which was developed to promote Lakoff`s political work, has shut down. It`s work has, to some extent, been taken over by Cognitive Policy Works.

1 September 2013

Happy Labor Day!

Love for labor lost: Paul Krugman on the forgotten significance of labor day...

30 August 2013

22 August 2013

Some thoughts on the Manning sentence

From Bryan at Why Now, an enlightening comparison:

Digby posted on the 35-year sentence, but went further and compared it to that of mass murderer William Calley, convicted for the Mi Lai massacre:
Sentenced to life imprisonment, Calley spent only three days in the stockade at Fort Benning before President Nixon ordered his release to house arrest. Three years later he was a free man, paroled by the Secretary of the Army.
Bradley Manning spent more time in confinement before his court martial, than William Calley spent after being convicted of mass murder. One of the first things that came out of what Bradley Manning leaked was a video of American forces killing unarmed civilians, including two employees of Reuters. The US government apparently feels it is a misdemeanor to kill civilians, but a major felony to tell people about it.

31 July 2013

Jenkin's critique of online courses

Robert Jenkins has a good article in The Chronicle of Education that basically claims that the motivation for online classes is to cut cost (and increase profits) without concern about quality. Unfortunately, U.S. four-year colleges have increased tuition to the extent that the public is now likely to endorse the latest innovation with little consideration of the consequences. While I think online courses are wonderful, I don't think they substitute for a college experience.

28 July 2013

Funny of the day

24 July 2013

Jodi Dean on the limits of the Web

I've always liked Jodi Dean's insights into modern capitalism. In this talk, she does a great job of explaining how radical movements and motivations are often co-opted as they're channeled through modern media.

Where's the opt-out button?

Someone needs to invent an opt out button for the internet as a whole that blocks out all discussion of royal families anywhere. I simply can't fathom, for the life of me, why anyone anywhere would care about such nonsense, but if you do care, please don't take up a second of my time or fill an inch of my computer screen with that drivel.

13 July 2013

10 July 2013

Bad apples

I was glad to hear about the decision against Apple regarding e-books price-fixing. Digital formats clearly should make books, music, and movies much cheaper to sell for obvious reasons. In particular, there's now no need for individual stores to take on risk when stocking items that may not sell (and thus end up being sent back or sold at a discount). Arcticfoxxx, a commentator on the original news article, makes a number of good points that capture my feelings perfectly:

Let's be honest. Beyond convenience, the allure of digital media was that it was supposed to be CHEAPER for consumers because production expenses would be greatly diminished. After all, there would be no paper and ink to purchase; no printing press or operators to pay; no shipping and much lower distribution costs. In the case of classic books with no or low royalties to be paid, that has held true, but, overall, the price has not been lowered in many cases. I was looking at Kurt Vonnegut books on the iTunes store last night and was amazed they were largely $11.99 for Pete's sake. It MORE expensive than buying it in paperback. Apple has a rack going with all their iTunes media; not just books.

As an avid movie buff and collector, I own between 1200-1300 dvd and blu ray discs. The prices on dvds have fallen dramatically since the introduction of blu rays. A large array of older movies such as Airplane! could be purchased NEW for around $5 in a retail store and even less in used market sites like Amazon. iTunes started selling the SD digital versions of these older movies for $9.99 and it has become the standard baseline for other sites like Amazon. The price has INCREASED despite lower production and marketing costs. 

Every company in the media industry whether it be music, movies, or books should be indicted under the anti-trust laws for collusion and price-fixing. They have been keeping the price of media artificially high for years. It's just more blatant now.

1 July 2013

26 June 2013

Kumaré

I recently watch Kumaré, a documentary about a young Indian-American man who pretends to be a guru in Arizona and develops a following. I would agree with those who complained about the film-maker's deception. Many of the hoodwinked disciples in the film come off as very genuine people, seeking to improve themselves That said, the sight of self-assured new-age types confidently pontificating about the pseudoguru's magnificent aura and psychic powers is certainly LOLworthy. The most ironic feature of the film is that the message of the "guru" is that he is fake. (Of course, there's a metaphorical reading of the message, to the effect that human personality is, in a fundamental sense, false.) The fact that someone could pass themselves off as a guru so easily should give all guru-seekers (or religious people of any flavor, for that matter) reason to stop and consider the foundations of their faith.

Hmmm


16 June 2013

The Great Gatsby: Not great but quite good

Last night I watched The Great Gatsby. If you're going to see this, I'd definitely try to watch it on the big screen. I loved the party scenes, and the surrealistic use of modern music clips for 1920s parties actually worked for me. The party scenes are spectacular, providing the visual candy of the film. I haven't read the book, but I've heard that the film innovated in having the narration appear from Carraway (who's being psychoanalyzed). Since there's no point at which the psychoanalyst poses any psychological question, this framing device struck me as a waste of time. Overall, I'd recommend this. After watching about ten DiCaprio films, the only one that I didn't much care for was J. Edgar, and I think most of the blame for that belongs to the scriptwriter instead of to the actor.

7 June 2013

Talk about sweeping powers!

Just another sign that the Bush-Obama war on the right to privacy is still raging on. Verizon has always been an especially sleazy company, so it's perfectly fitting that it should be complying with orders from the sleaziest elements in our government.

The NSA-Verizon Scandal



2 June 2013

Income inequality worldwide

I came across this interesting map showing income equality using the GINI index (the higher the number, the greater the inequality). The U.S. shows greater inequality than other advanced nations (no surprise there). On the other hand, I didn't expect South Korea to be rated as having greater equality than Japan or New Zealand.

In the 1960s, the U.S. index was below .40.  The wealth gap has been growing since then with no sign of abating.

1 June 2013

The catcher in the rye

I finally got around to reading The Catcher in the Rye. What a great novel! I love how the author juxtaposes features of Holden (the main character) that are, at least on the surface, negative, with hints of Holden's more laudatory motives. I can see how a book like this could be read and reread by critics over the decades without mining all there is in it. Can you believe that this book has been repeatedly banned in high schools for profanity and sexuality? (In terms of sexuality, I really don't get it, since the book doesn't contain any vivid descriptions of sex.)

26 May 2013

NNT, a very interesting number

While reading a somewhat dated article (that I'd highly recommend) that calls into question the wisdom of taking statins, I came across the measure known as NNT (number needed to treat). The NNT basically tells you how many patients would need to take a drug (or adopt some form of treatment) in order to obtain the desired outcome. When a drugs' effectiveness is analyzed using the NNT, the outcome can be very enlightening. In the article, Lipitor, used to prevent a heart-attack, had an NNT of 100! (In other words, 99 people taking this expensive drug for the observed period would receive no observable benefit whatsoever.) If we look at side-effects, on the other hand, the NNH (number needed to harm) is quite low (in other words, the side-effect would show up in even a small group of people taking the drug). I have some knowledge of statistics and am familiar with effect-size measures, but these measures--the NNT and NNH--are quite enlightening. If the NNT of common drugs is anything close to what it is for statins, it really suggests that Americans are popping way too many pills. Instead of wasting so much money on what is of little or no benefit (and is likely to harm us), we should relax, be happy, lose weight, meditate, laugh more, meet friends, have good sex, eat a few more veggies and fish, and cut out the red meat--all lifestyle changes that have been proven to be very effective.

23 May 2013

Whatever works

I recently watched Whatever Works, a 2009 comedy directed by Wooden Allen. The film has its moments. Unfortunately, Larry David really isn't up to playing the lead in the film. There's some subtle element of his body language that comes across as high school play instead of movie-level acting. That said, Woody Allen's able to work some of his magic, making the film mildly entertaining.

Healthcare costs: Heading over the cliff


Americans already pay more than double what they should for healthcare, and yet healthcare costs continue to increase. This seems to me to be completely unsustainable.
On average, according to the latest Milliman Medical Index (MMI), a family of four covered through a typical employer health plan will pay out $9,144 this year in premiums and out-of-pocket expenses. That's up about 6.5 percent over 2012, though not as much as the prior year's increase of 7.2 percent. The 2013 rise translates into slightly more than $45 a month in higher monthly premiums and out-of-pocket expenses.
A significant reason for the jump, based on today's figures from Milliman, a health care consultancy, is that employees are shouldering a greater share of the cost of health insurance. Families are paying 8.4 percent more than last year toward insurance premiums, while employers are paying 6.1 percent more. Between 2010 and now, employees have seen yearly increases of 8 percent to 9 percent in their average monthly premium; increases in the employer contribution have averaged less than 7 percent. Private-industry wages, by contrast, have risen less than 2 percent in the last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Families with coverage like the one built into Milliman's assumptions will pay an average of $5,544 in monthly premiums through payroll deductions and $3,600 out of pocket for doctor visits, medications and other medical bills. Such figures are national averages; the most expensive 10 percent of patients run up more than seven times the average individual's expenses, according to Milliman.
"Average" means a family with two kids, enrolled in a company's standard preferred provider organization, which is the most widely used form of group coverage. The family pays about 41 percent of the actual cost of health care, according to the Milliman index. Employers pay the other 59 percent.
About half of Americans are insured through their employer; about 15 million people buy individual health insurance, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, and are therefore responsible for all of their care. 

16 May 2013

The Moon and Sixpence

Following my short foray into Murakami's works, I read Somerset Maughum's The Moon and Sixpence. While I wouldn't rank this up there with On Human Bondage or The Razor's Edge (which I really loved), the writing is clever and the main character, which is based loosely on Gauguin, is memorable.

15 May 2013

Norwegian Wood

This was the third novel from Murakami that I read. I really liked this book. I made the mistake of watching the movie first, which made it hard to imagine the characters being any different from those in the film. That said, the film director actually does a pretty good job of following the book closely in just about every detail. Only a few subplots have been omitted, for example, Reiko Ishida's (石田 玲子)  story. In both the book and the film, Midori's a very appealing character--brutally honest with a great sense of humor and a real zest for life. The story strikes me as being quite profound, and the sexual interactions woven into the plot really help to accent the central theme of the novel. I'm now slowly making my way through the book in the original Japanese.

14 May 2013

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle

After slogging my way through IQ84, I read The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. I enjoyed this book more for some reason, especially the Manchurian war episodes. The evil brother-in-law character strikes me as very underdeveloped, but the thematic symbolic elements (the scar, the wind-up bird, and so on) are tantalizing and seem to work at some level. Murakami's at his best in this and his other works when his characters go off onto some seemingly unimportant tangent. I was surprised to come across so many motifs that re-emerge in IQ84. (One of the characters--Ushikawa--has even been recycled.) And then there's the well, which appears prominently in the beginning of Norwegian Wood.

12 May 2013

IQ84

Several weeks ago, I read IQ84. Out of the three Murakami novels I've read, this has to be my greatest disappointment. I'd agree with Bryan Walsh's review...

But as it is with all magicians, the spell cast by Murakami is a delicate one. In his massive new novel 1Q84, just published in English translation, it never quite dazzles as it should. All the usual Murakami elements are there: the detached protagonist, the creepy authoritarian cult, the mysterious quest, the moments when the bizarre bleeds into the buttoned-up world of modern Japan. Yet too often the words simply lay there on the page—all 932 of them. The effort feels all too forced, as if Murakami set out to write something that simply approximated a great novel. (Murakami has said that he was inspired by The Brothers Karamazov, which is similar to 1Q84 in that it is also very, very long.) This is a jazz solo that overstays its welcome.

I don't think it merely dragged on too long. You could reduce the novel to any length and it would still be immensely disappointing.

8 May 2013

Mike Masse collection on YouTube

I stumbled upon some covers by Mike Masse and Jeff Hall. Great stuff. Their versions are incredible, but I also love their selection. It's strange, but virtually every song they sing, whether it's Simon & Garfunkle, Pink Floyd, Radio Head, or the Grateful Dead, has been a favorite of mine.

3 May 2013

12 April 2013

Pondering priorities

This is an interesting factoid to ponder: 

 "The annual budget of the US Department of Defense is about equal to the sum total of money NASA has ever spent since its inception in 1958." 

 Richard Obousy, president and senior scientist for Icarus Interstellar

You have to wonder where we'd be if that spending had been inverted. At the very least, we'd probably have vast arrays of space-based telescopes sending us pictures of seasonal change on far off planets with plant life. We'd definitely have a colony of scientists permanently living on Mars.

10 April 2013

Well now, this is a most worrisome development:



PYONGYANG (The Borowitz Report)—In a move that has further ratcheted up tensions on the Korean peninsula, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un today moved his entire collection of Transformers action figures to the border with South Korea.
According to sources familiar with the size and scope of the collection, which is believed to be the largest in Asia, the mercurial Kim began assembling it when he was either eight or nine.
In Washington, an intelligence source reported that satellite photos have confirmed thousands of Transformers massing on the southern border: “We are seeing no Autobots. Just tons and tons of Decepticons.” Kim himself confirmed the Transformers mobilization today on state television, announcing, “I am Megatron,” followed by an unintelligible roar. The latest development in North Korea follows published reports that Kim Jong-un may be trying to obtain a light sabre.

7 April 2013

I've got those new computer blues...

I got a new computer loaded with Windows 8. For the life of me, I can't figure out why computer companies make every new version impossibly complex. Simple things like turning the computer off are impossible to figure out without someone guiding you through the process and even then, it's hard to remember. (I've resorted to finding the icons using the control-alt-del sequence.) To make matters worse, the computer goes into sleep mode and is impossible to wake up. I'll see if I can find someone who can get into the system and turn all the power-saving crap off, but if not, I'll have to take it back. It isn't just me. A tech person came and helped me for half and hour, and even after internet searches, couldn't figure out how to wake the damn thing up. My advice for computer makers. Come out with a computer that has an on and off switch that looks (and works) like a big ugly plastic light switch and stick it right on the front of the computer. If you include a sleep function, include a second such switch with a big "wake me up" logo next to it. And finally, shoot the software developer who came up with the idea of hiding options under roll-overs that are in empty parts of the screen. This whole experience is making me long for the days of Windows 3.1.

I also updated my Endnote software to Version 6. Every new Endnote version gets a little uglier. This one has eliminated the useful feature of automatically saving changes. Now, every time you change an entry, you have to go through the menu to save changes. I tried changing a name in multiple entries and it took forever. The Windows 8 developers are evidently moonlighting over at Endnote.

4 March 2013

No new taxes--except on them CO2-spewing bicyclists

I was sure that this was a spoof from the Onion, but apparently it's real:


Washington state Rep. Ed Orcutt, a ranking member of the State Transportation Committee, argues that bicycling is bad for the environment and says bike riders should have to pay a tax to help maintain the state's roads. Orcutt made his comments in an email, which was posted by the Cascade bicycle club blog on Saturday. In the message, Orcutt states bike riders pollute the environment because they produce more carbon dioxide than car drivers. The email from the lawmaker, which was written to bike shop owner Dale Carson, goes on to say that because bike riders have an "increased heart rate and respiration," the act of riding a bike "results in greater emissions of carbon dioxide from the rider." "Since CO2 is deemed to be a greenhouse gas and a pollutant, bicyclists are actually polluting when they ride," Orcutt wrote in the message, which Carson provided to The Huffington Post on Monday.
Writers of the Onion watch out--the competition's coming right at you.

2 March 2013

Straightjacket Society

I just finished reading Straightjacket Society by Masao Miyamoto--a book that was given to me about ten years back by a Japanese friend. Since this short work is basically one long rant about how consensus-driven collectivist Japan should be more like the individualistic rational West, there probably isn't much that will strike the western reader (especially those who have lived in the Confucian societies of NE Asia) as novel. I should add that, notwithstanding Miyamoto's portrayal of the West as a great bastion of rationality and fairness, many of the complaints could be made about any bureaucracy. Paper-pushers everywhere try to protect their tiny enclaves and funding, punishing anybody who opens them up to greater scrutiny or threatens their ongoing existence. On the other hand, since the book was written back in the heady days when Japan was on top and most top-sellers were telling us that we all had to become more Japanese, the book was prescient. It's also a reminder of how the benefits of collectivism (low crime, security, economic stability, .... the list goes on), are always offset by tremendous sacrifice as individuals must sublimate their desires for some nebulous notion of "the greater good."

For a more positive review, check out the Tokyo Damage Report.

24 February 2013

Graft

I usually hate modern sculpture, but this piece (called "Graft") by Roxy Paine has completely brought me around. Paine's dendroid sculptures can now be found in DC, New York, and Europe. Seen from the distance, I initially did a bit of a double-take. The sculpture really does look like a real tree that happens to have a metallic sheen.

10 February 2013

8 February 2013

Guns and cars


This article, by Jennifer Gunter, is worth quoting in full.

We can learn a lot by comparing guns to cars


A common rebuttal to any discussion about of gun control is motor vehicle accident deaths. We don’t blame the car, we blame the driver. Regardless of the object’s intent (the car is for transportation and the gun is shoot people, targets, game, and skeet), neither a car nor a gun can kill or maim without human touch.
And I agree. Comparing guns and cars is fair, after all they kill about the same number of Americans every year: 33,687 motor vehicle deaths and 31,672 firearm deaths in 2010 (the latest year for which complete data is available). The death rates per 100,000 are almost identical: 10.9 for motor vehicles and 10.3 for firearms.
So let’s legislate guns just like we legislate motor vehicles:
  • Learners permit at age 15 and a formal test required for a license at 16.This kind of law would prevent deaths of young children who are taken by their parents to firing ranges to “try out” weapons. Or parents letting their kids shoot a gun in any situation. Just as a nine-year old isn’t allowed to drive a car, so they shouldn’t be allowed to fire a 9 mm Micro Uzi. It is doubtful children firing automatic weapons was the intention of our founding fathers when they crafted the second amendment. Hunting is no exception. Kids can’t drive a car or truck for any purpose and nor should they be shooting a firearm.
  • Require renewal of the license every 2-3 years. I have to renew my driver’s license, why not renew a license to fire a gun?
  • Require a different license for different classes of weapons. A driver of an 18 wheeler requires a different license. Handling a vehicle of that size with air brakes is very different from driving an automatic, 6 cylinder car. If you want to purchase a semi-automatic weapon, it should require a different license*
  • Registration. Cars have to be registered, so all guns should be too. Remember, we’re saying guns are no more lethal than cars, so if it’s good for a car it’s good for a gun. Registering a weapon doesn’t infringe on the right to own. Gun licensing and registration will create government jobs!
  • Require gun insurance. If I ever intend on driving my car, I need insurance, so that same standard should apply to firearms. Safe gun owners (gun not stolen and used in a crime, no accidents around the house, trigger locks etc.) will get breaks, and the insurance money can be used to pay hospital bills (just like car insurance) if you inadvertently injure someone with your weapon.*
  • Safety testing. I have to get my car smog tested every 2-3 years, so why not bring the gun in for inspection? Failure to present the gun without proof of legal sale would imply illegal sale or theft and impart significant penalties. Gas stations do smog testing, so firing ranges could easily step up to the plate as I am sure they are advocates of gun safety and maintenance.
  • Tax ammunition. Heavily. Gasoline is taxed. Heavily. However, ammunition is relatively cheap. For example, a 40 round magazine for an AK-47 can be purchased online for $29.99, which is less than a dollar a bullet and far less than a tank of gas. I propose a steep tax on ammunition that exponentially increases with the size of the magazine. The tax money can go for education about gun safety or to pay medical expenses for victims injured in gun crimes.
  • Prevent online sales of ammunition. Since you can’t buy gasoline online for home delivery, you shouldn’t be able to buy ammunition online. Alaska; California; Cook County, IL; Hawaii; Massachusetts; New York City; and Washington, D.C. already restrict shipping ammunition from online sales, so why not the rest of the country? If it’s illegal in several states and D.C. the laws preventing online sales must have survived legal challenges, so it’s time to go national.
  • Require trigger locks. Cars have locks to prevent theft and protect children from climbing in and starting the car. No one argues, “Cars shouldn’t have a key for the ignition in case you are being chased so you can make a quick getaway.” If you can take time to start your car, you can take time to start your gun. The news is rife with stories of teenagers or young children either accidentally or intentionally killing with a gun from the home. A lock could prevent this. Obviously, people can choose to leave their guns unlocked, but… (see below).
  • Require more of gun manufacturers. If 15 people a year were killed by a Prius in a freak accident Toyota would be all over it, yet somehow gun manufacturers get away with no press after gun deaths. I’m not talking about homicides, but accidental ones. Like the five people shot by accident at gun shows on gun appreciation day. Not quite 100 people a year were killed by vehicles backing up, but car manufacturers responded with rear-end camera and alarms. Couldn’t gun manufacturers find a way to make guns safer? To make trigger locks difficult to bypass? Car manufacturers want to keep their drivers and occupants safe, shouldn’t gun manufacturers do the same?
We can learn a lot by comparing guns to cars. None of the above says it isn’t your right to have a gun, just that we all have a stake in safe gun ownership.
So please, yes, let’s start comparing guns to cars.

1 February 2013

Guns

The thing I find so exasperating about the NRA's hyperbole surrounding the gun issue is their use of what amounts to guerrilla tactics to stifle debate. Whatever anybody believes, we're obviously going to regulate guns in some way (nobody's suggesting that we allow the sale of bazookas in the local kids store), so any rational society might want to revisit this issue from time to time and see if the current group of laws are working. That is, any rational society... 


13 January 2013

Mars One

This is quite a scheme for getting to Mars--almost comical in a way. One thing I like about it is that the people will stay. I think that people will have to get used to the idea of one-way trips if we're ever going to travel past the moon.

4 January 2013

Is it really healthy to be overweight?

In the news recently is a meta-analysis by Flegal et al. (2013) that found that overweight and mildly obese people actually lived longer than those who were normal weight or thin. The authors list, as possible explanations, the "earlier presentation of heavier patients, greater likelihood of receiving optimal medical treatment, cardioprotective metabolic effects of increased body fat, and benefits of higher metabolic reserves." It should be pointed out that the first two explanations have nothing to do with health per se; hence the rash exuberance of Paul Campos in the New York Times ("Our Absurd Fear of Fat") seems to be ill-founded. As for the basic premise, I'm a bit skeptical since we already know that obesity's associated with a wide range of medical conditions that often do us in--high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, most cancers, and so on. There's also the literature on calorie restriction (CR), which clearly shows a marked advantage for low-calorie intake and a corresponding low BMI. In the medical literature, CR is often described as the only intervention that's currently known to actually slow aging. My guess is that the Flegal team's meta-analysis has failed to identify and account for some lurking variables (for example, unreported amphetamine use by thin subjects and so on).