28 December 2014

Gift sets still available

For those of you who still have some shopping to do, the perfect gift.

27 December 2014

Thumbs up for HER, thumbs down for SAINTS AND SOLDIERS: THE VOID

I recently watched Her and found it to be an excellent and daring movie. Daring, for several reasons. First, the movie, like the wonderful film My Dinner with Andre, spends nearly the entire time with highly static scenes involving dialogue. The plot is also fresh. I'd assumed that it would follow the natural trajectory of human vs. artificial intelligence clash or tragedy but it instead enters uncharted waters.
I actually found the ending quite plausible. The voice of the artificial intelligence also diverges from standard sci-fi tropes. In nearly every case, the artificial intelligence is given either a very artificial voice (as in 2001: A Space Odyssey) or is given a very emotionless voice (like that of Data, in Star Trek). In Her, the voice is, if anything, more sensitive and emotional than we'd expect. Anyway, I fully recommend this if you missed it in theaters.
     I also recently watched Saints and Soldiers: The Void. This is apparently the final movie in a trilogy. (I never saw the first two.)
The film covers a small battle between a group of soldiers who are outnumbered by some German Panzers in a heavily wooded area. Most of the movie is about race relations and a black soldier earning the begrudging respect of several racist soldiers. The plot isn't innovative, although I suppose there's enough there for a passably interesting film. Unfortunately, the acting is, across the board, awful. The few convincing actors have bit parts that last for less than a minute. Give this film a miss.

23 December 2014

Festivus greetings

Another Festivus has passed, many grievances have been aired, and now there's just some major cleaning up to do as I enjoy the remaining break. Happy Festivus to you all!

17 December 2014

Life is easy

16 December 2014

English Vinglish

I recently watched English Vinglish, a feel-good comedy about an Indian woman who wants to learn English so as to win recognition from her children and to gain a sense of empowerment as a woman. The film has some charm but doesn't really go very far past various ethnic stereotypes and woman-tearing-off-the-apron sort of tropes. I must confess that I find Sridevi Kapoor, around age 50 in this film, to be still quite stunning. (I'm afraid I have a penchant for doe-eyed Indian women in their saris.)

13 December 2014

Retrograde amnesia spreads across the U.S.: The disastrous House vote on No. 563

The House just passed a massive $1.1 trillion spending plan that contained a provision, which pretty much follows, word per word, that penned by Citigroup, repealing a key part of the Dodd-Frank Act. The provision enables the big banks to return to using insured deposits and other taxpayer subsidies to gamble in the derivatives markets. People must have a very short memory: this is the very type of business that drove the 2008 financial crisis and destroyed household savings throughout the country. The bill's expected to pass in the Senate. Wall Street has finally found the perfect moment to reshape financial regulation. Obama was telling Democrats to go along with the legislation as the least of potential evils. I don't see why anyone would vote for it. The other accomplishments of the bill? Massive funding to the military and making it easy for people to lose their pensions. Unbelievable! The Republicans against the bill can probably be described as Tea Party types who wanted to bring  the government down to punish Obama and get more concessions. A map of the votes throughout the U.S. is given below:

The Republicans and Democrats who supported the bill are listed below: Republicans voting yes:

Aderholt, R. (R-AL-4) Amodei, M. (R-NV-2) Bachus, S. (R-AL-6) Barletta, L. (R-PA-11) Barr, A. (R-KY-6) Benishek, D. (R-MI-1) Bilirakis, G. (R-FL-12) Bishop, R. (R-UT-1) Black, D. (R-TN-6) Boehner, J. (R-OH-8) Boustany, C. (R-LA-3) Brady, K. (R-TX-8) Brooks, S. (R-IN-5) Buchanan, V. (R-FL-16) Bucshon, L. (R-IN-8) Byrne, B. (R-AL-1) Calvert, K. (R-CA-42) Camp, D. (R-MI-4) Capito, S. (R-WV-2) Carter, J. (R-TX-31) Cassidy, B. (R-LA-6) Chabot, S. (R-OH-1) Chaffetz, J. (R-UT-3) Coble, H. (R-NC-6) Coffman, M. (R-CO-6) Cole, T. (R-OK-4) Collins, C. (R-NY-27) Collins, D. (R-GA-9) Cook, P. (R-CA-8) Cramer, K. (R-ND-1) Crenshaw, A. (R-FL-4) Culberson, J. (R-TX-7) Daines, S. (R-MT-1) Davis, R. (R-IL-13) Denham, J. (R-CA-10) Dent, C. (R-PA-15) Diaz-Balart, M. (R-FL-25) Duffy, S. (R-WI-7) Ellmers, R. (R-NC-2) Fincher, S. (R-TN-8) Fitzpatrick, M. (R-PA-8) Fleischmann, C. (R-TN-3) Forbes, J. (R-VA-4) Fortenberry, J. (R-NE-1) Foxx, V. (R-NC-5) Frelinghuysen, R. (R-NJ-11) Gardner, C. (R-CO-4) Gerlach, J. (R-PA-6) Gibbs, B. (R-OH-7) Gibson, C. (R-NY-19) Gingrey, P. (R-GA-11) Goodlatte, B. (R-VA-6) Granger, K. (R-TX-12) Graves, S. (R-MO-6) Graves, T. (R-GA-14) Griffin, T. (R-AR-2) Grimm, M. (R-NY-11) Guthrie, B. (R-KY-2) Hanna, R. (R-NY-22) Harper, G. (R-MS-3) Harris, A. (R-MD-1) Hartzler, V. (R-MO-4) Hastings, D. (R-WA-4) Heck, J. (R-NV-3) Herrera Beutler, J. (R-WA-3) Holding, G. (R-NC-13) Hudson, R. (R-NC-8) Huizenga, B. (R-MI-2) Hultgren, R. (R-IL-14) Hunter, D. (R-CA-50) Issa, D. (R-CA-49) Jenkins, L. (R-KS-2) Johnson, B. (R-OH-6) Jolly, D. (R-FL-13) Joyce, D. (R-OH-14) Kelly, M. (R-PA-3) King, P. (R-NY-2) Kingston, J. (R-GA-1) Kinzinger, A. (R-IL-16) Kline, J. (R-MN-2) Lance, L. (R-NJ-7) Latham, T. (R-IA-3) Latta, R. (R-OH-5) LoBiondo, F. (R-NJ-2) Long, B. (R-MO-7) Lucas, F. (R-OK-3) Luetkemeyer, B. (R-MO-3) Marino, T. (R-PA-10) McCarthy, K. (R-CA-23) McCaul, M. (R-TX-10) McHenry, P. (R-NC-10) McKeon, B. (R-CA-25) McMorris Rodgers, C. (R-WA-5) Meehan, P. (R-PA-7) Messer, L. (R-IN-6) Mica, J. (R-FL-7) Miller, C. (R-MI-10) Mullin, M. (R-OK-2) Murphy, T. (R-PA-18) Noem, K. (R-SD-1) Nugent, R. (R-FL-11) Nunes, D. (R-CA-22) Nunnelee, A. (R-MS-1) Palazzo, S. (R-MS-4) Paulsen, E. (R-MN-3) Pearce, S. (R-NM-2) Petri, T. (R-WI-6) Pittenger, R. (R-NC-9) Pitts, J. (R-PA-16) Price, T. (R-GA-6) Reed, T. (R-NY-23) Reichert, D. (R-WA-8) Renacci, J. (R-OH-16) Ribble, R. (R-WI-8) Rigell, S. (R-VA-2) Roby, M. (R-AL-2) Roe, P. (R-TN-1) Rogers, H. (R-KY-5) Rogers, M. (R-MI-8) Rokita, T. (R-IN-4) Rooney, T. (R-FL-17) Roskam, P. (R-IL-6) Ros-Lehtinen, I. (R-FL-27) Ross, D. (R-FL-15) Rothfus, K. (R-PA-12) Royce, E. (R-CA-39) Runyan, J. (R-NJ-3) Ryan, P. (R-WI-1) Scalise, S. (R-LA-1) Schock, A. (R-IL-18) Sessions, P. (R-TX-32) Shimkus, J. (R-IL-15) Shuster, B. (R-PA-9) Simpson, M. (R-ID-2) Smith, A. (R-NE-3) Smith, J. (R-MO-8) Southerland, S. (R-FL-2) Stewart, C. (R-UT-2) Stivers, S. (R-OH-15) Terry, L. (R-NE-2) Thompson, G. (R-PA-5) Thornberry, M. (R-TX-13) Tiberi, P. (R-OH-12) Tipton, S. (R-CO-3) Turner, M. (R-OH-10) Upton, F. (R-MI-6) Valadao, D. (R-CA-21) Wagner, A. (R-MO-2) Walberg, T. (R-MI-7) Walden, G. (R-OR-2) Walorski, J. (R-IN-2) Wenstrup, B. (R-OH-2) Westmoreland, L. (R-GA-3) Whitfield, E. (R-KY-1) Wilson, J. (R-SC-2) Wolf, F. (R-VA-10) Womack, S. (R-AR-3) Woodall, R. (R-GA-7) Yoder, K. (R-KS-3) Yoho, T. (R-FL-3) Young, D. (R-AK-1) Young, T. (R-IN-9)

 The following Democrats voted yes:

 Barber, R. (D-AZ-2) Barrow, J. (D-GA-12) Bera, A. (D-CA-7) Bishop, S. (D-GA-2) Bishop, T. (D-NY-1) Brady, R. (D-PA-1) Brownley, J. (D-CA-26) Bustos, C. (D-IL-17) Carney, J. (D-DE-1) Clay, W. (D-MO-1) Clyburn, J. (D-SC-6) Connolly, G. (D-VA-11) Costa, J. (D-CA-16) Crowley, J. (D-NY-14) Cuellar, H. (D-TX-28) Davis, S. (D-CA-53) Delaney, J. (D-MD-6) Dingell, J. (D-MI-12) Farr, S. (D-CA-20) Fattah, C. (D-PA-2) Foster, B. (D-IL-11) Gallego, P. (D-TX-23) Garamendi, J. (D-CA-3) Himes, J. (D-CT-4) Horsford, S. (D-NV-4) Hoyer, S. (D-MD-5) Kaptur, M. (D-OH-9) Kind, R. (D-WI-3) Kuster, A. (D-NH-2) Lipinski, D. (D-IL-3) Lowey, N. (D-NY-17) Maffei, D. (D-NY-24) Maloney, S. (D-NY-18) Matheson, J. (D-UT-4) McCarthy, C. (D-NY-4) Meeks, G. (D-NY-5) Miller, G. (D-CA-11) Moran, J. (D-VA-8) Murphy, P. (D-FL-18) Norcross, D. (D-NJ-1) Owens, W. (D-NY-21) Pastor, E. (D-AZ-7) Perlmutter, E. (D-CO-7) Peters, G. (D-MI-14) Peters, S. (D-CA-52) Price, D. (D-NC-4) Quigley, M. (D-IL-5) Richmond, C. (D-LA-2) Ruiz, R. (D-CA-36) Ruppersberger, C. (D-MD-2) Schneider, B. (D-IL-10) Schwartz, A. (D-PA-13) Scott, D. (D-GA-13) Sewell, T. (D-AL-7) Sherman, B. (D-CA-30) Sinema, K. (D-AZ-9) Wasserman Schultz, D. (D-FL-23)

9 December 2014

Jibbers Crabst

I'm switching religions. I think this guy's got it right.

6 December 2014

100 years of beauty

This is an interesting clip showing (in very rapid succession) how fashion has changed during the last 100 years.

December humor

3 December 2014

Police killed in the U.S. by the numbers

Some interesting numbers on police killed in the line of duty appeared on the Hipcrime website, apparently taken wholly or partly from The Economist or perhaps from this FBI report.

Number of U.S. law enforcement officers killed as a result of criminal acts:

2004: 57
2009: 48
2012: 49
2013: 27

There are 885 thousand law enforcement officers in America, as of 2008 (120 thousand Federal, 765 thousand State/local). That’s a death rate from criminals of 3 per hundred thousand per year. While any death of a policeman in the line of duty is tragic, we need to put this in perspective. For example, 97 firemen died in 2013 in the U.S. Of course this is only part of the story. As would be expected, there was a high number of assaults of police, some of which caused injury.

Number of civilians shot and killed by police:

USA: 409 (in 2012, per FBI, plus one death by “other weapon”)
Japan + Britain + Germany = 8

The U.S. population is 17% larger, but the U.S.police killed 51 times more civilians.

British police fired their guns 3 times in 2012.

(For other data on police killings, check out this Sept. 3, 2014, newspaper article and this August 15th article in the Economist.).

As is always the case when reading numbers like this, one can't help but wonder what it is that makes the U.S. so prone to violence. My guess is that it's strongly linked to the TV shows people watch. In Korea, for example, the TV is filled with sappy (albeit well-written) romances. In Japan, amidst the endless silly quiz-shows full of hyper-feminine giggling women, there are plenty of feel-good shows (the Japanese equivalents of The Waltons). In these countries, violence tends to be portrayed as shocking and highly abnormal. In the U.S. media, Americans get this message that life is violent and that they must therefore also be hype-vigilant and ready to respond violently in any situation.

29 November 2014

Alexandra Redcay on relationships

This is actually fairly sound advice on relationships.

28 November 2014

27 November 2014

Calories on menus

The law passed several years ago requiring calorie labeling in U.S. restaurant chains is now going into effect. Personally, I'm all for this. Let consumers know what they're actually getting. It should put some pressure on restaurants to stop putting massive amounts of hidden sugar and low-quality fats into virtually everything they sell.

25 November 2014

Foreign students in the U.S.: The latest stats

Open Doors has just come out with the 2014 numbers for international students in the U.S. The breakdown by country shows that China continues to dominate, accounting for nearly a third of all foreign students. Saudi Arabia, which is now funding students' university study, sends nearly as many students to the U.S. as South Korea.

While international students only account for 4% of the U.S. total, they're more significant than their numbers would suggest since they often support programs such as engineering that would shrink or disappear at many schools without them. They're also a heavy presence in graduate programs. Nearly a third of these students are in California, New York, or Texas. The gap between Korea and Japan is odd. Japan has over double the population of South Korea (around 127 million vs. approximately 50 million), yet sends less than a third as many students abroad (to any country) to study. Looking at the numbers, we shouldn't conclude that the U.S. educational system has been doing well. In terms of the actual share of international students, the U.S. has been getting a significantly smaller portion over the last decade, losing out to European countries.

23 November 2014

My thoughts on two films: The Motel Life and Night Moves

I just finished watching The Motel Life. It's a very melancholy reflection on some sad people with sad lives and sad pasts living on society's sad fringes. Although the plot meanders, it  works at some level. I also recently saw Night Moves, a film about eco-terrorists in Oregon. I enjoyed this as well, but I can't really recommend it. The story, in this case, is very slow, and although Jesse Eisenberg brings electricity to pretty much any role, his character is so down-played and his thought-processes so opaque that it's hard to feel very intrigued by the story. As I'm from the west coast, it's fun to see one's old stomping grounds portrayed as an exotic land on the big screen. That said, at a few points, the writers get the mood wrong, as when, for example, the hippy farmer co-op groupies listen to blue grass at a gathering. Also, with a group of people who are supposedly from central Oregon, it's odd that anarchist ideas aren't brought up anywhere (unless I missed something).

21 November 2014

Ehrman on Bible scholarship

I just finished watching Ehrman's talk on Bible scholarship. It's a fascinating and readily accessible discussion. While I'm sure that many of the ideas are familiar, the overall picture of what the Bible really is contrasts sharply with the views of the general population that think of it simply as a book (with no or only a few changes) that was translated from another book. Ehrman makes the point that the ancient texts virtually all disagree in countless places in minor details and, in many cases, on major points. Some of the details are interesting. Toward the end of the talk, for example, he discusses passages that only make sense if we translate them back into Aramaic (the language that Jesus and the population of Palestine would have spoken). He brings up another passages (one about being "born again") that only makes sense if we keep it in Greek, in which case, the phrase has a double meaning. (This is highly problematic for the literalist since we know that Jesus wouldn't have been walking around speaking Greek to the Palestinian population even if he spoke Greek--which he probably didn't know.) More importantly, there are apparently entire sections of our current Bible (even in the Gospels) that were written much later than the earlier works. My advice to those who want to take any early religious text literally is to avoid learning about these matters deeply. If you scratch the surface, it's very clear that the idea of unaltered sacred texts from ancient times is nothing short of a hoax. I call it a "hoax" since Bible scholars, even those from conservative traditions, would all be aware that the nature of the text is being misrepresented in liturgical contexts.

Dog creationism

20 November 2014

On movie plot writers that use 40% of their brain

A good urban myth seems to never die. I couldn't help but grimace each time I heard, while watching the movie Lucy, the old canard about how we use only a fraction of our brain.

16 November 2014

Perils of perception: A 14-country study

This is a nice visual showing citizens' misperceptions regarding key social statistics in their own country.

11 November 2014

My terrible experience with Private Internet Access (PIA)

I've tried a couple VPNs so that I could hide my computer's location. PC magazine and others recommended PIA (Private Internet Access) as a good option so I gave it a try. It was as if I'd downloaded an incredibly malicious virus. I ran both a virus and malware check along with a register cleaner, but nothing helped until I uninstalled the program. PC magazine mentions that some users had brought up issues. My guess is that the PIA service has either been hacked or it's taking over users' computers for some nefarious purpose--which is strange since it's a pay service. I did have better luck with UnblockUs. I'd prefer a service that I could easily turn on and off but I haven't come across any services with a simple toggle switch.

8 November 2014

Another comic reflection on the election

Fear, ignorance, hate fueled by a bottle of propaganda

This simple graphic actually captures a great deal regarding the recent election. Now if there were just a can of kerosene with the title mass media on it, the picture would be complete.

Gay marriage in state laws over the past two decades

Pew Research has a nice moving map on the changes in state law in the U.S. regarding gay marriage. What's so surprising is that much of the shift has been very recent with a seismic shift in 2014.

7 November 2014

Election results map

Here's a map of the elections results. Republicans won races in red states; Democrats, in blue. Lightly shaded states denote a lead. White states didn't hold Senate elections. Louisiana's race is going to a run-off.

U.S. rise as an oil producer

Stratfor has a good interview on the current rise in U.S. oil production. Petroleum production, supply lines and pricing is a complicated topic. At some point, I need to read a good book on this so that I can understand it better. Any suggestions?

6 November 2014

5 November 2014

Ignorant, alone and dominant

This morning I listened to Lawrence Kraus's excellent talk "A Universe from Nothing." He does a wonderful job of providing an exciting view of modern cosmology that's accessible to the layman, peppered with occasional witty cracks about religion or right-wing politics. Looking at people's comments on the talk, I was shocked at the inanity of the discussion. There's a terrible hubris among the U.S. population--people simply can't except the fact that they may know less about a topic that a leading PhD who has spent his life working on problems, using sophisticated tools and methodologies developed through millions of hours of other people's work in the field. This hubris would merely be good fodder for jokes if it weren't for the fact that we live in a very complicated world with complex problems that truly require the light of science combined with careful reflection. One of Kraus's humorous asides sums up our dilemma. Talking of the far future when galaxies will speed away from each other so that each galaxy will find itself isolated without the data to come up with an accurate picture of the universe, Kraus mentions that any civilization in that galaxy would be ignorant, alone, and (seemingly) dominant. He then says with a chuckle, "And those of us who live in the United States are used to it." Sadly, the comments verify that this is true.

Why we love to believe in psychopaths

Today I listened to Shadd Maruna's lecture titled Why We Need Psychopaths. The talk questions the current construct of psychopath and suggests that it's simply due to our projection of our own dark side onto others as a way to deny the fact that we could all slip into such evil quite easily. To be honest, I didn't find his talk all that enlightening. Maruna focused on Hare's system for diagnosing psychopathy, which relies on the factors shown below. (There's still debate on whether it should be four-factored as shown below or should be arranged a different way.)

I was amazed to learn that the diagnostic does an excellent job of predicting which recidivism among criminals. Of course, just looking at criminal records apparently predicts about as well. As Maruna mentions, the description of psychopaths fits in very well with the worst villains shown in Hollywood films.


One of Maruna's objections regarding the diagnostic is that it assumes that people are unable to change. I'd agree that we should this isn't the case. One thing I don't understand is that if a fixed proportion of society are psychopaths from birth (apparently due to genetics perhaps with triggers during their upbringing), why do we see so few criminals in some societies?

2 November 2014

A call for epistemic humility

Dr. Peter Boghossian gives a nice talk here suggesting that we should simply replace the word faith with the phrase pretending to know things we do not know. One thing I really like about his attitude is that he doesn't advocate an adversarial stance towards people of faith.

1 November 2014

Jon Stewart helps revise a Koch brothers' ad

Do I understand this correctly? Did Koch really try to advertise on Jon Stewart? And if so, did Stewart really get away with trashing the Koch brothers on a show they sponsored? Back at the beginning of the year, we had this: (The Koch brothers have never been particularly fond of Rachel Maddow--see this earlier story from 2011.) Neither story broke during April Fools. Of course, it was just Halloween.

29 October 2014

Pope Francis swerves toward a more scientific outlook

The Creationist camp is getting smaller by the day. Pope Francis recently declared that evolution and the Big Bang theory are true and that God isn't a "magician with a magic wand."  Of course, as Lawrence Krauss often points out, it isn't clear what the God theory explains. If people can get on with their entire lives and can create completely consistent pictures of our world without God, we may ask what the point is. In this light, theistic religions seem to be at an impasse. On the one hand, a belief in God as a "magician" is highly problematic because we simply don't see a reality that shows the signs of constant intervention. Anyone familiar with science realizes that statistical tests of sufficiently large collections of data will reveal significant effects. If amputees who pray (vs. those who don't) were to occasional regrow limbs, it wouldn't take a high number for us to notice a significant effect at 95% certainty (the lowest standard used in most science). On the other hand, if we demote God to just the warm fuzzy feeling we get when we're nice to our neighbor, it isn't clear why that myth is preferable to any other. As a staunch atheist, I fortunately don't have to worry about how religion is going to get out of its current box. That said, I salute the decisions of the current pope. The warm fuzzy God is preferable to complete irrationality. Fundamentalists in the U.S. (as elsewhere) are deeply damaged by cognitive dissonance--the need to acknowledge science which explains an ever greater range of phenomena, balanced against the need to believe in the ark, recent dinosaurs, an Earth several thousand years old and all sorts of other untenable tenets of faith.

27 October 2014

Voter fraud, compliance assistance, and making mountains from mole hills

Contrary Brin has a good post on the Republican push for tighter voter registration requirements. The key paragraphs have been copied below:

According to the conservative thinkers and agendas going back to Buckley and Goldwater, regulations that are onerously placed on business should be accompanied by assistance so those businesses can meet and comply with these new regulations. This is standard conservative dogma.
compliance-assistanceIndeed, Democrats agree! Almost always, whenever new and onerous regulations are applied to business, there are allocations of money to set up offices, call-lines, visiting experts and grace periods with the aim of helping corporations – and the rich – comply with the new regulations. It’s called compliance assistance.
You can see how this applies to the topic at-hand. The fundamental test here is this: In any of the red states that have passed new Voter ID laws, or other laws that restrict the ability of poor people young people, women and so on to exercise their franchise, were any significant funds appropriated or allocated for compliance assistance?
Brin answers this rhetorical question with "not one red cent." (Nice pun on the word "red.") I'd go further than Brin. Since voter fraud occurs in about one out of every 15 million votes, the push for tighter regulations is clearly a farce. Since it virtually never occurs, we should be more concerned about how to offset the cost of the ink used to sign the bills into law (let alone all the time and money it will require for people to get the appropriate ideas and to put the new regulations into law.) The fact that voter fraud garners news time shows how misinformed the U.S. public has become. And as always, it shows how hostile the Republican Party has become towards the poor, who are most affected by such requirements.

24 October 2014

Early contact among South Americans and Easter Islanders

There are now two separate pieces of evidence (appearing in two separate studies) that suggest that the Polynesians of Easter Island mixed with the natives of South America. One study reports two Polynesian skulls that were found in Brazil among the indigenous Botocudo tribe. (Yes, you read that correctly, Brazil!) The other study, shows that the Rapa Nui (Easter Islanders) have 10% South American ancestry, which has been traced back 19-23 generations. I wonder if this explains how the sweet potato made it to south-east Asia. In a related paper by Goncalves et al., we find the following:

New evidence from human and nonhuman material has become available since then. For example, there were archeological findings of Polynesian chicken bones in the Arauco Peninsula, in Chile and evidence has been found in Easter Island of pre-Columbian presence of sweet potato and bottle gourd, both typical of South America. Independent of the plausibility or implausibility of the pre-Columbian arrival of Polynesians to the South American Pacific coast, there still would remain the need to explain how these migrants crossed the Andes and ended up in Minas Gerais, Brazil. We feel that such a scenario is too unlikely to be seriously entertained.

So the sweet potato may have made it to Easter Island at least. The Goncalves et al. paper, which discusses possible explanations for the two skulls, also considers the possibility that they're from Madagascar slaves. (Madagascar was originally settled by Polynesians.)

21 October 2014

11 October 2014

A dame

6 October 2014

Seattle: The new paragon of cool

Seattle has definitely become the coolest place in the U.S. as can be seen in their recent decision to dump Columbus Day for a day celebrating indigenous peoples. The move has been too long coming. (In fact, I wrote a long screed about this way back in 2006). This is from an account of the period following Columbus's "discovery" of the Americas:

When he arrived on Hispaniola in 1508, Las Casas says, "there were 60,000 people living on this island, including the Indians; so that from 1494 to 1508, over three million people had perished from war, slavery, and the mines". 

To put this in some perspective, if the numbers are accurate, we're talking about a death-toll roughly half that of the Holocaust. (And all this without modern weapons and bureaucracies!) Columbus Day is the equivalent of a Celebrate Hitler Day.

3 October 2014

Is God a good theory?

I enjoyed listening to this talk by Sean Carroll on why God isn't a good theory. Carroll's a physicist, so he dwells mostly on physics. The final part of the talk where he talks about how our world isn't what we'd expect if God (the way he's typically imagined and described) existed could be expanded into another talk.

30 September 2014

Who benefits when the U.S. economy grows?

These graphs (and their accompanying analysis) should be grounds for deep apprehension about the direction of the U.S. economy and all its imitators.

In this chart (from Pavlina Tcherneva's homepage), similar data are plotted slightly differently. The symmetry of the decline of the majority and rise of the poor is startling.

It doesn't get any better if we focus on the 1%.

Opposing the "Property Party" in HK

Some interesting photos of the HK protest posted on Shi Tao TV (an internet TV station?)

     The Chinese on the sign doesn't just say "no," it explicitly says, "Overthrow the Communist Part." The Chinese word for "Communist Party" has three characters, the first meaning mutual, together, and so on, the second meaning property, and that last a party of faction. Notice that the mutual/together character has been crossed out, leaving only "the property party."

This photo, taken around Sept. 29, shows the scale of the protest.

Air-pollution: A real-time map

I came across this map that compares air quality across the world. The air quality in China is amazingly bad.

21 September 2014

A year of solitude

I came across Kull's 1993 PhD dissertation on living a year alone in the wilderness in Chile. I wish it described living alone in a U.S. or Canadian wilderness, since I'm more likely to go to those places. All the same, I'm amazed that this was accepted as a PhD thesis. McGill needs to be congratulated for being open to such things. I haven't read much beyond a few excerpts, but it looks interesting. Some pictures with brief descriptions are available at Bob Kull's website.

20 September 2014

Aging: Will past trends continue?

The Atlantic has an excellent article titled What Happens When We All Live to 100?

18 September 2014

The French Lieutenant's Woman

I recently finished reading The French  Lieutenant's Woman. While not terribly enjoyable, it has its moments. I was searching for a readable book at a used bookstore in Jasper, Alberta, and they had an unbelievably unappealing collection--mostly Readers' Digest compendiums, astrology books, and the like. My guess is these were books given to them by people in RVs. I figured (correctly) that Fowles' book would at least be written well, as it's considered to be something of a classic.

26 July 2014

22 July 2014

Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter

I just finished watching Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter, a 2013 German TV series. I just about passed it up due to the dopey English title Generation War, but I'm glad I watched. The film follows five friends after they split up in Berlin around the beginning of WWII. The actual fighting scenes are shot very well, capturing some sense of the jarring effect that large weapons must have when one is actually in a battle. Like so many movies, the film has a completely unrealistic premise of people continually running across each other within the enormous Eurasian theater of war, but I guess a little suspension of disbelief is always called for--it's a movie after all. Unlike many American films, the characters are geeky enough to be believable. Some of the dialogue associated with Friedhelm, who has no patriotic feeling or delusions about the war from the beginning, are interesting. For example, at one point toward the end, his friend asks him how he can keep on fighting, fully aware that the war's coming to a close--what's the point? In a deadpan, he responds that there never was a point.

16 July 2014

Dealing with the corporate mob

As the song says, "you can check out any time you want but can never leave."

WaPo has a short piece on the nightmare experienced when someone attempted to cancel their Comcast service. Years ago, I had a similar experience with Verizon. Can't our representatives pass a law against this sort of thing? I think there should be a law that would fine companies for making it much hard to quit a service than it is to sign up. For those of us who don't want to spend hours on the phone, there should always be an option of simply sending a letter that says we don't want the service. It's as if we got a shotgun marriage to the company and have to then go through months of litigation to get the divorce.

11 July 2014

The disease

You've got to love Doonesbury, telling it like it is for over 44 years.

4 July 2014

Sippin' Kentucky bourbon while basking in the Martian sun

Someone pleeeeeeeez tell me this from the Onion...

Kentucky’s Interim Joint Committee on Natural Resources and Environment met today to discuss the new EPA rules to fight climate change by limiting greenhouse gases from power plants. The committee is chaired by Rep. Jim Gooch, D-Providence, a proud climate change denier who has suggested in the past that Kentucky secede from the union in order to avoid federal environmental regulations. Let's listen to one of the Republican state senators, the honorable Sen. Brandon Smith, R-Hazard, in his own words:
“As you (Energy & Environment Cabinet official) sit there in your chair with your data, we sit up here in ours with our data and our constituents and stuff behind us. I don’t want to get into the debate about climate change, but I will simply point out that I think in academia we all agree that the temperature on Mars is exactly as it is here. Nobody will dispute that. Yet there are no coal mines on Mars. There are no factories on Mars that I’m aware of.

30 June 2014

Winter's Bone: A for authenticity, F for plot

I just watched Winter's Bone. The film does a spectacular job at catching the mood of rural white poverty. Although never really poor, I grew up around a lot of poverty, so the scenes brought back many memories from childhood--the trashy yards and only partly functioning toys strewn about. My guess is they filmed actual locations; I can't imagine anyone creating such authentic sets. The film's characters are likewise very authentic. That said, I wish they would have had a more intriguing plot. Please tell me if I missed something.

29 June 2014

Turning the tables

20 May 2014

A shot for cancer

Some of the new medical research on the horizon is exciting: Early results from a clinical trial by Stephen Russel at the Mayo Clinic suggest that a modified version of the measles virus can be used to target cancer cells and put the condition into remission. Researchers intravenously delivered 10,000 times the typical dosage of measles vaccine to two women who had multiple myeloma, a rare cancer affecting white blood cells in bone marrow. The virus, modified to specifically target cancer cells, reduced or eliminated tumors in the two patients. The 49-year-old woman responded particularly well. Other than one local relapse that was treated with radiotherapy, her tumors have disappeared and her cancer has remained in remission for over six months.

16 May 2014


This Korean group has a nice fresh sound.

15 May 2014

The Artist and the Model

Last night I watched Fernando Trueba's The Artist and Model (2012). It's a wonderful film that doesn't conform to expectations in many ways. Although the film shows a great deal of nudity (featuring the very alluring Spanish actress Aida Folch), there are no sex scenes. Although Folch is gorgeous, her figure is definitely not the typical cookie-cutter big breast, thin waist sort of beauty depicted in Hollywood. Although the story happens in the midst of WWII, the fighting is only peripheral to the main story line. The story centers on a sculptor's quest to convey an original vision of the sublime, which he equates with feminine form and nature. You should see this. Although its slow, it's somehow very engaging from the beginning to the end.

11 May 2014

Where have all the fish gone?

A peer-reviewed article by Hutchings and Reynolds (2004) suggests that we should be very pessimistic about the viability of our world fish populations living outside of aquariums and fish farms.
[Abstract] Rapid declines threaten the persistence of many marine fish. Data from more than 230 polulations reveal a median reduction of 83% in breeding population size from known historic levels. Few populations recover rapidly; most exhibit little or no change in abundance up to 15 years after a collapse. Reductions in fishing pressure, although clearly necessary for population recovery, are often insufficient. Persistence and recovery are also influenced by life history, habitat alteration, changes to species assemblages, genetic responses to exploitation, and reductions in population growth attributable to the Allee effect, also known as depensation. Heightened extinction risks were highlighted recently when a Canadian population of Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) was listed as endangered, on the basis of declines as high as 99.9% over 30 years. Unprecedented reductions in abundance and surprisingly low rates of recovery draw attention to scientists' limited understanding of how fish behavior, habitat, ecology, and evolution affect population growth at low abundance. Failure to prevent population collapses, and to take the conservation biology of marine fishes seriously, will ensure that many severely depleted species remain ecological and numerical shadows in the ecosystems that they once dominated.

American exceptionalism

I came across this book chapter by Uhlmann and colleagues about American exceptionalism and its ties to unconscious cultural beliefs. The main thesis is basically that all Americans are ultra-Puritain Protestants (in terms of their unconscious beliefs, at least) whether they want to be or not. I've put an outline of the article below for those interested.

Exception nature of American values based on Puritan-Protestant heritage
1. Extreme valorization of individual merit
- Partly due to Protestantism
- More Americans believe that people have what they deserve.

2. Maintenance of religious and traditional values in spite of industrialization
- The U.S. is much more religious than most advanced countries.
- Unlike in most countries, the situation hasn’t been changing.

Moral values are typically
·         unconscious
·         socially ingrained

Traditional values have strong influence on the implicit level.

National culture explains much more of variability than personal religion does. (An interesting and somewhat depressing fact!)

It wasn't a great read, but it did have some good pointers to other related literature that I wasn't aware of. One worrisome aspect of the article is that it relies heavily on the social priming literature that is currently under attack on methodological grounds and the failure of so many studies to replicate.

26 April 2014

The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

I just finished Kundera's "novel" The  Book of Laughter and Forgetting. The book's really a collection of seven short stories that deal with the themes of the title. The writing's brilliant, full of philosophical asides and irreverent reflections on life, love, and politics. And of course, a lot of sex.

27 March 2014

Religious rights for corporations: Where it's all heading...

Quote of the month

“The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.” (Gregory Bateson)

8 March 2014

Mr. Nobody (2009)

This is a great film that ambitiously covers a lot of ground. I'm always surprised to find gems like this from several years back that I've never even heard of. I suppose it received less coverage since it didn't feature a lot of well-known Hollywood actors.

6 March 2014

How to be slim

BBC documentaries range from the mediocre to the superb. This one on weight-loss is in the latter category. I've learned quite a bit about this during the last couple of years as I've lost weight, but a lot of the research they discuss was new to me.

4 March 2014

Generational shift towards more rational drug policy

This is a great documentary from a few years back, suggesting that the U.S. is slowly moving towards a slightly more rational policy on scientific experimentation with hallucinogens. Research data have shown that many of the substances are perfectly safe and of tremendous value. Since our society already accepts so much in the way of unhealthy consumption and behaviors, I find it hypocritical that government bureaucrats are allowed to dictate citizens' appraisal of risks, which in the case of some psychedelics (especially LSD), have been shown to be virtually nonexistent.
In other news, D.C. has decriminalized marijuana. Since many of the arrests for pot have involved the city's black population, this is a positive move that will refocus law enforcement to more needed areas.

3 March 2014

The Omnivore's Dilemma

I recently finished Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma. It's a slow and thoughtful reflection on the modern diet options of Americans, ranging from industrial agriculture (based heavily on corn), large organic farms, sustainable "grass farming," and foraging. One thing, discussed in the book, that I'd never given much thought to is how U.S. subsidies end up funding every food producer that utilizes corn, whether its the meat industry, which feeds corn to beeves and chickens, or the other processed food industries that stick corn syrup in virtually everything. U.S. tax-payers are essentially subsidizing the very foods that make them unhealthy and help raise the costs of their healthcare. At the end of the book, Pollan has some interesting philosophical reflections on the ethics of meat-eating, concluding that meat can be ethical if it's produced on farms where the animals move around freely and live according to their natural animal dispositions. If Americans adopted this attitude, it would vastly reduce U.S. meat consumption--which wouldn't be a bad thing. In my own case, I rarely eat meat except for fish. I suppose I could reduce the number of eggs I eat so that I don't support the poultry industry which is said to be one of the least humane.

In related news, Idaho just passed Senate Bill 1337, an "ag-gag" bill. The “agricultural production interference” act contains at least two provisions that fit the definition of an “ag-gag” law. First, anyone who misrepresents himself or herself in obtaining employment in agricultural production will face charges. Second, anyone who records a video or takes picture in a facility not open to the public will also be charged with a misdemeanor.  It isn't enough that corporate agriculture goes to great lengths to hide their practices from the public. Now, it's illegal for reporters to expose practices that are dangerous or ethically questionable.

P.S. I just came across a review of the book by Tyler Cowan. This is one of the worst reviews of a book I've ever seen--I'm quite sure that the author didn't read any more than  a blurb on the cover. You can see my comments (Comment #1) on Slate.

26 February 2014