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June 26, 2006

Greenland's Melting Ice Sheet

Via Boing Boing, a Los Angeles Times story on how, as also noted in the film An Inconvenient Truth (which, by the way, I highly recommend), the ice sheet covering Greenland is detiorating more quickly than in the past. Were it to melt entirely, the world's oceans would rise by 21 feet.

The Greenland ice sheet -- two miles thick and broad enough to blanket an area the size of Mexico -- shapes the world's weather...

Should all of the ice sheet ever thaw, the meltwater could raise sea level 21 feet and swamp the world's coastal cities, home to a billion people. It would cause higher tides, generate more powerful storm surges and, by altering ocean currents, drastically disrupt the global climate.

Climate experts have started to worry that the ice cap is disappearing in ways that computer models had not predicted.

By all accounts, the glaciers of Greenland are melting twice as fast as they were five years ago, even as the ice sheets of Antarctica -- the world's largest reservoir of fresh water -- also are shrinking.

This graphic included with the article, showing the extent of Greenland's seasonal "melt zone", is sobering:

Solid to Liquid
The changes seen in the graphic have taken place in a single decade.

For more on what a 21-foot sea level rise would mean, see here, here, and here.

June 25, 2006

"One of the Screw-Loose People"

Via Andrew Sullivan, a Congressional candidate in Utah believes that Satan is actively opposing him:

"There's another force that wants to keep us from going to Washington, D.C.," [John] Jacob said. "It's the devil is what it is. I don't want you to print that, but it feels like that's what it is."

Jacob said Thursday that since he decided to run for Congress against Rep. Chris Cannon, Satan has bollixed his business deals, preventing him from putting as much money into the race as he had hoped.

Now, to be fair, it's not quite as bad as one might think. It's not that Jacob thinks Satan is pulling for his opponent -- he thinks Satan is against him as well. But still... here's my favorite quote:

"You know, you plan, you organize, you put your budget together and when you have 10 things fall through, not just one, there's some other, something else that is happening," Jacob said.

Asked if he actually believed that "something else" was indeed Satan, Jacob said: "I don't know who else it would be if it wasn't him. Now when that gets out in the paper, I'm going to be one of the screw-loose people."

Exactly.

June 22, 2006

Pogue on Gates

In his blog today, New York Times technology writer David Pogue gets Bill Gates exactly right:

A few days ago, the richest man in the world, Bill Gates, announced that he’d be stepping down from daily Microsoft activities in order to devote himself to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Through this foundation, Mr. Gates has said that he intends to give away 95 percent of his wealth. The foundation’s primary interests are education, poverty and global health -- saving the lives of the millions who die of preventable diseases, mostly in poor countries.

Now, as faithful readers know, I don’t always find Microsoft’s software-design work very impressive. And, under Mr. Gates’s watch, Microsoft has done a lot of ruthless and sometimes sleazy things over the years...

But until last week’s announcement... I never really allowed myself to confront the apparent contradiction between Bill Gates, the merciless businessman with ambitions for world domination, and Bill Gates, the compassionate scientist whose goal is to save millions of lives...

It’d be one thing if he were retiring to enjoy his fortune, or if he were using it to buy football teams or political candidates. But he’s not. He’s channeling those billions to the places in the world where that money can do the most good. And not just throwing money at the problems, either -- he’s also dedicating the second act of his life to making sure it’s done right...

I know this is going to earn me the vitriol of Microsoft-bashers, but I’ll say it anyway: Bill Gates has the money, the brains and the connections to really, truly make the world a better place. I admire him for the attempt. And I believe that if anyone can succeed, he will.

I, too, have found it hard to reconcile the contradiction between Gates the businessperson (whom my friend Mike Backes was, I believe, the first to call "a wolf in nerd's clothing") and Gates the humanitarian. Given his company's poor track record of innovation (quick, name something Microsoft invented), and its predatory behavior, it would be all too easy at this point to dismiss as posturing (or worse) anything Gates does. But what he's doing can't be dismissed. Everything I've read about his charitable efforts -- every single thing -- suggests that he's doing great works, using his money to address big problems, and involving himself deeply in the process. It's a profound transformation, and if he keeps it up, he will leave a staggering legacy.

"The 50 People Who Matter Now"

Business 2.0 is out with a list of "The 50 people who matter now":

The names presented here weren't selected on the basis of fame, net worth, or the accomplishments of yesteryear.

Instead, our goal was to identify people whose ideas, products, and business insights are changing the world we live in today -- those who are reshaping our future by inventing important new technologies, exploiting emerging opportunities, or throwing their weight around in ways that are sure to make everyone else take notice.

It's great to see three highly deserving friends make the list:

Rank: 13
Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake
Co-founders, Flickr
Why They Matter
: As the creators of Flickr, the phenomenally successful photo/social-networking site, the husband-and-wife team has become the poster couple for the Web 2.0 movement. But that's not why they appear here. Flickr was acquired by Yahoo last year, and now Butterfield and Fake have been deployed to spread some of Flickr's social-media DNA throughout the company. That means finding new ways to emphasize human-powered keyword tagging and filtering, on everything from your own search results to travel itineraries and restaurant reviews. Incorporating the subjective nuances of human judgment into its search results has become an essential part of Yahoo's strategy to compete against Google, its algorithm-obsessed rival. Thanks to the Flickr kids, the search wars are shaping up to be a battle of man vs. machine.
and...
Rank: 22
Reid Hoffman
Angel investor and CEO, LinkedIn
Why He Matters
: Want to launch a Web 2.0 startup? Be prepared to kiss Hoffman's ring. In his day job, Hoffman is the co-founder of LinkedIn, the online haven for business networkers. But on the side, he's also an angel investor with a knack for spotting young companies with big potential. Thus far, he's supplied insight and investment money to a remarkable number of successful startups, including Digg, Facebook, Flickr, Last.fm, Six Apart, Technorati, and Wink. And while the cash is nice, Hoffman's imprimatur has become even more important if you want to be seen as a player in today's Internet game. If he likes your idea, good fortune is likely to follow. If he doesn't, it may be time to rethink your business plan.
Some of the people whom Business 2.0 considers to matter less than Stewart, Caterina, or Reid include:
  • Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia
  • Ed Whitacre, Chairman and CEO of AT&T
  • Oprah Winfrey
  • Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com
  • Richard Branson, Chairman of Virgin Group
Congratulations to all three of you!

June 21, 2006

"You've Covered Your Ass, Now"

Via Andrew Sullivan, from a Washington Post review of the new book The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11:

The book's opening anecdote tells of an unnamed CIA briefer who flew to Bush's Texas ranch during the scary summer of 2001, amid a flurry of reports of a pending al-Qaeda attack, to call the president's attention personally to the now-famous Aug. 6, 2001, memo titled "Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US." Bush reportedly heard the briefer out and replied: "All right. You've covered your ass, now."
It's beyond me that some Americans can still believe that President Bush is the right person to protect our country from threats. Most of the evidence I've seen suggests that, prior to 9/11, he couldn't be bothered with Al Qaeda. After 9/11, and after a well-advised, widely supported, but cheapskate invasion of Afghanistan, his major effort has been to go to war with Iraq on false pretenses.

Supporters of the war point to the terror in Iraq as evidence of a connection between Iraq and 9/11, but this is an ex post facto claim: terrorists flocked to Iraq after the invasion, not before. And does anyone seriously believe we're reducing their numbers? We're living out a lame Doritos commercial. "Crunch all you want," the terrorists say. "We'll make more."

Our Orwellian Executive Branch

From an EFF e-mail I just received:

Late last Friday night, the Government filed its reply brief, providing a last round of written briefing in advance of this week's hearing in our case against AT&T for collaborating with the Government's surveillance program. Finally the Administration has come out and flatly said what it has hinted at throughout its arguments: that the program is above the law.

The Government wrote that "the court -- even if it were to find unlawfulness upon in camera, ex parte review -- could not then proceed to adjudicate the very question of awarding damages because to do so would confirm Plaintiffs' allegations."

Essentially the Government is saying that, even if the Judiciary found the wholesale surveillance program was illegal after reviewing secret evidence in chambers, the Court nevertheless would be powerless to proceed. The Executive has asserted that the Program, which has been widely reported in every major news outlet, is still such a secret that the Judiciary (a co-equal branch under the Constitution) cannot acknowledge its existence by ruling against it. In short, the Government asserts that AT&T and the Executive can break the laws crafted by Congress, and there is nothing the Judiciary can do about it.

Put another way, what the government is saying is,

Even if the court finds our surveillance program illegal, the court can't rule against it because to do so would be to acknowledge its existence.
Am I the only one besides the EFF who finds this profoundly troubling -- that the Executive branch has asserted that it can, on its own, engage in activities that are so secret that no court can be allowed to rule against them because to do so would confirm their existence?

And of course it almost goes without saying that this is one of the most Orwellian things I've heard in a long time. "You can't rule against this program that you know about because to rule against it would be to confirm that you know about it."

The EFF page on this case can be found here.

June 19, 2006

Congratulations to the Hurricanes

Congratulations to the Carolina Hurricanes, winners of the Stanley Cup.

At the risk of no longer being called a "Canadian apologist", since I moved from Vancouver to Raleigh-Durham in early 2002:

  • Number of Stanley Cup finals appearances by teams from Canada: 2
  • Number of Stanley Cup finals appearances by the Carolina Hurricanes: 2
  • Number of Stanley Cup wins by teams from Canada: 0
  • Number of Stanley Cup wins by the Carolina Hurricanes: 1
And seriously, congratulations to the Edmonton Oilers for such a great series, and to the fans in Edmonton for being so gracious (from everything I saw and read during the finals).

Somebody Call Stephen Colbert

From The Seattle Times:

WEST VANCOUVER, B.C. -- A woman in this suburb north of Vancouver had reason to feel like Goldilocks in reverse when she arrived home to find a bear eating oatmeal in her kitchen, police say.

The one- or two-year-old juvenile bear apparently entered through an open sliding glass door, broke a ceramic food container and started chewing down last Thursday, West Vancouver police Sgt. Paul Skelton said.

"It sounds like a nursery rhyme, doesn't it?" Skelton said. "At least we have a health-conscious bear on our hands."

Three police officers couldn't get the bear to budge, he said.

"The bear didn't appear to be aggressive and wasn't destroying the house, so they just let it do what it was doing and eventually the bear decided to make its way out of the residence and down toward a forested gully," Skelton said. "It ended the best it could."

Currently, "Grizzly Bears" are number five on Colbert's "On Notice" list. Maybe this will move them up a notch, which would put them just behind "Black Hole at Center of Galaxy".

June 17, 2006

Starbucks Per Capita

Via Starbucks Gossip, a list of US cities ranked by number of Starbucks locations per capita (inspired by it, a similar list for the UK).

June 16, 2006

Oregon Has a Bad Idea

Oregon is experimenting with a new road tax system, and it's a bad idea:

Oregon's 24 cents-a-gallon gas tax, which is used to fund roads, has not increased since 1993. Some at the state Department of Transportation say the money could dry up in future years as hybrids and other fuel-efficient cars become more popular. So the state is investigating other alternatives to pay for roads.

The mileage-fee project was designed by engineers at Oregon State University. The system works by using a Global Positioning System in a car to determine the number of miles traveled inside and outside of Oregon and at what times, which could lead to peak-driving-time fees. When the car pulls into a service station, a radio transmitter sends the data to a reader in a gas pump. The mileage fee is added to the bill, and the gas tax is subtracted...

The cost would be about $33 million to install the equipment in all state service stations, and about $1.6 million a year to collect the taxes, [Jim] Whitty [who is overseeing the project for the transportation department] said.

This is a bad idea in any number of ways:

  • An infrastructure for collecting gas taxes already exists. This would require a new infrastructure to be built, at a cost of $33 million (and who knows what the final bill would be).
  • It would only apply to new cars with GPS systems, meaning that two parallel systems of tax collection would be required for many, many years to come -- unless Oregon were to mandate installation of GPS receivers on older cars, which would be hugely expensive.
  • The opportunities for the invasion of one's privacy are nearly limitless. Every time an Oregonian pulled into a service station, government officials -- whatever their promises, whatever their denials -- would have the opportunity to see exactly that where person had driven, and when.
  • Most seriously, switching from a per-gallon to a per-mile gas tax is exactly what we don't want to do if we're trying to encourage people to buy more fuel-efficient cars. Presuming the per-mile tax were implemented in a revenue-neutral manner, it would be a net tax decrease for owners of Hummers and a net tax increase for owners of Priuses. What are they thinking?
If Oregon's gas tax receipts are going down because people are buying more efficient automobiles, the solution is incredibly simple: raise the gas tax. The impact will be the greatest on those driving the largest, most inefficient vehicles -- which is precisely what we want to be doing.

June 15, 2006

Awareness Ribbons

In the category of "things I find myself wondering about when I'm out and about, and tell myself I'll look them up on the Internet later, but then forget" is the subject of awareness ribbons. I see people with them on their cars and wonder how many different ribbons exist. I got around to looking up the subject this evening, and it turns out, according to Wikipedia, there are quite a few. I counted 62 different colors and color combinations, some being used by many, many groups -- 8 in the case of teal, 17 in the case of dark blue, and no less than 22 in the case of green.

Well, now I know that when I see an orange ribbon on someone's car, they're definitely for lupus awareness. Or for awareness of racial tolerance, feral cats, roadway construction worker safety, hunger, cultural diversity, leukemia, motorcyclist safety, multiple scleroris, self-injury, Agent Orange exposure, or the Ukrainian Orange Revolution. Or maybe all of the above.

Oh, Look, There's Some Money After All

The other day, I satirically wrote,

Money for handicapped children or money for public broadcasting? Clearly Congress has been doing an incredible job, trimming so much fat out of the budget that we're down to choosing between handicapped children and public broadcasting...

For Representative [Ralph] Regula [R-OH] to have made it out to be a choice between handicapped children and public broadcasting, obviously Congress wouldn't be funding such luxuries as a virtual reality spray paint simulator, a commemorative celebration, or fighter jets that the Pentagon didn't request [as they did in 2005]. Right?

As I well knew, I was wrong, and it didn't take long for a story to come along to show me how wrong I was:

The Boeing Co. won approval Tuesday from a House panel for $798 million to fund further production of the C-17 transport plane, an action that may save a California factory the Pentagon wants to shut down.

The House Appropriations Committee, in a military spending bill set for a full House vote next week, provided the money to buy three C-17s more than the 180 on order, brushing aside Defense Department objections...

The committee's action was taken "in recognition of the C-17 Globemaster's performance in the global war on terrorism and to preserve" the production line, Rep. Bill Young, R-Fla., who chairs the military appropriations subcommittee, said Tuesday.

So we're spending $798 million on airplanes the Pentagon says it doesn't want. That's close to a billion dollars. But according to Representative Regula, we have to "choose between giving a little more money to handicapped children versus providing appropriations for public broadcasting". Or we could choose to fully fund both programs (and more) simply by not buying planes the Pentagon doesn't want.

Congressional Time Management

Andrew Sullivan notes the Christianist organization Concerned Women for America's backing of a proposed law to ensure the words "under God" remain in the Pledge of Allegiance:

Concerned Women for America's (CWA's) Director of Government Relations Lanier Swann will join other conservative leaders in speaking at a press conference tomorrow in support of Sen. Jon Kyle's (R-Arizona) and Rep. Todd Akin's (R-Missouri) Pledge Protection Act. This legislation would ensure the protection of the phrase "under God" in the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance. The press conference will be held on Flag Day, which marks the day in 1777 when John Adams proposed the stars and stripes as the official United States flag.

Swann said, "As Americans commemorate Flag Day, it is also appropriate to remember the importance of keeping God in our Pledge. CWA strongly supports the mention of God in our nation's oath in keeping with our constitutional freedoms. We are free from an established religion and free to worship as we choose. Our country's founding fathers were men of faith who intentionally included the phrase 'under God' in an oath that serves as a symbol of loyalty and patriotism to our great country.

Sullivan goes on to document how the CWA's version of history is staggeringly inaccurate (the Pledge was written in 1892 and the words "under God" added in 1954).

I'm of two minds about this. Part of me thinks that Congress is so spectacularly inept that if they want to occupy themselves with debating gay marriage, flag burning, and the Pledge of Allegiance, let them. Their amendments won't pass (I hope), and a new law on the Pledge will have little or no effect. And meanwhile, they're not off making even stupider laws. But in the end, I can't help but think that surely there must be something more worthwhile on which Congress can spend its time than this sort of claptrap. And I can't help but think of how pathetic this is. With all the problems in the world, the Republicans are convinced that if they can show their concern over the grave threat to society posed by gays marrying, flags being burned (which hasn't happened in how long again?), and leaving God out of the Pledge of Allegiance, they'll energize their base of supporters to help them win the elections this Fall. It's as simple as that. And the only thing more pathetic would be if it were to work.

Fake Apple Phone Commercial

Via The Apple Core, this unabashedly fake commercial for a hypothetical Apple phone is just gorgeous. If Apple's phone is even close to this cool (they do have to deal with real world design practicalities, so I'm prepared to cut them some slack), they'll sell them by the truckload.

June 14, 2006

Fafblog on Guantánamo

I've linked to Fafblog before. After an absence, it's back, and brilliant as always:

Run for your lives -- America is under attack! Just days ago three prisoners at Guantanamo Bay committed suicide in a savage assault on America's freedom to not care about prisoner suicides! Oh sure, the "Blame Atrocities First" crowd will tell you these prisoners were "driven to despair," that they "had no rights," that they were "held and tortured without due process or judicial oversight in a nightmarish mockery of justice." But what they won't tell you is that they only committed suicide as part of a diabolical ruse to trick the world into thinking our secret torture camp is the kind of secret torture camp that drives its prisoners to commit suicide! This fiendish attempt to slander the great American institution of the gulag is nothing less than an act of asymmetrical warfare against the United States -- a noose is just a suicide bomb with a very small blast radius, people! -- and when faced with a terrorist attack, America must respond. Giblets demands immediate retaliatory airstrikes on depressed Muslim torture victims throughout the mideast!

June 13, 2006

Czech Country Names

An entry in the New York Times blog on the World Cup led to a page of simplistic goal animations out of the Czech Republic. So far, so good. What I found intriguing was just how idiosyncratic -- and, well, alien -- are the Czech renditions of many country names. Some are conveniently literal, such as Argentina and Angola. Some are straightforward, such as Mexiko and Portugalsko. Some are guessable, such as Anglie (England) and Švédsko (Sweden). But many are incomprehensible to an English speaker, including:

  • Chorvatsko
  • Německo
  • Nizozemsko
  • Pobřeží slonoviny
  • Srbsko a Černá Hora
  • Švýcarsko
Try guessing these, and then select the paragraph below to see the answers.

  • Chorvatsko (Croatia)
  • Německo (Germany)
  • Nizozemsko (Netherlands)
  • Pobřeží slonoviny (Côte d'Ivoire)
  • Srbsko a Černá Hora (Serbia and Montenegro)
  • Švýcarsko (Switzerland)
Now, to be fair, we do the same thing in English. Germany is Deutschland. Finland is Suomi. Japan is Nihon. It's just that I'm used to English.

June 10, 2006

Why Soccer Moms Drive Minivans

On The Daily Show this week, host Jon Stewart interviewed "Daily Show expert" John Hodgman (I like how he's just an "expert", not an expert on any particular subject) on the World Cup:

Jon Stewart: Why hasn't soccer been embraced by Americans?

John Hodgman: Well, it has by some. For example, the famous soccer moms who've tried to liven the game up for Americans by introducing minivans into play. And also casual sex.

Jon Stewart: Casual sex?

John Hodgman: Yes. That's what the minivans are for. You've obviously never been to Brookline, Massachusetts, SMILF capital of New England.

From this page, click on "Latest Headlines", then click on "The World Cup" under "Most Recent Videos from The Daily Show With Jon Stewart".

BNL Makes Remixing "Easy"

The Barenaked Ladies' next album, Barenaked Ladies Are Me, is due out in September. The first single, "Easy", is going to be released at the end of June. This is good news -- it has been over two and a half years since they came out with Everything to Everyone. Interestingly, they're releasing Barenaked Ladies Are Me in three versions: a "13-song physical release, a 15-song digital version and a full-length 29-song version which will be available online only (at least to start with)".

What's even cooler about this is that BNL is releasing all the multitracks for "Easy" -- without DRM, of course -- ready for remixing. It's US$2.49 for the set. And they're doing so now, weeks ahead of the release of the single. Very clever. Also clever is that they'll be releasing multitracks for four more songs from their new CD in the same manner. The band will vote on their favorites, and the best five will make up an EP that will be released, with the proceeds going to the band members' favorite charities. The download link is here. (They're also making a more limited set of multitracks available for free on their MySpace page.)

Musicians looking for ideas on how to be relevant in the age of digital music could do much, much worse than to look at BNL.

[Note that there's a bit of confusion. The BNL e-mail and readme file included with the download says there are 16 tracks, but in fact there are only 11. The download site lists them as MP3s, but as the e-mail and readme note, they're 16-bit, 44.1 KHz WAV files.]

June 09, 2006

The World Cup Begins

The World Cup kicked off today. I've been a fan of England for years now, and it looks like this might be their chance. They have one of the great midfields in the world (maybe the greatest -- I'm not enough of an expert to say). Michael Owen seems to be coming back to full strength just in time. David Beckham is playing up to his ability (unlike four years ago), showing the incredibly accurate kicks that made him not only the best set piece player in the world, but an international icon as well. And then there's Wayne Rooney. I could say that he might be the best forward alive today, and that his presence instantly makes England one of the great teams of this World Cup, but this UK newspaper front page showing his first scissor kick after his broken foot speaks more eloquently than I could:

There Is a God
The team is euphoric on his return. Beckham says they have all the pieces this time. Commentators think the omens are good.

So do I. England over Brazil in the finals. Go Lions!

Google vs. Excel

Via Dina Mehta, a useful blog on branding issues, What's Your Brand Mantra? by Jennifer Rice. Her latest entry is on Google Spreadsheets. She quotes two bloggers on how Google's product is missing Excel's more powerful features, such as macros and pivot tables, then writes:

Ok, show of hands... how many of you actually use pivot tables and macros? The 80/20 rule would suggest that 80% of Excel users use 20% of its features... and that's probably being too generous...

Google's strategy is not to create me-too Microsoft products that are loaded with tons of features. As I see it, Google is taking a much longer view, going for unserved and overserved markets that Microsoft apparently doesn't want.

Indeed. I'm a daily Excel user, and the most complex spreadsheet I use on a regular basis has nine worksheets, the largest of which has over 4,000 rows of data. And yet I don't use macros or pivot tables. I should, I know, but I've never had the burning need to learn them.

Jennifer goes on to write:

So going back to Google's "half-assed" version of Excel: if they're following the classic path of industry disruption, they should be pleased when they hear scoffing remarks about their beta products. This allows them room to establish a foothold at the base of the mountain, serving customers that Microsoft (apparently) doesn't want. They can gain experience, add new features, gradually move up-market, and eventually take the high ground.
I'd say it's a good bet that Microsoft takes this threat seriously, even if some observers don't. When I was at Be, we were told that Microsoft's internal philosophy on operating system competition -- and this would apply equally to application software, I think -- was "never allow a single crack in the wall", because cracks, no matter how small to start, grow with time.

June 08, 2006

Handicapped Children vs. Public Broadcasting Smackdown

Via MoveOn.org, this story in The Boston Globe:

House Republicans yesterday revived their efforts to slash funding for public broadcasting, as a key committee approved a $115 million reduction in the budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that could force the elimination of some popular PBS and NPR programs.

On a party-line vote, the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees health and education funding approved the cut to the budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which distributes money to the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio. It would reduce the corporation's budget by 23 percent next year, to $380 million, in a cut that Republicans said was necessary to rein in government spending.

I disagree with this move, but that's fine. People of reason can disagree about such things. But later in the story comes a quote that is mind-boggling:

"We've got to keep our priorities straight," said Representative Ralph Regula, an Ohio Republican who is chairman of the appropriations panel that approved the cut. "You're going to choose between giving a little more money to handicapped children versus providing appropriations for public broadcasting."
Is that the choice? Money for handicapped children or money for public broadcasting? Clearly Congress has been doing an incredible job, trimming so much fat out of the budget that we're down to choosing between handicapped children and public broadcasting.

Of course, Congress wasn't always so frugal as it must be now. For example, in 2005, they were a bit more spendthrift:

In 2005, earmarked funding is going to projects as diverse as entirely stainless steel bathrooms ($4 million), airbags for aircraft ($2 million) and leak proof transmission drip pans ($3 million). Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) requested $4.3 million for a program that the Pentagon did not request funds for: the SmarTruck, a souped-up Ford F-350 for use in combat. The Defense budget also includes $3.75 million for alcoholism research at the Gallo center in San Francisco. Senator Kit Bond (R-MO) earmarked $110 million for two F-15's that the Pentagon didn't request. There is a $1 million earmark for the eradication of brown tree snakes in Guam (Senator Inouye, from Hawaii, is concerned they will spread), and $1.9 million for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Celebration. Other nuggets include $1.5 million for a virtual reality spray paint simulator system in Pine City, Minnesota; $4.3 million for vocational education of Alaskan miners; and $1 million for a biathlon trail upgrade at Fort Richardson, Alaska.
Naturally, those days are over. For Representative Regula to have made it out to be a choice between handicapped children and public broadcasting, obviously Congress wouldn't be funding such luxuries as a virtual reality spray paint simulator, a commemorative celebration, or fighter jets that the Pentagon didn't request. Right?

"Incredibly Friendly Camaraderie"

The Carolina Hurricanes pretty much had their way with the Edmonton Oilers last night in a 5-0 rout in Raleigh. A story from The Edmonton Journal noted this post-game reaction:

"I honestly feel sorry for the Oilers because their goalie is out," said Joy Blount of Raleigh. "And I now feel like the 'Canes can't lose but it's unfortunate that these are the circumstances."

The incredibly friendly camaraderie between fans from both teams continued long after the game ended, dissecting the bounces of the game.

As with the singing of the Canadian anthem in Game 1, this kind of sportsmanship is great to see. My son Cameron and I were at RBC Center for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Buffalo Sabres. Sitting next to us were two Sabres fans. The game ended and the crowd continued the stunningly loud celebration that had begun with one minute left in the game. Within just a few seconds, all the Hurricanes fans sitting nearby (including Cameron and me) turned to them, shook hands, and said, "Good game."

It may be a small thing, but to me, it's important.

Not Dramatic Enough?

Perhaps my previous entry on the subject of Baghdad's murder rate wasn't dramatic enough. One commenter wrote:

If your figures are close to the truth, then I'm forced to concede that I had no idea DC was such a dangerous city.
Another wrote:
I think it is quite amazing that it is only 4X more likely to be murdered in Baghdad in the middle of an emerging civil war than in Washington D.C.
This reminds me of what Douglas Hofstadter once called "number numbness" -- the "inability to fathom, compare, or appreciate really big numbers or really small numbers" (definition here). So I'm going to recast my my numbers as percentage increases. In other words...
[Y]ou're 4.27 times more likely to be murdered in Baghdad as you are in the most dangerous city in the US.
becomes "[Y]ou're 327 percent more likely to be murdered in Baghdad as you are in the most dangerous city in the US". Here goes:
  • You're 780 percent more likely to murdered in Baghdad as you are in Chicago.
  • You're 1,017 percent more likely to be murdered in Baghdad as you are in Los Angeles.
  • You're 2,577 percent more likely to be murdered in Baghdad as you are in New York or San Francisco.
  • You're 4,242 percent more likely to be murdered in Baghdad as you are in Seattle.
  • You're 9,671 percent more likely to be murdered in Baghdad as you are in Honolulu.
Is that better?

June 06, 2006

Baghdad's Murder Rate

According to this report from the BBC, violent deaths in Baghdad this year have passed 6,000 through the end of May:

The bodies of 6,000 people, most of whom died violently, have been received by Baghdad's main mortuary so far this year, health ministry figures show.

The number has risen every month, to 1,400 in May. The majority are believed to be victims of sectarian killings.

But observers say the real death toll could be much higher.

A sidebar gives monthly totals:

MORTUARY'S MONTHLY TOLL
  • January: 1068
  • February: 1110
  • March: 1294
  • April: 1155
  • May: 1398
This makes for a total of 6,025. The numbers are fuzzier than I'd like. The BBC says that "most" of the 6,000 died violently. They don't say what the proportion is. On the other hand, they say "the real death toll could be much higher", and later in the article say, "no-one believes these are the true figures from the violence in and around Baghdad as many bodies are not taken to the morgue, or are never found". So for the purposes of discussion, let's say that 6,025 is the correct number. Over a 12-month period, that would be 14,460 violent deaths (though as noted, the total has risen each month and could well end up much higher).

According to Wikipedia, Baghdad's estimated population as of 2005 is 7,400,000. That makes Baghdad's murder rate 195.41 per 100,000 residents.

According to this page, the murder rate for the US in 2004 was 5.5 per 100,000 residents. That means you're 35.53 times more likely to be murdered in Baghdad as you are in the US. But perhaps it isn't fair to compare an urban area to an entire nation. Fine. According to this page, the highest murder rate of any US city in 2002 was that of Washington, DC, at 45.8 per 100,000 inhabitants. That means you're 4.27 times more likely to be murdered in Baghdad as you are in the most dangerous city in the US. As long as we're at it, and drawing city murder rates from the same page:

  • You're 8.80 times more likely to murdered in Baghdad as you are in Chicago.
  • You're 11.17 times more likely to be murdered in Baghdad as you are in Los Angeles.
  • You're 26.77 times more likely to be murdered in Baghdad as you are in New York or San Francisco.
  • You're 43.42 times more likely to be murdered in Baghdad as you are in Seattle.
These are all rough figures. A more detailed analysis would involve projecting the trend line of murders in Baghdad (which isn't good), estimating the proportion of bodies brought to the mortuary that are murder victims, and estimating the number of deaths not accounted for by the mortuary.

Way to Go, Hurricanes Fans

Last night was Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals. I usually only find hockey interesting in person, but even on television, this was a game for the ages: Edmonton went up 3-0, then Carolina scored four unanswered goals to make it 4-3, then Edmonton tied it at 4-4, and finally Carolina went up 5-4 with just 30 seconds left. it was tremendous fun to watch.

My favorite moment, however, was at the start of the game. Since a Canadian team was playing, the first anthem sung was "O Canada". A few weeks ago, San Jose fans booed "O Canada" at a home game, also against Edmonton -- an awful gesture against a country that happens to be one of our closest allies. In contrast, last night, to my great delight, not only was there no booing, but one could see and hear Carolina fans singing along with it. At the conclusion, there was plenty of cheering.

I'm not a true North Carolinian -- I'm not a native, and I won't stay here forever -- but I was proud of the people in attendance last night. They made their state and their country look good. We need more of that sort of thing these days.

Qantas Uniforms, 1974-1985

I'm thinking about a vacation in Australia and New Zealand next summer, and so found myself browsing through the Qantas site. A link on this page led to a slide show of Qantas uniforms throughout history. Though most were bad, this photo stood out:

Qantas Uniforms, 1974-1985
To be fair, as best as I can recall, airline cabin crew uniforms were uniformly pretty bad until (generally speaking) the 1990s, and Qantas was no exception to that rule. But the outfits in the picture above -- well, let's just say it was a dark chapter even in the context of airline uniforms of the 1970s. The 'burnt orange blazer with dark brown pants and Village People mustache' look deserves some sort of award all on its own.

"We Were Duped"

From a blog entry by Andrew Sullivan:

If I had been informed in early 2003 that the liberation of Iraq would be conducted outside the Geneva Conventions, I could not have supported what would have been an unjust war in its execution. Period. If the president had been candid and explained that this war would require America to jettison its long history of humane detention policies and become a nation that practices and outsources torture, I would have been unable to support the war. Those of us who believe in the American tradition of humane warfare and in the moral boundaries of just warfare are not fair-weather hawks. We simply expected America to retain its honor in warfare. We were duped.
I couldn't have said it better myself.

June 02, 2006

The UN Is After Our Guns!

According to this story in The Economist, the National Rifle Association's latest membership-boosting scheme is to claim that disarmament in war-torn regions shows that the UN is out to get Americans' guns:

Duku Paul does not know how many people he has killed. Though still young, he is a veteran of one of West Africa's nastiest civil wars. For more than a decade, he helped to burn, loot and bloody his homeland, Liberia. Then, in 2003, the United Nations, with American backing, brought peace. Bangladeshi blue helmets took Mr Paul's gun and gave him $300. Interviewed last year, he said he was sorry that he ever became a soldier, and that he wanted to get back to school.

Mr Paul was enrolled in what the UN calls a "disarmament, demobilisation, rehabilitation and reintegration" programme. The world body is keen to promote such programmes wherever appropriate. The National Rifle Association (NRA), the lobby for American gun-lovers, does not like the sound of that.

"So, after we are disarmed, the UN wants us demobilised and reintegrated. I can hear it now: 'Step right this way for your reprogramming, sir. Once we confiscate your guns, we can demobilise your aggressive instincts and reintegrate you into civil society.' No thanks," shudders Wayne LaPierre, the indefatigable executive vice-president of the NRA.

Why does the UN want to take away Americans' guns? Because it is a club of governments, some of which want to "strip opposition forces of the means to challenge their authority," argues Mr LaPierre...

The NRA, like so many conservative American groups, has long detested the UN. But Mr LaPierre's claim that it is "the biggest coming threat" to gun-lovers represents a new emphasis...

For a truly all-embracing threat... the UN is hard to beat. Mr LaPierre predicts that the "global war on guns" will boost the NRA's membership from 4m to 8m, and reduce Hillary Clinton's chances of becoming president in 2008. This last point is crucial. The UN, whatever its evil aims, is hardly in a position to push Uncle Sam around. To disarm Americans, it would need Congress on its side, plus an American president willing to sign an anti-gun treaty and appoint Supreme Court justices willing to rule it constitutional.

I blogged earlier this week about a truly horrifying article describing the atrocities taking place in the civil war in the Congo -- atrocities so awful I still can't bring myself to describe them here. I'd suggest that Mr. LaPierre read that article to get a sense of perspective, but I'm sure his response would be simple: arm them all. Guns for everyone -- that will cut down the violence.

The NRA dreams of a future world in which we all carry weapons, and therefore are all as safe as can be. I wonder, have they really thought through the implications of what they advocate? Have they thought about taking their children to future malls in which every shopper has a concealed handgun, and they're truly comfortable with the idea? Or have they just not considered the implications of their positions?

In any case, for me, the NRA has stooped to a new low with this effort -- and that took some doing. Goodness knows the UN is far from perfect, but buying up weapons is a reasonable effort to try to end brutal, longstanding, pointless conflicts. The NRA leadership is smart -- smart enough to have built one of the most effective special interest groups in the country -- so they know that there's no possible relationship between ending civil wars in Africa and taking away weapons here. But they're more than willing to whip up fear where there should be none to serve their goal of amassing even more power. It's a sad thing.

Seen Yesterday

Seen yesterday, a picture of President Bush, and beneath it, without additional comment, this quote from Abraham Lincoln:

Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power.
I suppose it could have been posted by a Bush supporter, meant in a good way, but at this point, really, what are the odds?

June 01, 2006

In the Stanley Cup Finals

The Carolina Hurricanes are in the Stanley Cup finals with a 4-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres. Go Canes!

There were a couple of moments at RBC Center this evening -- just before the first period, when the Hurricanes players took the ice, and then again for the last minute of the final period -- where the crowd noise was, I think, the loudest thing I've ever heard, loud enough that I could barely hear myself screaming along with everyone else. It was a spectactular experience, and a great first time for me to see a professional sports playoff game in person.

Pro Sports in North Carolina

I'm off in a bit to watch the Carolina Hurricanes play the Buffalo Sabres in the deciding game of the NHL semifinals (my moral dilemma was resolved when I sadly watched the Hurricanes lose Game 6, then happily remembered I was on my way to Game 7). Go Canes!

Meanwhile, a preseason pro football magazine has picked the Carolina Panthers to win this year's Super Bowl, over the Denver Broncos. (Earlier this week, my favorite football writer, Peter King, picked the Dallas Cowboys over the Panthers to advance to the Super Bowl -- that I don't see. The Seattle Seahawks? Possibly. The Chicago Bears? An outside chance. But the Cowboys?)

The Hurricanes are a win away from the Stanley Cup finals, and the Panthers are an early pick to win the Super Bowl. It's a good time for professional sports in this state. (I won't discuss the NBA, but then again, I don't care about it.)

"The Perfect Man"

Via Boing Boing, a science fiction short story, "The Perfect Man", from Lauren McLaughlin (link here, watch the ad to read the story for free). A woman orders an AI "lover", made to her specifications:

As for Mr. Dreamboat's personality, I had two options: I could allow AI4U to mine my Web habits, construct a psychological profile, and design my boyfriend's personality to match. Or I could tell them in one hundred words or less exactly what I wanted. I chose the latter. I'm no privacy freak, but I didn't want someone spying on my subconscious. Plus, when it comes to men, I know what I want. I don't need some faceless software shrink hypothesizing about it.

I began with a firm list of no-nos culled from the rogues' gallery of losers I'd dated over the years. Anyone bossy, intolerant, macho, repetitive, nosy, bookish, vain, foppish, anal, whiny, bipolar, fickle, sexist, nihilistic, or judgmental need not apply.

But I didn't want Mr. Dreamboat to be defined by negatives, so I dredged the muck of my romantic archives for desirable traits. They were scant. There was Peter's reliability. He said eight-fifteen, he meant eight-fifteen. James, despite the love handles and a wife in Greenwich, had initiative up the wazoo. Then there was Billy Sebert, who made me a papier-mâché model of his heart in sixth grade. That was sweet.

So on the plus side I had reliable, initiative-taking, and good with papier-mâché. That felt slim, so I added quick-witted, fun-loving, and emotionally balanced. For good measure I threw in the ability to rhyme at will, a passion for Shakespeare and an inexplicable love of the color orange. Why not, right? When I hit Send, a pop-up told me I'd hear from Mr. Dreamboat in forty-eight hours.

Recommended.

"Microsoft and HP Are Failing Me"

John Ludwig talks about his experience buying a new Windows PC -- he was in a rush, and so bought a retail PC instead of assembling one himself:

Fry's had an HP 7410 -- small form factor, quiet, $529, Windows XP MCE. Seemed like a fine deal.

The ensuing 4 hours getting it running were painful. And it all comes down to the economics of the business that Microsoft has created and that the big PC OEMs promulgate. At these price points, the OEMs aren't making enough money to make it worth their while, so they spend an extraordinary amount of effort trying to get you to part with more money post-purchase, and they work hard to collect bounties from various service and software providers.

As a result, you have to wade thru literally hours of crap to get the pc in a reasonable state...

Basically the pc business model as promulgated by ms and big name oems is corrupt. To make ends meet, the oems resort to all this crap that is the moral equivalent of spam -- I didn't ask for it, it isn't explained at purchase time, I never gave anyone permission to slam it all over my system.

I'd rather pay a honest price up front for a system that respects me and is truly personal. No wonder apple is resurgent.

If I'm looking for the greatest weaknesses of people or organizations, the first place I look is at their greatest strengths, taken to an extreme. Arguably, Microsoft's greatest strength over the years has been its OEM model, which enables Microsoft to remain focused on software and farm out all the expense and risk of hardware sales to others. Learning software product marketing on the job in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I came to take it as axiomatic that making software was vastly preferable to making hardware -- hardware is expensive to develop, expensive to manufacture, expensive if it doesn't sell, and the margins are low. (This probably compares quite nicely to the product marketing types coming up through the ranks of Internet startups this decade, and their perception of how preferable Internet businesses are to hardware or software.)

Unfortunately for Microsoft, the OEM model threatens to become a weakness instead of a strength. By enabling the commoditization of the PC business, Microsoft has created a fundamentally flawed industry. PC OEMs have no research and development to speak of -- they simply take the latest hardware from Taiwan Inc. (now becoming China Inc.), tart it up, and ship it. Their ability to differentiate is limited, and most such efforts end badly anyway, so most of them don't try. Their margins are razor-thin, so any company that comes along with more stuff to install (and make users wade through) is welcomed with open arms, as long as they bring their checkbook.

More on this soon.