Sunday, October 31, 2004

Since You've Been Nice

About a month ago, Elie said I would tell you about his record collection someday if you were really nice. Well, of course you are all always very nice, so here goes.

His record collection is heavy. Very heavy. I don't know how many records he owns, but if anyone can estimate how many LPs you can make from eight metric tons of vinyl, you're probably close. That doesn't count the 45's or the 78's. Actually, the 78's are the heavy suckers, being as how they're glass and all, but there are fewer of them. Mercifully, the record collection at least includes two record players, one of which even works. I would probably have objected to carting that many records across four time zones if he didn't occasionally play them.

I've moved the entire collection four times. Last move, we got smart and hired people to do all the heavy lifting. It's no more expensive than putting my spine back together.

Actually, it's a very impressive collection. I'm not aquainted with the full catalog, but it does include a lot of vintage classical and jazz. Also one of my favorite recordings ever set to vinyl, Switched on Bach. Aaah, the glory days of the Moog synthesizer...


Watching Saturday Night Live, I must say they're being a little tacky tonight with all the gags about Ashlee Simpson getting caught lip synching last week. Certainly, no one would imagine that SNL would let the big entertainment controversy of the week pass without a mention, but they're going a little overboard, considering it happened on their show. Does anyone here think she was lip synching without SNL's knowledge? Kind of tacky to poke that much fun at her for something they were at the very least complicit in.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

For the Procrastinators

If you're still stuck for a Halloween costume, here are some last-minute costumes from LucasArts. If you really want to scare the kiddies, you can print out the Admiral Akbar mask and answer the door as a squid person. Trust me. It will work. It took me several years to get over the time, I must have been about 4, when my dad came home from work wearing a Yoda mask and I opened the door to find a 6-foot-tall green thing instead of my father. That sort of thing leaves a mark.

And on a completely unrelated note, don't forget to turn your clocks back tonight unless you live in one of those sane places that doesn't observe Daylight Saving Time. That gives you another hour to brace yourself for the kiddies.

Duck Hunt

Let all 8-bit animated ducks beware: you're going down. I may be 17 years late, but I've discovered Nintendo's Duck Hunt, which those of you who were playing video games in 1987 may remember as the game that came with the original Nintendo Entertainment System. It's a simple, yet cathartic, concept. You have a light gun that you aim at the TV. Ducks fly up. You shoot. Ducks die.

It only took three levels worth of ducks before I started wondering how the gun knew I hit the duck. Fortunately, this is the age of the internet and a website called Straight Dope explains how you shoot the ducks with the light gun. The secret: the gun doesn't shoot at the TV. The TV shoots at the gun. Sneaky, no?

Friday, October 29, 2004

Think Before You Vote...No, Really THINK

The American Psychological Society just published a paper on "the effects of mortality salience on evaluations of political candidates as a function of leadership style." In plain English, they measured how being reminded of one's death changed whether a person would choose the charismatic, task-oriented, or relationship-oriented candidate. The charismatic leader emphasized the group identity and the importance of an overarching vision. The task-oriented leader set high but achievable goals and had detailed, workable plans for achieving those goals. The relationship-oriented leader emphasized the need for the leaders and the people to work together to achieve the common good, and showed respect, trust and confidence in the followers.

Are you ready for what they found? With a neutral introduction before being asked to pick a candidate, the voters split 4% for Charisma, 45% for Relationship. However, when subjects were given the introduction that reminded him that they were going to die at any moment, Mr Charisma picked up 29%, Mr. Relationship lost 23%. There was no significant change in the approval rating for The Guy With A Plan.

In short, if all a candidate has going for him/her is charisma, constantly keeping the electorate fearing for their lives is sound strategy. This is part of something called, I kid you not, Terror Management Theory. When scared for their lives, people have psychological distress that causes them to gravitate toward leaders who "emphasize the greatness of the nation and a heroic victory over evil." Their words, not mine. What makes this ironic? Research into charismatic leaders in 1987-88, well before Bush's "faith-based" presidency, showed that charismatic leaders tend to have a disconnect with reality that generates some of the psychological distress that makes the charismatic leaders so appealing. Yup. Once we're in fear for our lives, the only way to head off the popularity of a charismatic leader is to step back and try to make a rational, informed decision based on the relevant issues. As the researchers note, though, "in scary times, when MS [mortality salience, or thinking about your own death] is often high, or when national self-worth is particularly shaky, rationally driven decisions may be unlikely."

You may well ask why charisma is a bad thing. It doesn't have to be. Charisma is largely the ability to get people to follow you with blind adoration. If your intentions are good, that's OK. If you plan on taking over the world or doing something ethically questionable, charisma may be a bad thing.

Click here for the entire paper (pdf file).
Or here for the news release.

A Brief History of the Written Word

Just in time for NaNoWriMo, it comes out: New research shows that Johannes Gutenberg may not have used moveable type in the Gutenberg Bible after all. Others dismiss the new research as a crock of crap (ok, their word was "stunt"). I wonder how much longer into this age of desktop publishing people are going to care who invented moveable type. Now that we have Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, who among us gives a rodent's rear end who invented the catapult?

Actually, it's sort of odd that we celebrate moveable type as the great leap forward. Ever since the invention of moveable type, we've been trying to reverse that invention, slowly moving back up to setting entire pages again. Not discounting the influence of cheaper printed material on the general literacy level of humanity--probably second only to the invention of the written word, so called because it was all hand written for a few centuries--but let's take a look at the evolution of printing for a moment. If I missed or mixed up anything, I'm sure my printer forbearers would be happy to set the record straight (that's your cue, Dad and Gran'dad).

It started out with an entire page carved on one block, which was hard work and not entirely efficient. Then moveable type split the blocks into individual letters that could be set and reused. It did not take humanity long to figure out that letters are tiny things and setting type by hand is hard work, as is un-setting the type. Try cutting a magazine page into individual letters and sorting the letters without mixing up 8-point Times with 9-point Palatino sometime. You'll get the idea. Mix up the sorting, and your next project looks like a ransom note.

The first step in moving back up to full-page typesetting was linecasting, where something akin to moveable type was used to create blocks of full lines of type; these were usually melted and the metal reused after the print run to make new lines. Then we got rid of the metal (and aren't you glad you can print something in your home without a foundry?) and moved on to photomechanical and cathode ray tube methods of creating, once again, blocks of entire pages for the press.

Now, with desktop publishing, we have broken through the pre-Gutenberg barrier of only being able to set a page at a time. With Quark or Pagemaker or even MS Word, you can set an entire book fairly easily, and if you're setting an e-book, you aren't even constrained by having to make page breaks for the presses.

So there you have it. A 550-year effort to get back to what we were doing before, only without the chisel.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

More Constitutional Loopholes

And I thought the Electoral College was a disconcerting election loophole in the Constitution. Unfortunately, the Electoral College only paves the way for the will of the majority to be subverted in the democratic process. Here, Slate explains a far more frightening loophole in our Constitution that makes it theoretically possible for George W. Bush to, on his own and entirely legally, assure his second term. Sure, things have to line up just right for it to happen, but the scary thing is that there aren't that many things to line up for it to happen:

1. Chief Justice Rehnquist becomes permanently incapacitated by the condition which currently has him recouperating in the hospital.
2. President Bush uses his Constitutionally-granted authority to make recess appointments to name a replacement to the bench while the legislature is in recess. Per the Constitution, whomever Bush appoints stays in at least until the Senate reconvenes in January.
3. In Florida II, contentious elections get thrown toward the Supreme Court again.
4. The Supreme Court, now with one Justice who is there on the sole authority of one of the candidates, takes the case up.
5. The Court, except for the new Justice, splits 4-4 on the decision, and the newly appointed Justice, having been chosen by Bush, is the tiebreaker for Bush.

Believe it or not, the weak links in this chain of events are steps 1 and 4: whether Rehnquist recovers from his thyroid cancer surgery and the Court decides to get involved again. Another Slate article here explains why the Supreme Court, with or without Rehnquist, will probably be reluctant to decide another election.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Poll Cat

If you're one of those people who lets polls influence your opinions, here is a must-read article on Slate discussing how different polls get released showing every possible electoral outcome simultaneously. Somehow, we understand and accept that depending on who you listen to and how they ask the questions, Kerry wins, Bush wins, or they're tied, but we're baffled by quantum physics which says pretty much the same thing, only about subatomic particles instead of political candidates.

And while we're talking about completely irrelevant election news, can we all agree to please stop this whole red state/blue state nonsense. No state has "gone" to anyone yet. WE HAVEN'T COUNTED THE VOTES YET. Except for early voting states, no one has even voted yet. At this point, it is possible (though not probable), that a plurality of voters in Kansas could decide to go Democrat. Wouldn't that just throw everyone off?

Help a Student With Her School Project

My friend Claire's high school is emphasizing to its students the importance of voting, and one of the projects to that end is a contest to see which class can get the most people to promise to vote Tuesday. It doesn't matter who you're voting for, or whether you're voting absentee or at a polling place. The important thing is that you will vote.

So here's the plea: if you are a registered voter in the U.S., declare your intention to vote now by leaving a comment to this post, including your name. If you're squeamish about leaving your name on the Internet, email me at and I'll forward your name on to her. She needs names ASAP, so declare your intentions early.

As a followup, get your butt off the sofa Tuesday and vote. If you're voting absentee, you may keep your butt on the sofa for the voting process and remove it to mail the ballot.

Monday, October 25, 2004

OK, That's Weird

It's probably not polite, but when I'm in the checkout line at the supermarket, I check out what the person ahead of me is buying. Tonight, I was behind a woman buying three pints of isopropyl alcohol and a pack of Oscar Mayer bologna. Nothing else. Next time I'm bored or have writer's block, I am going to make a point of figuring out what situation would drive a person to leave her home to buy a quart and a half of rubbing alcohol and a pound of processed meat.

If it isn't apparent, I'm burnt out on politics. Back to the original mission of pointing out the random oddities of life.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Flu Shot, Part 2

I can't believe I actually crossed international borders for medical care. Yes, this morning we awoke early, dug out our passports and drove the hour and a half to Canada, where certain places are willing to share Canada's expected flu shot surplus before an official deal is brokered between our governments. This is not "reimporting" (I believe the technical term is "smuggling") cheaper drugs from Canada. We plunked down $50 American apiece for something that usually costs $20 stateside, and I'm just guessing it is not that much more expensive to Canadians. When someone has a supply of something scarce, they get to set the price and the consumer just has to decide if they think the cost is worth what they're getting. For us, it was. Fifty clams plus time, gas, and tolls is still much less than the $300 our local pharmacy wanted to charge for FluMist (giving them a tidy 1812% markup) and less than we'd lose being out of work with the flu.

I'm just glad that, whatever the price, Canadians are willing to share, whatever the price. I'm thinking they may not be so accommodating next year.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Household Hints From Martial Arts

Click here for AkuAku, the art of ninja t-shirt folding. The instructions look complicated until you do it once or twice. It's pretty much pinch-pinch-cross-pinch-uncross-drop. I suggest bringing a t-shirt next to your computer to get the hang of it. It creates such a neatly folded t-shirt that I re-folded every t-shirt in the house last night at midnight.

Flu Sh*t

I find it interesting that for the past I don't know how many years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been trying to persuade everyone to get annual flu shots. They remind people that 36,000 people die of the flu every year, and that widespread flu vaccinations would cut down on that number. And I quote from last year's guidelines:

Epidemics of influenza typically occur during the winter months and have been responsible for an average of approximately 36,000 deaths/year in the United States during 1990-1999. Influenza viruses also can cause pandemics, during which rates of illness and death from influenza-related complications can increase dramatically worldwide. Influenza viruses cause disease among all age groups.
In the United States, the primary option for reducing the effect of influenza is immunoprophylaxis with inactivated (i.e., killed virus) vaccine (see Recommendations for Using Inactivated Influenza Vaccine). Vaccinating persons at high risk for complications each year before seasonal increases in influenza virus circulation is the most effective means of reducing the effect of influenza.
Read the entirety of last year's CDC flu guidelines here.

By contrast, you can click here to see one of the flu shot promo posters for this year. The headline: "Vaccination is Not the Only Way to Prevent the Flu." It goes on to suggest we not have close contact with sick people, stay home if we're sick, wash our hands, not touch our faces, get plenty of sleep, eat well, reduce stress, and drink plenty of water.

I'm young and reasonably healthy, hence not one of the high risk groups who are getting vaccinated this year, but I'm really not in to getting potentially fatal preventable diseases. With modern medicine, I'm also not planning to rely on the drink plenty of fluids and get lots of rest method. I'll update tomorrow with the solution we're trying.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Password Protect

Found this interesting list of common passwords (read: passwords you should never use) over at Yahoo. I would have never expected "beowulf," "polynomial," or "bicameral" to be common passwords. I'm not surprised at how many of the Seven Words You Can't Say On Television are on the list.

Now, I sympathize with the plight of network administrators wanting to protect accounts, data, etc. and fighting an uphill battle with us silly users who put the practical concern of being able to access the stuff over maintaining hack-proof security. Nonetheless, what do these people expect of us? Not exaggerating, I use 10 separate passwords just to do my job. Did I mention this is not a full time job? To make it more interesting, I have to change some of the passwords every 120 days or so and can't recycle passwords for 12 changes, making for about a dozen and a half passwords a year. Ideally, these should be 8 characters long, alphanumeric, and not words found in a dictionary. If network administrators really had their way, I would not use the same password for more than one application.

Remembering a solid password isn't so hard. Even remembering 10 solid passwords, usernames, and which application goes with which username and password is doable. What gets lost is the fact that the passwords and usernames are just security access. We actually have jobs to do on top of remembering passwords! Brain cells are a finite commodity, and we need to have some left over to remember why we were typing in the password in the first place.

Live Writing

I've set up a separate blog where you can read my entire NaNoWriMo novel as I write it. I'll get a link to it over in the right sidebar soon. Updates on progress and excerpts will still be posted here. The actual writing won't start until November 1, but for now, you can click here to find an explanation of my working title.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

What I'm Doing Next Month

November is National Novel Writing Month. It sounds like one of those phony holidays, like National Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day, but NatNoWriMo is more of a challenge. The premise: write an entire 50,000-word novel between 12 a.m. November 1 and 11:59 p.m. November 30.

I'm going to do it.

I just signed up. I fully intend to finish all 50,000 words, too. By my count, that comes out to 1667 words per day. I'll be posting my progress here throughout November so you all can get on my butt if I'm slipping behind. If things go really well and you all are interested, I'll even post a few excerpts.

The story is still bouncing around my head in its nascent stages, so it's hard to explain. As things get worked out a little more, I'll post a plotline. At the moment, all I can say is that it has something to do with brain drain, commercial space flight, social stratification, terriforming, and interplanetary colonization. Trust me, it should be a lot more exciting when I get characters. No, I don't have a title yet.

I'll be maintaining some semblance of my regular blog commentary for November, but it will probably be a bit shorter as more of my writing time goes to my novel. In the interim, please keep on me to get it done.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

From the Mailbag

In answer to some reader questions:

Yes, Larry, you can still buy Water Joe here. Caffeinated water runs $18.99 for a 24-pack. For a beverage to make your adrenal glands cry for mercy, consider using it to brew a cup of Shock brand hyper-caffeinated coffee (we get it at our local mall coffee shop). If you survive, we'll try it ourselves.

Becca, the cafe au lait soap sounds like a winner. I'll even volunteer to test-drive it.

Moving Day

August J. Pollak writes here about his horror story of moving five hours to a new apartment with a new job (Language Warning). Anyone who has tried to move using nothing more than a rental truck and the labor of friends will sympathize.

We're lucky enough that, in 3000 miles worth of moves, we've never run into a hailstorm. We've also never locked ourselves out of a U-Haul with a dead battery. However, we did have a U-Haul blew up outside Des Moines, Iowa, a half hour after every U-Haul employee in the greater Des Moines area called it a night. The move went downhill from there. The tow truck managed to decapitate my good 3-way floor lamp.

Next move, we're renting both the truck and the people to do the heavy lifting. Before you say anything, yes we are taking reasonable precautions to assure that all of our stuff makes it to the destination.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Weird Stuff On The Net

When I say I am a caffeine addict, I mean that if I miss my morning cup of coffee, by 5 p.m. I feel like I have a meat cleaver in my skull and by 6 p.m. I'll have my head in a toilet. That said, even I think caffeinated soap is a little excessive.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Home Networking in Two Easy Steps

I'll gloss over how we came to look at components for a home network today and skip right to the instructions on the wireless internet router that promised we could network our computers in two easy steps. I was doubtful, since it takes us at least three easy step to turn on our television set.

Step One of the two easy steps: "Follow the instructions for creating your home network." Well, damn. Steps don't get much simpler than that.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Undecided Voters

In a revealing typo, this post was nearly titled "Undecoded Voters."

Today's Doonesbury comic asks the question on many a mind at this late date in the election cycle: how can there still be undecided voters? In the Presidential race, I'm in total agreement. People may not be enamored of either man, but, given that we've been listening to this campaign for nigh on six months, they should have had the time to settle on who they think would do the least damage for four years until we can try this again. Strangely, I think that's what I said four years ago about this time.

The local elections are another matter entirely. As Zonker put it in the punchline, "Who's running again?" I just spent a half hour online trying to track down what else would be on the ballot. I finally managed to click my way into the Ohio Board of Elections website, where I could print out a list of the issues and candidates on the statewide ballots next month. So I still have no real information to use to make a decision, but at least I have a vague idea of what I'm deciding about. I miss my first couple elections in Oregon. There, the office that puts on the election mailed out a booklet to every voter that had the sample ballot printed, the text of every ballot measure, biographies of all the candidates, and arguments pro and con from anyone who forked over $500 to buy half a page. That was the last place I lived where the people putting on the elections thought that they should not only hand out and collect the ballots, but make sure voters were educated about the issues. Here in Ohio, I called the Board of Elections for the last mid-term elections to ask how I could get a voter's guide. Their answer (I kid you not): "The newspaper publishes something the Sunday before the election." We plopped down a clam and a half for that Sunday paper. The comics page was more educational. Their supposed voter's guide is a joke.

One final word. I'm voting for the county coroner? Those are the guys who pick up dead people, aren't they? When did that become an elected office? Shouldn't that be a job that is filled on the basis of medical knowledge rather than party affiliation?

Friday, October 15, 2004

Bit o' this and that

Just when I start running Google ads, Slate runs an article about how the political campaigns could take advantage of them.

Google ads work on targeted keywords. Ads that Google places here are (supposedly) related to the content of the site. For instance, I've been writing a lot about the upcoming election, and lo and behold, one of the ads over there is for The Washington Post's election coverage (your ads may vary). The ad guys over at the Post think that if you're getting your election news from me, maybe you'd like to check theirs out.

Speaking of the WP, I've been meaning to plug If you don't like registering for websites just to read their content, this is the site for you. All you do is go to, type in the URL of the site you want to visit, and they show a valid username and password that some nice person somewhere in cyberspace has decided to share. It's great for people worried about their Internet privacy. I use it because it cuts down on the number of usernames and passwords I have to remember, particularly for websites I don't read regularly.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Attitude is Everything

For the past three years, I've been rather uncomfortable with all the flag waving. We all know when this started: when, as they say, we were all Americans. Somewhere along the lines, our flag got hijacked. "Patriot" became an acronym for Provide Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (catchier than HR 3162, isn't it?). The flag has become a rallying banner for the War on Terror. It's on the lapels of our pandering politicians and draping the caskets of our dead. It's presented, neatly folded, to widows who are far too young. The one place it isn't lately is anywhere happy. I've come to miss the Fourth of July parades I went to as a child, when the F-15 flyovers were ceremonial, and we stood as the flag passed, in respect to the country and the principles of hope on which the country stood. That was back when I could look at the flag and think of America, not just the government.

Tonight, I saw something that brought those old feelings back. In three years, I'd almost forgotten what it was like to see someone waving the flag for a reason other than supporting the current administration/policies/military actions. Then I watched the first half of "Black Sky," the Discovery Channel documentary of Scaled Composite's flights that won them the Ansari X-Prize. As Space Ship One was towed back to the hangar after the winning flight, pilot Brian Binnie stood on top of the spaceship waving the American flag. In a change from what I've seen out of a lot of people lately, he was waving that flag because an American group had accomplished something to the benefit of all mankind that had nothing to do with "making the world safer." Here's the irony: the fundamental accomplishment of winning the Ansari X-Prize was breaking governments' monopoly on space travel.

Penguin Perspectives, Now With Ads

If you look several inches to the right, you may notice I'm trying something new. In an effort to turn this little blog into a possible source of income, thus hastening my journey into the realm of Full Time Professional Writer, I'm taking on ads. Apparently I get a lira or two per ad-click. If you see something you like over there, go ahead and click to support your local blogger.

The ads are supposed to be content-sensitive. Let's hope Google's ad engine has developed a sense of sarcasm since the good old days when Blogger had the banner ads at the top of my page here. Long time readers may recall that I got ads for Ambien after writing about how silly it was that an insomnia medication warned that it may cause drowsiness.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Fact Check

The fact-checkers on tonight's debate so far seem to be missing this one. The question was, (paraphrasing): "how did we end up with a shortage of flu vaccine?"

Bush's response (cut-and-pasted from CNN's debate transcript, emphasis added):
Bob, we relied upon a company out of England to provide about half of the flu vaccines for the United States citizen, and it turned out that the vaccine they were producing was contaminated. And so we took the right action and didn't allow contaminated medicine into our country.

Fact: The lab that produced the now-impounded vaccine is in Liverpool, England. The company is out of Emeryville, California. See their full list of locations here.

Third Debate

A few good jabs in early, then the entire debate kind of turned to mush. Then again, maybe the mush was my brain rejecting all of the lines I've heard before, and all of the crap questions. "What have you learned from the strong women in your life?"! I'm sure that is just what the electorate wants to know.

I've found these debates very educational, but I am glad they are finally over. Kerry is making promises he can't keep. Bush is running like he hasn't already had four years to start doing some of this, and is dodging inconvenient questions about that first term. No one is saying anything new, or answering the important questions on the minds of voters.

The election is in just under two weeks. Please make some time to go out and vote for whichever guy you think can best lead the United States for the next four years. I'll blog lightly on November 2. That way, you can take some of the time you usually spend reading this and go out and cast a ballot.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Human achievement

I don't put too much stock in online polls, given how easy they are to fix. Nonetheless, this one over at CNN gives you something to ponder: What was the most significant invention/breakthrough of the past 50 years?

The choices given are: artificial heart, ATM, barcode, compact discs, the computer mouse, cloning, fiber optics, the Human Genome Project, jumbo jets, lasers, mobile phones, MRI scanners, nanotechnology, nuclear power, personal computer, Prozac, satellites, silicon chips, soft contact lenses, test tube baby, the pill, Voyager, the Walkman, the world wide web, or "other."

In my mind, a few can be eliminated right off the bat because they piggyback on something else on the list. Compact discs and barcodes are dependent on laser technology, which would fundamentally make lasers the most significant breakthrough. The computer mouse and World Wide Web aren't anything without the personal computer, which in turn was only possible because of the silicon chip.

A few others can be eliminated as lifestyle enhancements, that while making life a bit cushier, don't really change the world. The ATM, soft contact lens, and Walkman are nice and all, but I don't really think the world would be a fundamentally different place if we had to get the cash from the bank, wear glasses, and jog without the tunes. With respect to families who cannot conceive biological children the old-fashioned way, I'd classify test-tube babies as a lifestyle enhancement, too, inasmuch as the main benefit of IVF is that infertile couples who can afford to sink $9000 per attempt (with an average of 3 attempts) now have the technology pass on their own genetic material.

Nanotechnology, cloning, and the Human Genome project may yet prove to be incredibly significant, but as of yet, they are in their infancy. Same can be said of Voyager--on the off chance that E.T. stumbles across the interstellar probe, figures out what it says, and manages to contact us, it could prove to be a turning point in planetary history, but we've got nothing so far. The artificial heart, Prozac, and MRI scanning have benefits for small(ish) segments who need that particular medical intervention, but worldwide, their effect is not that great.

So, when all is said and done, of the things on the list, I'm voting for the satellite because of the broad range of uses it has been put to for the benefit of all of humanity. Satellites allow scientists to study what is going on with the planet--ozone levels, polar ice sheets, desertification, and the like--so we can change our behavior before our world becomes uninhabitable. Weather satellites help me know how to dress in the morning. Remember a few weeks ago, all that hurricane forecasting that allowed Florida to evacuate, potentially saving lives? That was satellite imaging. GPS for military uses, civilian in-car navigation, and locating lost hikers is all satellite based, as are some non-GPS-based military systems. Satellites are how we have global communication, even from the remotest desert and mountains with satellite phones. We know instantaneously what is going on in our world (wars, elections, all that good stuff) because of satellite news feeds. And here's a little tidbit I bet you didn't know: any of you who put yourself through college on student loans and as a result have a better job and higher standard of living have satellites to thank, and one satellite in particular. The original student loan program was a direct response to the launch of Sputnik. The government wanted to be competitive in the Cold War, so they started fronting the money for higher education in math and science.

Rounding out my top 7 would be silicon chips (because it made the personal computer possible), lasers, the World Wide Web, the pill, and nanotechnology. If I remember, I'll tell you all later about how the pill made my list only because it was the first baby step.

It appears I am in a decided minority. Satellites got only 3% of the vote. The big winners are (in order): silicon chips, the World Wide Web, and personal computers. Frighteningly enough. 44 people actually voted that the apex of human achievement in the last 50 years was the Walkman.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Endorsement Wars

In the interest of fairness, I should point out that the Lowell (Mass.) Sun endorsed George W. Bush. I'd go into the logic of their position, but they don't have free archives on their website and I'm not dedicated enough to pay $2.95 to view it.

Iconoclast, the Sequel

Thanks to ME for pointing out this editorial regarding the reaction to the Lone Star Iconoclast's endorsement of Kerry. In short, some advertisers pulled their ads (normal), some subscribers cancelled their subscriptions (reasonable), some readers wrote in well-thought-out letters to the editor respectfully disagreeing with the editorial (expected), and some Texans threatened to run any business that continued to advertise in the Iconoclast out of town and/or physically harm the editors.

A sampling of some of the more cro-magnon responses from readers. I had to put my own editorial comments in a couple of them, in [brackets] and italics. Everything else is cut-and-pasted.

I am embarrassed and sad that someone who names his paper after the great
State of Texas (LONE STAR) could have the audacity to take a public position
against our President [PP: Publicly oppose the incumbent--what a an irrational idea in a free election]. President Bush and the first Lady represent everything real TEXANS and CHRISTIANS stand for today. I cannot understand how anyone in your community could ever buy an ad or one of your papers again. Please think about what John Kerry represents as compared to President Bush and hopefully you will make the decision to honor your home by supporting OUR PRESIDENT [PP: did this person make it to the end of the original editorial where they state, and I quote, "That’s why The Iconoclast urges Texans not to rate the candidate by his hometown..."?]


You must be a room mate of Bill Burket at the local insane asylum. My God people, this is your President, your neighbor [PP: see comment above quoting the original editorial]. Are you trying to have your 15 minutes of fame at President Bush's expense? Good bye, find another way to make a living, I'm sure the good folks in Crawford will run you out of town

In the Old West days they hung people for being traitors. Quite frankly, I
feel that way about the liberal press, both in the newspapers and on TV [PP: does that sound like a death threat to anyone else here?]. It sounds like you’ve gotten on the “Flip/Flop” bandwagon and I sincerely hope that ALL Texans will ban your newspaper. Anyone that would speak of a sitting President of the United States as you have and all the rest of the liberal press have should be banned [PP: again, offering a dissenting opinion in the run-up to free elections--how dare they!].

I think Bush is a very find Christian man. I believe he does what he thinks
is right, and what else can he do. I’m sure he has feelings just as everyone
else does. I’m sure you hurt his feelings by endorsing Kerry. [PP: hurt his feelings?! What are we running here? An election or a day care center?]

Perhaps you think the war in Iraq was unnecessary? Perhaps you don't like
having a President living in your little town? [PP: I'd comment, but I'm tired of repeating myself--people read what you're writing about first!]. Perhaps you are certifiably nuts? I don't know what your deal is, but I think your actions are shameful. As editor of the iconoclast, you have a responsibility to print the news and keep your opinions to yourself - not make news! [PP: Actually, that's why newspapers have the opinion pages to which you are writing]. To endorse John Kerry - a man who turned against the people fighting in Vietnam and caused the POWS of Vietnam to suffer humiliation and torture - against a man like George Bush is unthinkable. I don't know who made you God and primary decision make of your paper [PP: I don't know about the God part, but whoever hired him as editor of the paper made him the primary decision maker--it's his job], but this decision needs to be re-thought and you need to be fired!

Gentlemen: Helloooooooooo! Hellooooooooooooooooooooo! Is it very hot out there? You fellows must have been exposed to too much sun! Or could it have been the Tequila? Mama mia! What a choice..., I'm sure someone's drunk out there! Take a long walk in the shade....!

Your newspaper is a joke. No one cares what your editorial board thinks or writes. You liberal dumbasses are a disgrace to Texas.

If you think I am just picking out the worst, bear in mind I may be cherry-picking from the worst of the lot, but I left out the letter questioning the editor's genitalia.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

Damned if you do, damned if you don't

It seems like since the moment John Kerry threw his hat in the ring for this presidential election, the media has made a big fuss over his propensity for prefacing statements with caveats and qualifiers. From May 18 to July 23, Slate even had a department called "Kerryisms" (subtitled "the senator's caveats and curlicues") in which they footnoted all the qualifiers in 36 Kerry quotations. Point being, one of the prominent criticisms of John Kerry in this campaign is his tendecy to provide complex answers. I even fell prey to this before the first debate when I predicted that Kerry would go over the time limit more, on the logic that I hadn't heard him give a short answer yet.

So he's stopped. He's reigned in the footnotes and qualifiers and simplified his responses. The reaction: now the media cites him for inaccuracy and/or vagueness.

A brief perusal through some of the fact checks of the first two presidential debates shows that Kerry is called to the carpet for a new tendency to not qualify his statements. They cite him for claiming that the economy has lost 1.6 million jobs without indicating that those are only private-sector jobs, and for referencing "sneak and peek" searches in a discussion of the USA PATRIOT Act without stating that those were permissible before the PATRIOT Act. After the first debate, media fact checkers cited Kerry for saying that the war in Iraq has cost $200 billion and that the President is spending "hundreds of millions of dollars" in bunker-busting nukes without saying that the figures include money that has been or is expected to be appropriated but that has not, technically, been spent yet. Certainly, without the footnotes, those figures are false. Kerry could have easily used figures that could be accurate without qualifiers (total net job loss is over half a million, the Iraq war cost-to-date is $120 billion, and the bunker-busting-nuke budget is about $35 million). Still, it's a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation. The media faulted him for using so many qualifiers to support the accuracy of his figures, then for not using enough.

The media have also faulted Kerry for telling people "I have a plan" 13 times in Friday's debate without going into more details than "download it off my website." Saturday Night Live even poked a comic jab at that in last night's opening sketch. I'm working on reading these plans. They are properly complex in response to the realities of international relations, and there is no way to do them justice in two minutes. If Kerry tried to set them out in a sound bite, he would be criticized for oversimplifying.

All of those inaccurate figures and references to an unstated plan came from the debates, where the candidates had to make whatever point in less than two minutes. We're asking the future Leader Of The Free World to explain himself in less time than we give to a bag of microwave popcorn. This world is not an easy or simple place. Unfortunately, most Americans seem to have shorter attention spans than lab mice, who can be trained to complete a task if you bribe them with food pellets.

If you have a longer attention span that Pinky (see "Pinky and the Brain"), check out this article from the New York Times magazine section. Yes, it is 11 pages long, but it goes into some of the reasons why Kerry seems so distant and defensive around the media, his character (contrast the description of what he did when security evacuated the Capitol to the My Pet Goat fiasco), and just what brought him to some of these enormously complex views of how the world works. Also, if you manage to get all the way through it--and you're all smart people, I know you can--you'll read a very sensible strategy in fighting this War On Terror(ism) that, since it does not involve bombing the crap out of anyone, will never resonate with the large chunk of America that is still stuck in On-9/11 mode.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

More Innocent Bystanders

A feral cat took up residence in the garden of Reuters' Baghdad Bureau, but ran off shortly after giving birth to a litter. The bureau staff took the abandoned litter in and was trying to figure out how to care for the newborn kittens when a car bomb went off nearby. Picture a bevy of reporters frantically sending off breaking news reports while cradling tiny kittens in their laps for warmth, breaking occasionally to give them droppers of milk.

Here's the link to the story by Reuters' Chief Iraq Correspondent. No word on how the kittens are doing or if they've found homes.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Did You Miss Me?

I leave for 5 days and miss the Ansari X-Prize being won, Mount St. Helens almost but not quite blowing, Martha Stewart checking into the slammer, and a VP debate that caused everyone on the internet to go bonkers refuting a largely irrelevant claim made by Cheney about Edwards. I have the VP debate on the TiVo, and if I have anything to say about it after I watch it that hasn't already been said by 17,000 other websites, I'll mention it here. However, on the subject of the Vice President, I spent the week at training at a federal Department of Education facility and had to pass the official pics of Bush, Cheney, and the Secretary of Education every day. Cheney should not try to smile.

I did get home in time to catch the Presidential debate tonight. I rather liked that the audience tried to get the candidates to answer the questions that people really want to hear straight answers to. They largely failed, of course. The questions were blunt and to the point and predictable enough to allow the candidates to have practiced evading them. My personal favorite evasion was when someone asked Bush if he could name 3 mistakes he'd made. Bush evaded it by saying that the questioner was trying to goad him into admitting that Iraq, etc. was a huge failure and we shouldn't be there, but that he stood by his decisions on the big stuff like that. WRONG. I want to know the answer to that question to reassure me that we have a President capable of admitting that he's ever made an error. I'd be happy knowing that he is capable of fessing up that, in retrospect, maybe he shouldn't have had the tuna melt for lunch.

And for my favorite "I know what you want me to say to pander to your group and I'm not going to say it even if it means I know you'll vote for the other guy now" answer: to the woman who wanted assurances from Kerry that her tax dollars would never go to pay for an abortion, Kerry replied to the effect of, he's personally Catholic, etc. but that he could not as President impose that personal belief on others to restrict access to a legal medical procedure (In sum, as long as something is legal, what I think about it doesn't count for squat in policymaking).

I'm paraphrasing all of the candidate's replies, of course, but I'm reasonably certain the full transcripts of the debate will be out on the web soon if they aren't already.

Both sides got a few good zingers in, but I think this will do more to feed pundits than to change people's minds. We got to see them face some pointed questions, but didn't hear anything new of substance. At most, we finally got to hear from their own lips on live TV the answers that we already knew they would give.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

What A Week To Leave!

I just checked out the news. Next week looks to be a bad week to be away from my blog. Not only do I miss the VP debate (I'm TiVoing it just in case I miss it in my hotel room) and a possible sequel to the Mt. St. Helens eruption, but it looks like there's a good chance I'll miss the winning of the Ansari X Prize. The Ansari X Prize, for those of you who aren't science news junkies, is a $10,000,000 prize to be given to the first privately-funded team to build a spaceship capable of carrying 3 people to an altitude of 62.5 miles, and launching and landing it twice within two weeks. A team did a successful flight on Thursday, and plans another one for Tuesday.

Read more about the Ansari X Prize here. It really is an interesting concept: encourage private investment in space travel technology, so that one day, the general public might be able to travel to space. The prize is based on the early days of aviation, when cash prizes motivated pilots to reach a lot of the milestones in early air travel, such as Charles Lindberg's transatlantic flight. One of the purposes of the X Prize is to break the monopoly governments have on space travel. Now, I have to drug myself up to take a turboprop from Toledo to Detroit without vomiting, but I admire the principle of mass-market spaceflight nonetheless.

See you next weekend.

Have a Great Week

I'm off to Chicago tomorrow for the week (work, not fun), and I will be offline until Friday evening. I'll be back then, spending next weekend with some lengthy catchup blogging on The Week In Review. While you're taking a break from me, check out the links over on the right.

Another Immutable Law of the Universe

Somewhere between the Theory of Relativity and Murphy's Law lies another law of the cosmos: when you're running late for work, that will be when you have to wash the cat.

The kitten decided to take a dunk in the eyeglass cleaner this morning as I scrambled to get out the door on time. I'm not entirely sure what is in the cleaning solution, but I'm reasonably certain it is not edible. Fortunately, Chakaal doesn't mind water too much, so she didn't object too strenuously to being plopped in the sink and having her paws held under the faucet.

Thar She Blows!

The lady's blowing off some steam again. In a sign of the times, "footage" of St. Helens'1980 eruption was cobbled together from a series of still photos and looks like some of the worst stop-motion animation you've ever seen. Today's eruption was carried live on the internet via the crater-cam.

Word from some relatives in the area was that it was "quite a sight."

Friday, October 01, 2004

The Envelope Please

Let's see how my debate predictions panned out.

Prediction 1: I'll call this one half credit. George W. Bush did do more than just parrot his talking points for 90 minutes, but I found a hefty dose of them mixed into the answers. For instance, at least 3 separate uses of "My opponent said he voted for the $87 Billion before he voted against it."

Prediction 2: I blew this one. Kerry kept his responses within the allotted time. The moderator did not have to cut off either candidate, and they definitely did not have to resort to the Buzzer of Doom.

Prediction 3: Final flip-flopper count: 12. We passed my prediction of 5 at the 35-minute mark, just over 1/3 of the way through the debate. The count includes things like the above voted-for-then-against snipes, and subtler jabs like references to not sending mixed messages.

Prediction 4: I'm not paying attention to the pundits who declare victory in these debates, but there was no projectile vomiting.

Prediction 5: Blew this one, too. Though a sizable chunk was recycled campaign material (more so, to my mind, on the Bush side than the Kerry side), we did get to hear the candidates actually addressing some critical issues and being allowed to explain their positions more clearly.

Other than that, I'm not getting into the post-debate analysis. These debates should not be about winning or losing, but about articulating policy and being able to more directly confront and address some of the mud that has been slung around. This is not a game of parchesi.