The Worst Commercials On Television

Slate has a great article about... what I just wrote in the subject line. I'm not gonna repeat myself, people! Anyway, awful ads like these are why I'm happy to say that I don't own a television (although I do own a Slingbox, so I can cheat).

My "favorite" was the incredibly obnoxious Visa commercial, which as a Slate reader points out, reminds us that "we are mindless automatons à la the workers of [Fritz] Lang's Metropolis." A man dares interrupt the human-assembly-line dystopia by paying with cash? Off with his head!



Cloned Meat

I left a comment on Consumerist's article about cloned meat (ugh). Here it is:
Genetic diversity reduces the chances of disease ravaging livestock. Factory farming has already reduced diversity to an all time low, which is why you things like Mad Cow disease spreading so quickly.

Cloned meat will make this situation much, much worse, since you can have the possibility of an entire farm with the same genotype. Whatever vulnerabilities one cow has, all the others will have as well. This means that it's possible that virtually the entire meat supply in America could be contaminated in a very short period of time.

Animals are not toasters - they shouldn't produced on an assembly line just because there are meager short term cost savings.


Free Will: Yitz Responds

My friend Yitz has responded to my previous post about free will. I have what to say in response to his arguments, but I'm think I'm going to take it over to his comments section (instead of trying to have a debate across two different blogs which almost definitely won't work).



The Science of Free Will

Via Slashdot:
Do we have free will? Possibly not, according to an article in the new issue of the Economist. Entitled 'Free to choose?', the piece examines new discoveries in the fields of neuroscience and psychology that may be forcing us to re-examine the concept of free will. The specifically cite a man with paedophilic tendencies who was cured when his brain tumor was removed. 'Who then was the child abuser?', they ask.
There is a pretty big leap of logic (also taken by Robert Wright in his book The Moral Animal) from the idea that there is a strong neurological basis for our behavior and the conclusion that we have no free will.

Jewish thought has something called the Yetzer Ha'ra - the evil "inclination". The idea, in short, is that we may be inclined to do something wrong, but we still have the choice not to do it. Although the portrayals of this inclination are often given in mystical and even anthropomorphic terms in the Talmud, I believe these are meant to be purely metaphorical, and that the evil inclination can today be seen as our inherent, genetic traits.

The key point is the difference between inclination and programming. I may not feel like washing the dishes, but I wash them anyway, because I need something to eat off of. That is, I'm inclined not to wash the dishes, but I can still choose whether or not I'm going to.

In fact, Cognitive Science takes this a step further - an alcoholic may desire to drink, but he may also desire to not desire to drink any more. This is called a "second order desire". Keith Stanovich's Robot's Rebellion (which deals with free will) brings in this concept as an example of how our brains are more complex than our simple first order desires (formerly known as the "id").

The pedophile who was "cured" after brain surgery lost his inclination towards pedophilia - there may have been a part of his brain that made him sick, but there were other parts of his brain that countered that. Why should we assume that the pedophiliac part of his brain was insurmountable by the inihibitory parts? I'm not without sympathy for the man - clearly he was cursed - but I think it greatly oversimplifies things to say that the man had absolutely no control over his actions. We should definitely consider his pedophilia as an ailment that needs to be treated, and be sensitive that it's much, much harder for him to avoid illegal behavior than most people, but even so, he still can avoid it, and therefore needs to be held accountable.

Last but not least, if none of us have free will, then what's the point of this stupid conversation? Legislators will write whatever laws they're programmed to write. The people will vote for whomever they're programmed to vote for. The police will arrest whomever they're programmed to arrest. Etc. Etc. Etc. The idea that we can shape public policy around the idea that there's no free will is absurd at best - once there's no free will, no one is shaping anything, now, are we?



Letting the Cat out of the Bag

This blog was never "really" anonymous, but I've decided to "out" myself... perhaps against my better judgement. Why? Because I made Gawker, baby! :-)

Anyway, I'm Daniel Tsadok - nice to meet you!


p.s. My brand spanking new homepage has been Gawker'ed. D'oh!


Ruby On Rails Gotcha

This may be resolved in the next version of Ruby on Rails, but I found a little quirk in the Rails testing mechanism. Let's say you have a login page, and a bunch of admin pages. If you try to access the admin page, you get redirected to the login page. After you login, you get redirected back to the original page you were trying to get to in the first place. If you enter the wrong password, it will reload the login page (i.e. it will redirect back to itself). To keep things clear, you are trying to get to:
and it takes you to:
and depending on whether you log in correctly or not, it will take you to the first or second link, respectively.

Quick terminology note: A set of pages is called a "controller" - in this case, pages are either part of the admin controller or the login controller. The specific page is called an "action". So for http://www......com/admin/index, the controller is "admin", and the action is "index".

Now, Rails has an excellent testing framework that will allow you to make sure your website is behaving the way it's supposed to (i.e. as described above). Testing is a great way to catch if someone made a mistake somewhere along the line. One test you can do is something like this:

(code to pretend you're logging in correctly)
assert_redirected_to :controller => 'admin', :action => 'index'

This means "make sure that, after a successful login, I was redirected to the main admin page, and report an error if not".


(code to pretend you're logging in incorrectly)
assert_redirected_to :controller => 'login', :action => 'index'

This means "make sure that, after a unsuccessful login, I was redirected back to the login page".

But what about this?

assert_redirected_to :action => 'index'

If we don't specify the controller, what are we asserting? I always assumed that, if this is being called from a test for the login controller (Rails testing is organized by controller*), that it would assume I meant login/index. But it turns out that it will match whatever controller I actually redirected to. In other words, I expected the test to fail if I was redirected to admin/index, but it didn't. So if you write this:

(code to pretend you're logging in incorrectly)
assert_redirected_to :action => 'index'

it will pass even if you are redirected to the wrong place. That is, the test will not properly catch a mistake that lets you access the administration section of the website without logging in! This is a potential security problem - while it doesn't necessarily mean the admin section is open, it does mean that the testing system won't properly alert you if it is.

Anyway, for those Rails testers out there, watch out - always specify the controller!


* Rails also has "model testing", and more, but that's beyond the scope of this post.


Libya Corners the Adverbs Market

Via Going Up:
LibyanSpider.com, the official registrar for the .LY top-level domain, has re-opened for registrations to the general public after a 2-year hiaitus. I found out early because I had previously tried to register the domain Fami.ly (already taken, as it turned out) and got on the mailing list.
"unfortunate.ly" (still available), you have to go through Libya if you want these cool domain names. Maybe that's the future in rehabilitating third-world countries - give them cutesy country codes...



Mozart Gets Slashdotted

It's never too late to get Slashdotted, apparently... The International Mozart Foundation put up the musical scores of Mozart's complete works, and was overwhelmed by the subsequent traffic (via Slashdot).



Bank Of America Suuuuuucks

I was recently charged a late fee on my Bank of America card (formerly MBNA). Since I signed up for auto-pay, I was pretty surprised - I set everything up to pay more than the minimum balance every month. In fact, I almost didn't catch the charge. For the record, it was November 1 (the payment due date).

Anyway, I called BoA customer service to see what they could do. I pointed out that because the previous payment went in on October 3rd, and the previous deadline was also the 1st, that payment should apply to the next statement. They told me that the statement "closes" on the 6th, so the payment still applied to the previous month. WTF. Also, they said that because I can control when my payment goes through, I'm responsible for that late fee. Double WTF.

While I was on the phone, I happened to have the website open, and I could not change the payment date. Here's the screenshot:

Unfortunately, I was transferred to the BoA tech support people, who clarified that the system I'm using is MBNA, not BoA. And before I did, the CSR offered to give back half the late fee. When I went back to customer support, they used this against me, as if my taking half the fee was legally binding. I probably made a mistake taking it, but I don't think it would have worked out anyway.

To sum - when BoA and MBNA finished their unholy union, BoA kept MBNA's crappy banking software (parallel to their own), which is hardcoded to pay in time for MBNA's due dates (as you can see in the screenshot). Since BoA has an earlier due date, MBNA's autopay system is completely broken. In case you were wondering, I don't have a choice - when I log in via bankofamerica.com, I still get "Bill Pay Choice", which is MBNA's software. Which means I have absolutely no choice about the matter.

So, word to the wise: if anyone reading this is using auto-pay on a formerly MBNA card, watch yourself. They have no problem charging you penalties for their own mistakes.

Bank of America sucks. Thank you for listening.

UPDATE: My coworker T sent me this BoingBoing link - it's definitely not just me!


University Censorship

I'm reading this scary article on Spiked (via onley1) about self-censorship at universities. I find this article really depressing, actually - universities at their best (or worst, depending on who you ask) when they challenge students to question their assumptions and leave the "comfort zone" they have been in their whole lives. Now it appears that schools are doing as much as they can to "protect" their students from being challenged, like forcing professors to consult a committee if they plan on teaching something controversial.

Note to universities: if you teach someone something they already know, that's not really teaching. Universities are the last place this sort of thing should be taking place. Students have the rest of their lives to practice self-censorship.



Dollars and Cents

Via The Consumerist: Verizon Doesn't Know Difference Between Dollars And Cents. The sad thing is that the Verizon people keep telling the caller that "the computer is doing the calculation", and none of the people he talks to seems to get the idea that a cent is different than a dollar. Even sadder - most people wouldn't even notice.



Spot The Difference

The Freakonomics blog has an interesting look at reporting at The New York Times vs. The Wall Street Journal:
Here is the Times’s headline: “Study Finds Medication Raises Suicide Risks in Young Adults.”
And here is the Journal’s: “Suicidal Thoughts Seem to Abate With Age of Antidepressant Users.”
I don’t want to get all anti-Big Pharma on anybody, but does the Journal’s headline strike anyone else as a little, um, protective?
I myself have no problem being anti-Big Pharma...




I stumbled upon this awesome animation/simulation of what goes on at the cellular level. It looks like an alien civilization. It's amazing to imagine the stuff in the animation is happening billions of times throughout each of our bodies...


Updated Reading List

I added some books (and removed others) to my reading list at the right - they're cool books about what it means to work and live in America today. One ("Creative Class") is optimistic and the other ("American Dream") is quite the opposite. But they make similar observations about how life is different for the average American today. I like to think that "American Dream" describes the problems, and "Creative Class" describes some solutions, although it's not that simple, of course. Plus, I'm not done with either. More later, I guess.



Swearing In

David Kuo has an interesting article up on The Huffington Post - Here's a preview:
So, a Muslim is coming to the United States House of Representatives and he wants to be sworn into office with his hand on a Koran and not on a Holy Bible. Some conservatives have decided this may well be the end of American civilization. One columnist writes, "He should not be allowed to do so -- not because of any American hostility to the Koran, but because the act undermines American civilization." Some people's election loss grief counseling isn't going well.
The quote turns out to be from Dennis Prager, who is Jewish, and as far as I know, strongly identifies as such. So I found it surprising that he would make an argument that basically embraces the notion that America is a Christian nation. Would he want to swear on a copy of the New Testament? You can't get out of this by saying he could use only the Old Testament - when he says that "the Bible" is "America's holiest book", then by any rational assessment, he means the Christian Bible. From a Christian perspective, swearing on half the Bible and discarding the other half is as offensive, if not more so, than swearing in on the Koran (just ask any Jew living in Medieval Europe).

Kuo concludes by reminding us that the Constitution (remember that?) says "...no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." Well, that's a relief.

So now here's a bigger question - why swear in on any religious document? If, hypothetically, a Scientologist was elected, and insisted on swearing in on a copy of Dianetics, what would that mean? Most Americans aren't Scientologists, and don't know (or care) whether Scientology even has oaths. So what's the point? It's like saying "I don't believe in your religion, but you seem to take it seriously, so make an oath based on it". How's this - if anyone behaves in a way contrary to the ideas expressed in the oath, throw their @$$ in jail, or at least out of office. That's more than enough for me.



Note to Police: Please Don't Shoot

I have always felt fairly confident walking around, unarmed (except for my killer Kung Fu grip), not having done anything illegal, that I wouldn't be shot by the police. My naivety has been embarrassing.

The NYPD killed an unarmed man on his wedding day and shot two of his friends this past weekend (article here), shooting fifty times. Oh yeah, and they were drinking - apparently cops are allowed to drink on duty. Great.

Then there's this delightful video: Watch an unarmed protester get shot by the police (rubber bullets this time), and then watch the police brag about it.

And finally, thanks to my coworker T for sending me this story: Blowing Up Scientific Equipment in the Name of Security. I think the headline is pretty self-explanatory, don't you?

Anyway, it's good to be able to write about this while I still can...



I'm Feeling Ontological

I just read this great essay by Clay Shirky: Ontology is Overrated (via Minding the Planet). The basic thrust of the essay is that certain things (like the web) simply don't break up into fixed categories. Citing Google versus Yahoo as an example:

Yahoo, faced with the possibility that they could organize things with no physical constraints, added the shelf back. They couldn't imagine organization without the constraints of the shelf, so they added it back. It is perfectly possible for any number of links to be in any number of places in a hierarchy, or in many hierarchies, or in no hierarchy at all. But Yahoo decided to privilege one way of organizing links over all others, because they wanted to make assertions about what is "real."


One reason Google was adopted so quickly when it came along is that Google understood there is no shelf, and that there is no file system. Google can decide what goes with what after hearing from the user, rather than trying to predict in advance what it is you need to know.
As he points out elsewhere in the article, trying to figure out whether the "Books" category should be a subcategory of "Entertainment" or "Arts" is simply a waste of time - both categories are arbitrary anyway. What Google realized is that what you need to look for is associations, which will emerge from the various links throughout the World Wide Web. Instead of trying to arbitrarily define "Books", simply see what comes up when you search for "books". Let the searcher decide if they're interested in "Entertainment" or "Arts" by adding search terms. Google might end up discovering that certain words keep popping up when searching for books, and suggest them as alternatives: "Perhaps you'd like to search for 'novels'?" Compare this to Yahoo's need to constantly second-guess what those associations might be, and subsequently being constrained by those guesses.

What it comes down to is a "top-down" approach versus a "bottom-up" approach:

Top-down approaches emphasise planning and a complete understanding of the system. It is inherent that no coding can begin until a sufficient level of detail has been reached in the design of at least some part of the system. This, however, delays testing of the ultimate functional units of a system until significant design is complete. Bottom-up emphasizes coding and early testing, which can begin as soon as the first module has been specified. This approach, however, runs the risk that modules may be coded without having a clear idea of how they link to other parts of the system, and that such linking may not be as easy as first thought. Re-usability of code is one of the main benefits of the bottom-up approach.
Yahoo decided that they would impose order on the web by defining themselves as the "top". Google simply stepped back and let the web emerge as it truly is, and ironically, by doing so, ended up truly on top.


p.s. This debate (and the results) also mirrors the different approaches taken in command economies (such as socialism) versus market economies.


The Lion 'Leet

The Daily Mail has this incredible story about "super-lions":
In a remote corner of Africa, an extraordinary evolutionary tale is unfolding, uncovered by the actor Jeremy Irons and an award-winning documentary team...

"There is an unusual pride of lions stalking these swamps," he says. "They are cats that live in water and hunt a single herd of Cape buffalo. Evolution favours predators that can hunt a range of prey. But these lions are defying that trend by becoming specialists. These huge lions are adapting and breeding in isolation on an island in a river that goes nowhere."

[T]he island has become a unique, ecological experiment. In order to exist without the customary spectrum of weaker African prey like zebra, giraffe and impala, the Duba lions have had to develop distinct strategies in order to trap the single available food source.
It's evolution gone wild[er]!


Suing Borat

It's starting to look like that, as funny as he is, Sacha Baron Cohen is kind of an asshole. According to the AP, impoverished Romanian villagers were tricked (like everyone else in Borat, to be fair) into all sorts of antics, led to believe that they were participating in a documentary
Residents and local officials in [Glod,] the scruffy hamlet 140 kilometers (85 miles) northwest of Bucharest said Tuesday they were horrified and humiliated to learn their abject poverty and simple ways are ridiculed in a movie now raking in millions at box offices worldwide.

"We thought they came here to help us - not mock us," said Dana Luca, 40, sweeping a manure-stained street lined with shabby homes of crumbling brick and corrugated iron sheeting.

"We haven't got anything here. We haven't got running water. We can't even bathe," she said. "We are poor people, but we are still people."


[Their reprsentative] accused the producers of paying locals just 10 or 15 lei (US$3.30 - US$5.50), misleading the village into thinking the movie would be a documentary, refusing to sign proper filming contracts and enticing easily exploited peasants into performing crass acts.
In response, Borat suggested that the blame lies with "the Jew", which, um, happens to be the case here. Thanks, Sacha.

(via Table of Malcontents)



Table of Malcontents Is Cranky...

We here at Table of Malcontents don't want you to kill yourself, unless you're one of the people who writes comments like "This is news HOW?", "I liked this site better when it was about singing cat videos" or " Hip writing in the name of factual errors. Another example of why Wired is not worth the effort to read."
All this and more for a simple link to a Suicide Letter Wizard...


p.s. To be fair, most of the commenters on ToM appear to be 14 years old.
p.p.s. I liked Table of Malcontents better when it was about videos of cats falling off couches (although I can't say I remember when that was).

Censorship, East and West

Last week this scary article was posted on Slashdot:
Edis Krad writes, "An elderly Japanese bar manager and performer has been arrested for playing copyrighted songs on his harmonica. From the article: 'Investigators accuse Toyoda of illegally performing 33 songs such as the Beatles' songs "Here, There and Everywhere" and "Yesterday," whose copyrights are managed by the Japanese Society for Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers. He allegedly performed the songs on the harmonica with a female pianist at the bar he operated between August and September this year.' This is for all those kids who are learning chords on their guitars — be ready to pay fees for practicing 'Smoke On The Water.' This story seems to be legit, though it reads like an Onion piece. It's only being reported in the Mainichi Daily News via MSN.
Very scary - the idea that someone can be sent to prison for playing the harmonica is beyond absurd. And then there's this Slashdot story from Friday:
jamie writes, "On 'Larry King Live' Wednesday night, Bill Maher said many of 'the people who really run the underpinnings of the Republican Party are gay... Ken Mehlman, OK, there's one I think people have talked about. I don't think he's denied it.' When CNN re-aired the interview, the mention of Mehlman was edited out with no indication anything was missing. When a minute-long video of the original vs. censored clips was posted on YouTube, a DMCA takedown removed it (the original poster plans to resubmit a shorter clip he hopes will qualify as fair use — good luck, since the DMCA doesn't recognize fair use). Relatedly, the Washington Post today was caught silently editing its published stories to make them less informative. Unnamed GOP officials are also saying that Mehlman will step down from his post when his term ends in January."
These are supposed to be news institutions, for crying out loud. The Washington Post in particular should be ashamed. This is the paper that took down Nixon, and now, according to Glenn Greenwald's site (linked in quote above), is censoring the fact that Bush admitted to lying right before last week's election. Greenwald sums it up precisely:
Why did The Washington Post delete the passage in its own article detailing how the President misled reporters when he answered their questions about Rumsfeld? Presidents simply do not have the right to lie to Americans about important matters of public concern, particularly before a major election. If we don't embrace and enforce that standard, what standard exists? And if newspapers like the Post are too afraid to detail dishonest statements that come from our highest political officials -- to the point where they publish such revelations only to then surreptitiously delete them -- what possible purpose do journalists serve?

This is a very scary trend: in the East, overzealous copyright enforcers throwing old men in jail for playing the harmonica, and in the West, timid journalists too cowed to report what the president actually said in public (after all, who needs censorship when you have self-censorship)?


p.s. In a story related to the Japan one, there's this (also Slashdot):
jginspace writes "A 17-year-old from Singapore is is facing three years' jailtime for accessing his neighbor's wireless network. His neighbor complained and now the unfortunate Tan Jia Luo is facing charges under the computer misuse act and is scheduled to appear in court on Wednesday."
Three years for slowing down someone's internet connection? Of course it's stealing, and wrong, but we're talking about a kid, and at most a few hundred dollars worth of damage (probably much, much less). Japan and Singapore just went a few notches down on my list of places to visit (of course, Singapore is notorious for its draconian punishments)...


NASA Makes Waves

Table of Malcontents has a cool video of waves being created in a floating sphere of water.



Bush Uses Reverse-Reverse Psychology

If there's anything that will keep Democrats home today, it's this: "Let your voice be heard, Bush tells voters".
"We live in a free society and our government is only as good as the willingness of our people to participate," Mr. Bush said, with his wife, Laura, at his side and an "I voted" sticker on the lapel of his brown suede jacket. "Therefore, no matter what your party affiliation or if you don't have a party affiliation, do your duty, cast your ballot and let your voice be heard."
Don't listen to him! He's evil! Stay home today, dammit!



In Case You Didn't Hate The RIAA Enough...

Now Wired News reports that, thanks to a decision by the U.S. Copyright Register, the RIAA can get away with giving songwriters only a few cents per song for ringtones since "ringtones aren't songs", a loophole in copyright law. From the article: "The RIAA wanted to be able to distribute ringtones without securing new licenses from songwriters, who technically own the composition." This strikes me as morally (if not legally) equivalent to piracy - a bunch of hucksters making money off of something they didn't create without paying for it.

As the RIAA itself says:
The pirate’s credo is still the same--why pay for it when it’s so easy to steal? The credo is as wrong as it ever was. Stealing is still illegal, unethical, and all too frequent in today’s digital age.
Even worse? Piracy and hypocrisy. The RIAA's got plenty of both to go around.

Fortunately, there's a good chance the RIAA will be dead in the water in a few years. From their About page:
Its mission is to foster a business and legal climate that supports and promotes our members' creative and financial vitality. Its members are the record companies that comprise the most vibrant national music industry in the world.

The environment they're supporting is draconian, paranoid, and anything but creative - artists today are faced with even more restrictions than consumers are. As this new ringtones ripoff demonstrates, artists are in for a raw deal when they sign with "the majors". And aspiring artists have far more options (MySpace is just the tip of the iceberg) today to distribute their music. So much for fostering creativity. I just can't resist paraphrasing Star Wars here: the tighter they squeeze, the more artists will slip through their fingers. It's just not worth it for an artist today to sign away half of their profits to a record company just for distribution (another 30% goes to marketing, and recording costs come out of what's left). And once the artists are gone, there's not much keeping the RIAA afloat, is there?


p.s. I like how the RIAA refer to themselves on their website as "it".
p.p.s. From an earlier Wired article: "Peter Jenner, manager of Billy Bragg, The Clash, Disposable Heroes, Ian Dury, Pink Floyd, and T.Rex, thinks labels are broken and that the days of DRM are numbered."


Corporate Privacy?

Wired is running an article that, to my mind, highlights a lot of the backwards thinking in government today. The lede says it all:
The government wants to respect the privacy of corporations who sell dangerous vehicles and keep data about defects under wraps.

One of my big pet peeves is how corporations have usurped a lot of the language of Libertarianism to apply to them, often at the expense of individuals who truly deserve those rights. In this case, the government (specifically The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) seems to subscribe to the notion that a corporation has a right to privacy, even when it comes to information that can endanger human life. Says who? I agree that, in order to keep a healthy economy running (and to stay globally competitive), we need to give corporations a certain amount of freedom to operate. But we need to remember that corporations are there to serve society, not the other way around. If they break this contract, the government should have the right to take action. Individuals often need to be protected from society (in the form of government) - that is why we have the Bill of Rights (and other quaint conventions). But a corporation can't be persecuted, tortured, or imprisoned, let alone unjustly, and as long as the money keeps coming in, it can't "die", unless its charter is revoked. The worst thing that can happen if unjust action is taken against a corporation is that a lot of people lose their jobs.

The point is that the government needs to go back to being human-centric, as opposed to corporate-centric. Corporations are, for better or for worse, an important part of everyone's lives, but they have their place. It's time to remind our government that that place is not above that of living, breathing human beings.



My Grandmother Passed Away

On Monday, my maternal grandmother passed away rather suddenly. I was fairly close to her, and the whole thing was even tougher because my aunt (her daughter) just passed away less than a year ago. Losing a child is devastating, and even though I know my grandmother wanted very much to stick around and be with the family, I think my aunt's death took a tremendous emotional toll that significantly weakened my grandmother.

Anyway, she was an incredibly sweet woman who only wanted the best for her family, and her passing is definitely a huge void in my family. May she rest in peace.



Why I Love Feeds

Occasionally, content providers like to tweak their stories after they go out. Usually it's because of a typo, but sometimes there's more to the story. A very recent example is Wired: it published a story on hybrid vehicles, and shortly afterward changed the headline. My feed reader picked it up as two different stories, since it has two different headlines. The difference in this example, as in many others, is instructive:

  • "Doubt Cast on Plug-In Hybrids"
  • "Doubts Can't Stop Plug-In Hybrids"

    Framing at its finest. Here's the link to the actual story.

    Anyway, keep your eyes open!

  • 2006-10-25

    David Mamet On Anti-Semitism

    I've been reading David Mamet's new book, called "The Wicked Son", which is about anti-Semitism - specifically, about Jewish anti-Semitism. It's an incredible read, especially since he's in the avant-garde theater crowd, where he most likely encounters many of the disaffected Jews his book is aimed at. In other words, he knows exactly what he's dealing with, unlike many rabbis, who are simply not in contact with the self-hating Jews that Mamet chastises in this book.

    The book also surprised me since Mamet's movie "State and Main" featured a stereotypical ultra-greedy Yiddish speaking film producer. It was meant as satire, but after watching it, I suspected Mamet of exactly the sort of perspective he is criticizing here (even though I thought the movie was hysterically funny). After reading this book, I'm much more willing to give Mamet benefit of the doubt. The movie, which is about a Hollywood movie shooting "on location" in Vermont, and what kind of effect Hollywood can have on a small town, may be playing to our expectations of what might happen in that situation, as opposed to what actually does happen. Or maybe Mamet has simply changed his outlook since making the movie in 2000. Anyway, here's another take on the Jewish aspect of "State and Main".

    Also, here's an article by Mamet on Israel's war with Lebanon (written while it was happening). It's not nearly as poetic as the book (which is partially styled after Talmudic questions and answers), but it's a good taste of how he sees things.

    Anyway, I've always been a Mamet fan ("Glengarry Glen Ross" is among my favorite movies), and it's very interesting to see him contribute to contemporary Jewish thought. It's a book well worth reading.



    Wired News Hates You

    The proof is that they posted this story:
    Amputated Arm Moved to Groin


    p.s. Poor S.O.B... that is not a good day.
    p.p.s. Yes, I'm aware that my posting this means that I hate you, too.

    Good Net Neutrality Article

    The Minnesota Daily has a nice article on why Net Neutrality is so important as, yes, a regulation.



    Obama For President?

    I just saw this via Google News: Sen. Obama mulls bid for White House in 2008. He certainly doesn't have the political baggage that Hillary Clinton does, for example, and he's new enough to Washington to still be considered an "outsider". It could make for a very interesting race in 2008...



    The Brilliant Battlestar

    I got back into Battlestar Galactica a few weeks ago (I finally caught up). The 3rd season is AWESOME so far. The end of the 2nd season was a little slow up until (but not including) the last episode of the season, and I was getting a little worried that the show was losing its way. Hell no. It's back, and it's been as intense and complex as ever. The double length episodes that ended season 2 and started season 3 are nothing short of epic. If I'm gushing, it's because I was really worried that BSG would devolve into soap operatics and just drag on until its death by cancellation or whatever. I'm not worried anymore. Welcome back, Battlestar Galactica!


    p.s. This is my 200th post since moving to Blogger :-) I was going to make a special 200th post, but honestly, who gives a s--t? I had 279 posts on my old LJ site, so this actually makes 479 total posts. Maybe I'll do a special 500th post, but honestly, I probably won't remember :-P.


    Stephen Colbert Is a Genius

    With his "Green Screen Challenge", Stephen Colbert leveraged the power of YouTube and the DIY community to make some great content for his show (in tonight's case, a whole show's worth). He just announced the winner tonight - Bonnie Rose of California (video here). Incidentally, the runner up of the challenge ("not a contest") was a certain George L. from Marin County, California. George L. got a Stephen Colbert mug and T-shirt as a prize - congrats, George! I did a little digging, however, and it turns out that George L. owns an entire post-production company devoted to special effects. So the deck was a little bit stacked in his favor, no?

    George L. was sporting enough to stick around for Colbert's Tek Janssen cartoon, featuring a 5 minute landing sequence. Sweet. And he stuck around for lightsaber battles at the end of the show. Awesome!

    UPDATE: fixed broken link for winning video - sorry!


    Lighting Up In Slo Mo

    Very cool high-speed photography video of a lighter in action. The best thing about high-speed photography is how it makes watch commonplace events with a new sense of wonder :-)



    Israel Lobby Addendum

    I would be remiss if I didn't point out this line from OpenSecrets' article on the Israel Lobby:
    Note: The Center categorizes individual contributions to candidates as being ideological only under strict conditions. For example, a contribution to a candidate will be considered to be pro-Israel only if the contributor gives to a pro-Israel political action committee AND the candidate has received money from a pro-Israel PAC. Thus, the contribution figures attributed to ideological groups, including pro-Israel and pro-Arab interests, may be artificially low.

    However, as I showed in the original post, even if you double, or even triple, the amount contributed by pro-Israel interests, it still doesn't compare to the big guns - corporations and unions. Note that my original post had the easier task of debunking conspiracy theories claiming that the Israel lobby is the biggest of them all. The numbers show that to be far from true.


    The 2 1/2 Day Senate Work "Week"

    Lost in the Foley scandal is this gem:
    Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, last Monday delivered an unusually candid assessment of the Senate's notoriously light work schedule.

    In a National Press Club luncheon speech, Specter noted it was "very hard to convene a Monday morning hearing" because of extended weekends. He continued: "We've fallen into a routine . . . of starting our workweek Tuesday at 2:15 after we finish our caucus luncheons, and people start to get edgy and heading for the airports early on Thursday. So we might increase the workweek by 50 percent, say, to three days."

    As USA Today points out: "Lawmakers will make $165,200 this year. Leaders earn more."


    p.s. The USA Today article also has this gem of a quote:
    "I don't think there's anything wrong with them being out of Washington,” says John Samples of the Cato Institute, a think tank that favors limited government. "They might be better representatives."

    Absolutely. If you define "representatives" as "Corporate Whores".


    The Unethicist

    Gawker has a new feature that's sure to amuse fans of the Randy Cohen's New York Times Magazine's advice column, The Ethicist.



    How Big Is The Israel Lobby, Really?

    To hear anti-Israel extremists tell the tale, supposedly the Pro-Israel Lobby (a.k.a. the Jewish Lobby) is a massive operation that dwarfs other special interest groups, twisting American policy towards supporting Israel even when it's not for the good of the country. I personally am concerned about the influence of special interests in America, and I feel pretty strongly about this topic. And while I believe that those lobbying for Israel have the best of intentions, I have always had misgivings about this particular approach to supporting Israel, if only because it's very hard to approach politics without acquiring a nasty stench. So I decided to consult OpenSecrets.org, run by The Center for Responsive Politics, and see for myself just how the Israel lobby measures up, in the scheme of things. I found out some pretty interesting things.

    First off, here's AIPAC's site. And here is OpenSecrets's article entitled Pro-Israel/Pro-Arab Money, and here are the numbers for the Israel lobby. Unsurprisingly, there was a peak during the 2002 election, shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks. There was even bigger peak around 1992, shortly after the Gulf War, during which Sadaam Hussein shot SCUD missiles at Israel - a period of relative tension between the United States and Israel. In both those years the total number of pro-Israel donations were around $8.5 million - nothing to sniff at.

    Let's stick with 2002 - a very tumultuous year, and as I've mentioned, a year of unusually high levels of pro-Israel lobbying. Here are some of the other industries contributing that year:

  • Lawyers and Law Firms: $95 million.
  • Retirees: $76 million.
  • Real Estate: $66 million.
  • Wall Street: $60 million.
  • Health Professionals: $42 million.
  • Insurance: $37 million.

    In fact, the rank of the pro-Israel Lobby as it compared to other industries that year was 44th. In 1990, it was 12th - probably because other industries weren't as sophisticated yet. This year, it's in 63rd place. Hardly the uber-powerful Elders of Zion the anti-Israel people want you to think they are.

    Business actually has a much more effective lobbying force than any ideological group: Dennis Hastert (I'm picking on him because he's the Speaker) got 93% of his PAC funds from business interests in 2002. As an aside, Hastert (the incumbent) raised about $3 million that race, compared to his opponent's $18,000. Ouch. Not surprisingly, Hastert won with 74% of the vote in his district. Looking at the top-ranking Democrat in the House, Nancy Pelosi (the incumbent): In her 2002 run, over $200,000 came from Business, $300,000 from Labor, and $50,000 from Ideological causes. Pelosi raised just under $1 million, compared to her opponent's $6,930. Ouch. Not surprisingly, she won 80% of the vote. See a pattern here?

    Back to my point: Congress certainly is poisoned by the meddling of special interests who are determined to steer the agenda in their direction, at any cost. But to single out the Israel lobby is absurd, and smacks of anti-Semitism. The Israel lobby is nothing more than a medium-sized fish in a very polluted pond.


    p.s. FYI, The Center for Middle East Peace & Economic Cooperation was listed as a pro-Israel group. Say what? "The Center for Middle East Peace & Economic Cooperation does anything in its ability to encourage a peaceful resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict and further understanding between Jews and Arabs. Established in 1989 by then-Slim Fast Foods Chairman S. Daniel Abraham and then-Utah Congressman Wayne Owens, the Center is a private, non-profit, non-partisan organization." So a sizable percentage (around 17%) of the pro-Israel lobby isn't even a pro-Israel lobby!
  • AP Gets Lazy

    Here are two snippets from the same article by the Associated Press. See if you can see a pattern:
    "The COBE results provided increased support for the big-bang scenario for the origin of the Universe, as this is the only scenario that predicts the kind of cosmic microwave background radiation measured by COBE," the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm said in its citation.

    And a few paragraphs later:
    The COBE project gave strong support for the big-bang theory because it is the only scenario that predicts the kind of cosmic microwave radiation measured by the satellite.


    O'Reilly Meets Orwell

    Sent over to me by my co-worker T: Mark Foley was shown as a Democrat on the O'Reilly Factor. Head over to the link for screenshots and video clips. The most generous interpretation of what happened is that O'Reilly's staff is grossly incompetent. More likely it was intentional, and O'Reilly or whoever it was that authorized it wanted to subliminally disassociate Foley from the Republican party and/or attack the Democratic party. I guess they hoped no one would notice or say anything. Very 1984.



    I Need A Sock Puppet

    Via WordSpy:
    sock puppet n. A fake persona used to discuss or comment on oneself or one's work, particularly in an online discussion group or the comments section of a blog.

    Check out the link for some disturbing examples of prominent sock puppets.


    Life, In Graph Form

    "indexed" is a cute site I discovered via Joystiq. The Joystiq post has a graph showing the inverse relationship between gamer income and gamer free time - when you have time to play, you can't afford it, and when you can afford it, you don't have time. Sounds like it's true about life in general...



    The Tenth Dimension

    I found this really cool website called "Imagining The Tenth Dimension". It takes a different approach than I expected: instead of trying to visualize additional spatial dimensions, it considers additional dimensions as ways to transcend spacetime. The fifth dimension, for example, would let you "jump" to any spot in your past or future, but it would seem, without the ability to change anything. It's heavy stuff, but it's an excellent website that gets you thinking.


    The Answer Really Is 42

    Via one of my favorite blogs, Minding the Planet - For you Hitchhiker's Guide fans (I myself am not really much of one), this article will blow your minds:
    There is an important sequence of numbers called "the moments of the Riemann zeta function." Although we know abstractly how to define it, mathematicians have had great difficulty explicitly calculating the numbers in the sequence. We have known since the 1920s that the first two numbers are 1 and 2, but it wasn't until a few years ago that mathematicians conjectured that the third number in the sequence may be 42—a figure greatly significant to those well-versed in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy... Using the connection, Keating and Snaith not only explained why the answer to life, the universe and the third moment of the Riemann zeta function should be 42, but also provided a formula to predict all the numbers in the sequence.

    As Spivack says: 'You've heard of "Life Imitates Art," well this is "Life Imitates Humor" at it's best.'


    p.s. I'm still not clear on what question 42 is answering...


    Super-Serious Games

    Via Wired: Two Serious Games that simulate the sensitive situation in Israel are coming out soon: "Global Conflicts: Palestine" (can't say I like the name), and PeaceMaker.

    The article gets points for mentioning a game I used to love to play in high school: Balance of Power: "In 1985, Balance of Power tackled Cold War brinkmanship under a thermonuclear threat." In that game, if you tried moving against, or even talking to, a nation friendly to the enemy (say Cuba or Poland, if you're playing as the U.S.), you would get a very angry call with a leader with his finger on the button. You had to keep the keep the Cold War cold while making geopolitical advances (i.e. spreading your influence worldwide). Nuclear war was, of course, game over. It was definitely a fun way to get a feel for the tangled nature of Cold War politics.

    I'm hoping these new games will show, in an objective manner, the complex nature of what's going on in Israel.


    Funny TAN Post

    Very cute screenshot a la The Assimilated Negro.


    p.s. Why do I feel guilty when I write out "The Assimilated Negro"? It's not my fault...

    High Profile WTF Guests

    The Daily WTF had some interesting guest bloggers a few weeks ago: famous (by software developer standards) coders Raymond Chen, Tom Kyte, Eric Sink, and Blake Ross all weighed in. Blake Ross, cofounder of Firefox, had the best one, IMHO, since it shows an inside look at Netscape, post-AOHell...

    Some funny Ross lines:
    It's hard for me to write a WTF, not because I can't remember one, but because I remember too many. Netscape was one giant WTF, or as they called it back then, AOL. The company had grown so inept that "WTF" became just another thing we said each day, like "Hey" or "What time is it?" or "We just lost another 5%" or "Marketing wants to replace the Back button with an ad for Bowflex".

    I hate to be down on anyone on the WTF guest writer list, but one guest WTF was just lame. First of all, it was a self-WTF (the author's own code), which is already suspect, given the lack of objectivity. Second of all, it was for an algorithm for a fairly complex geometrical calculation (whether a line segment is completely contained by a polygon). The calculation already involves a tradeoff between accuracy and speed, and the WTF, such as it is, simply leans too far, in the author's opinion, towards speed: "Eventually I would end up with an implementation of SegmentInside which is robust for any practical situation even though it would require essentially infinite time for any case which returns true." So the improvement would be a much bigger WTF! He should have posted that!

    Anyway, I don't know why I'm being so hard on the author - he took time out of his day to contribute (I assume for free) to one of my favorite websites. And he did post about a topic that is of interest to me. It just rubbed me the wrong way. I guess it struck me as being more about self-promotion ("hey - this is my worst code, and it's not even that bad!") than WTF. Just a hunch.


    p.s. In case you haven't noticed, I dropped the author's name from my blog - I'm not about to be badmouthing coders by name on my blog.

    The DaVinci Code and Antisemitism

    No, I'm not going to suggest that the book/movie The DaVinci Code is anti-semitic. Sorry. However, it has generated a whole slew of bestselling copycats with topics like Masonic influence in 19th Century America, Carpathians, and other conspiracies (from The New York Times):

    2) THE BOOK OF FATE, by Brad Meltzer. (Warner, $25.99.) The apparent murder of a presidential aide reveals Masonic secrets in Washington and a 200-year-old code invented by Thomas Jefferson.

    3) THE MEPHISTO CLUB, by Tess Gerritsen. (Ballantine, $25.95.) A Boston medical examiner and a detective must solve a series of murders involving apocalyptic messages and a sinister cabal.

    6) DARK CELEBRATION, by Christine Feehan. (Berkley, $23.95.) Carpathians from around the world join together to oppose their enemies' plot to kill all Carpathian women.

    And #4 Paperback:
    CAMEL CLUB, by David Baldacci. (Warner Vision, $7.99.) A group of conspiracy theorists stumbles on a plot reaching to the highest levels of government.

    Hmmm... what tiny religious group is perennially accused of all sorts of shadowy dealings? I can't wait to find out! Oh wait, I can.



    Good Lawyers on Slashdot

    Slashdot recently interviewed several lawyers defending individuals against the RIAA. This statement jumped out at me in particular:
    The people who come out the strongest against 'trial lawyers' are the big corporations' PR departments. They want the 'common folk' to think ill of lawyers, because the law -- as imperfect as it is -- is the only equalizer left. And it's being eroded rapidly. And people dissing lawyers all the time helps that process.

    Very true - rule of law is really all any society has, if you think about it. Without that, it's just dog-eat-dog, where the strong (say, the recording industry) devour the weak and defenseless. So this really extends well beyond the music business. Think about that next time you make a lawyer joke ;-)


    Smells of the Subway

    I'm not sure I'm with Gawker on this one. Ewwww...


    p.s. They really put in the effort on this thing... wow.

    Banned Books on Google

    Google has a page dedicated to classic works that have been banned at one point or another. There are some surprises on the list, including "The Lord of the Flies", by William Golding, "1984", by George Orwell, and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", by Ken Kesey. In any case, any book from the last century with something to say seems to be on the list. Not particularly surprising, of course... Now go read!



    Here's To Success!

    A new study shows that drinkers make more than non-drinkers. While somewhat counterintuitive, it actually makes sense: people who go to the bar are generally more social than people who don't, so their personalities are such that they are able to go out and make more contacts, etc. Time for a new hobby!



    Kids Not Eating Enough Dirt (Seriously)

    Apparently, kids used to build up their immune system by eating dirt. Now that that isn't happening as much, some doctors are giving kids "dirt pills" to compensate.

    I wish I was creative enough to make this stuff up.


    Ummmm I Don't Think They Like It...

    I'm not sure I've ever seen this before: The movie "Broken Bridges", starring country musician Toby Keith, got 0% on Rotten Tomatoes. The entire gamut of film critics, from all corners of the MSM and the web, have all unanimously and independently agreed that this movie sucks. Even the worst toxic waste is usually supported by one or two rogue critics from who-knows-where who see something positive in the movie. Not this one, though. I have to say I'm impressed - it's hard to make a movie that bad. Way to go, Keith!


    p.s. Just read some of the titles of the songs from Keith's 2003 album "Shock n' Y'all". Or these lyrics from "American Soldier":
    When liberty's in jeopardy I will always do what's right,
    I'm out here on the front lines, sleep in peace tonight.
    American soldier, I'm an American,
    An American,
    An American Soldier

    Of course, Keith himself never was in the army "doing what's right", let alone "on the front lines". What a dickwad.

    Such Nonsense

    I stumbled on this picture today entitled "Palestinian Loss of Land", which takes a "snapshot" of Israel from pre-1947, the UN Partition Plan of 1947, 1948-1967, and 2000. Since the host, EatLiver.com, doesn't take comments or feedback as far as I can see, I guess my only recourse is to write about it here (which is the only reason I'm even bothering with this BS).

    Anyone who knows a shred of history in the region knows that the British controlled what is now Israel before 1948. And before the British, the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) controlled it. The map implies that it was mostly "Palestinian Land" before 1948. It was called Palestine, but it sure wasn't Palestinian.

    The second picture is my favorite: a map of the 1947 UN Partition Plan. It's amusing, because the Palestinians rejected it while the Jews accepted. Israel's 1948 borders were based on that plan. Had the Arab community accepted the plan, the world would be a very different place.

    The map captioned "Stage 3" (a BS caption loaded with BS implications) shows a map of Israel from 1948-1967. Again, the green areas are labeled "Palestinian". But Gaza was controlled by Egypt at the time, the West Bank was controlled by Jordan, and the Golan Heights were controlled by Syria. Again, territory never controlled Palestinians.

    None of these maps take into account that most of the south is desert. If you factor that in, the "Jewish land" becomes a lot smaller, even in the 2000 map.

    There's so much other BS in this picture, but I like to actually back up my arguments and put forward a convincing case. And I don't have time for that right now. But for now, I think I covered the most obvious sources of the stench.

    UPDATE: I had to update the link to the image - EatLiver is clever enough to check to see if you're coming from the site when you try to look at the image. It's a good way to make sure you have to sift through their ads to see the picture. Touche' ;-)


    New Reading List

    I put in a list of books I'm currently reading on the right side of the page. I'll try to keep it updated as my reading list changes...



    Today in "No S--t, WebMD"

  • Overweight Girls Suffer at School

  • Teen Brain: It's All About Me: "Brain scans show that teen's brains may still be developing when it comes to sensitivity to other people's feelings."

  • Some Medical Interns Still Overworked (don't they ever watch ER)

  • Cancer's Genetic Code Cracked

  • Wait - that last one sounds important, actually...



    More On Cato

    I was a little too hasty with Cato - I may have let them off too lightly in my post about BS.
    which mentioned them.

    Check out SourceWatch, "a collaborative project of the Center for Media and Democracy to produce a directory of the people, organizations and issues shaping the public agenda." The Center for Media and Democracy says it "strengthens participatory democracy by investigating and exposing public relations spin and propaganda, and by promoting media literacy and citizen journalism, media 'of, by and for the people.'" Sounds good to me - I would imagine this should be the goal of basic journalism, not to mention Penn and Teller's show "Bulls--t": "investigating and exposing... spin and propaganda." I dotted out the "public relations" part of that quote, because that's just one avenue of investigation. Take out those two words and it's exactly what BS is supposed to be all about.

    Since it's cooperative, like Wikipedia, you may end up reading something totally different than what I'm reading when they talk about The Cato Institute. And there's a lot to digest from what I'm reading. But that's ok - you can go to Cato's website, and simply look at Cato's Board of Directors. That's my favorite way of seeing who's really behind an organization. So who do we have?

  • Richard J. Dennis, President, Dennis Trading Group
    Dennis is a Commodoties Trader. According to BusinessWeek, he made $200 million trading in the 1980's. Not exactly a middle-class "man on the street". You can see how deregulation might be his friend. More from the article:
    As Dennis' bank account grew, his interest in influencing public affairs grew along with it. Starting with a $1,000 donation to George McGovern in 1972, he has given $10 million to politicians, he reckons. An additional $20 million went to a think tank he founded in the early 1980s and closed in 1989, and still more went to a private foundation, he says.

    Can you see why Cato takes this position on Campaign Finance Reform: "The right to spend money on politics, including the right to contribute to campaigns, is protected by the First Amendment. Attempts to limit that right should meet with a great deal of skepticism from both citizens and the courts." Of course, my hypothetical donation of, say, $20 can't compete with Dennis's millions, which means my opinion is worth about %0.000001 to the politicians who are getting said millions, but First Amendment, blah blah blah, so I'll just shut up. Or, at least, talk at %0.000001 of my normal volume.

    Then there's:
  • David H. Koch, Executive Vice President, Koch Industries, Inc.
    According to SourceWatch, "Koch Industries is the second largest privately-held company in the United States (behind Cargill), with annual sales of more than $40 billion." (emphasis mine). Wow - makes Dennis look like a poor SOB. Koch, FYI, co-founded Cato.

    Another? OK, sure:
  • Frederick W. Smith, Chairman & CEO, FedEx Corporation
    Do I even need to bother? Another loaded-up-the-wazoo member of the board of Cato, who has a vested interest in deregulation. Regulations are EXTREMELY important to FedEx - they even have a page on their website listing the latest relevant laws for investors. So OF COURSE they have a vested interest in doing whatever it takes to reduce the number of pesky regulations (like, say, against shipping sex slaves from Indonesia or God-Knows-What from God-Knows-Where) and keep rolling it in.

    Last one (out of fourteen, so I can keep this up for a while):
  • John C. Malone, Chairman, Liberty Media Corporation

    Liberty Media Corporation (NASDAQ: LINTA,LINTB,LCAPA,LCAPB) is a holding company owning interests in a broad range of electronic retailing, media, communications and entertainment businesses. Our businesses include some of the world's most recognized and respected brands and companies, including QVC, Encore, Starz, IAC/InterActiveCorp, and News Corporation.

    That there's from the Liberty Media website. I'm not sure I would use "respected" for QVC, but they certainly are profitable.

    One last interesting point - Cato is hugely involved with the fight to privatize Social Security. The website socialsecurity.org is run by Cato. It's ironic how the same institute that poo-poo's global warming as being overblown are freaking out about the "Social Security crisis", using the same alarmist techniques that they decry when their opponents use it. Meanwhile, since privatizing SocSec means giving retirement money to private investors, it's no surprise the board also includes:
  • Lewis E. Randall, Board Member, E*Trade Financial
  • Jeffrey S. Yass, Managing Director, Susquehanna International Group, LLP
  • K. Tucker Andersen, Senior Consultant, Cumberland Associates LLC
  • David H. Padden, President, Padden & Company

    All prominent financiers. All stand to profit tremendously from SocSec privitization.

    So what's my point? Pretty simple: Cato is a bulls--t organization dedicated to changing public policy in their own interest by using a veneer of populism to peddle their crap. And Penn and Teller has had them on their show twice in the first season alone (that's the only ones I'm aware of), presenting their views. What Cato is NOT is an objective source of information of any kind, and anything they say is suspect of being a huge, steaming pile of BULLS--T. I guess P&T didn't pick up on that...

  • Random Kvetching

    You know what ticks me off? When I get a bill, and they write on the envelope "Are you sure you wrote your account number on the check?" Actually, I did not write my account number on the check. I included the receipt or stub or whatever it is you asked me for, which has the account number, and it's right there next to the check. If you're so worried about mixing up my check, write the account number on it yourself. I'm not doing your freaking paperwork for you, even if you offer to pay me the minimum wage you're paying whatever poor office drones are processing my check. Honestly, I used to actually fall for this crap and write out some 8 digit number to help them keep track of my payment. Like that's my problem. Yeesh.


    p.s. Just had to get that out of my system - you may continue whatever it is you were doing...

    Bulls--t In "Bulls--t"

    First of all, don't get me wrong - I'm a fan of Penn and Teller's show Bulls--t, which I was alerted to by Mihai here, here, here, and here. Anyway, they take on all sorts of cranks and scumbags out to dupe people for a quick buck. And I think they're doing a great public service with the show.

    However, I am a little bit suspicious about some of their tactics - I don't think they're above a little BS themselves. For example, in the episode about enviromentalism, they took on an enviromental group called Rainforest Action Committee (or something like that), and made quite a big deal of the fact that their spokesperson was, well, let's say "uninformed". But it begs the question - why bother with this group in the first place? If you want to demonstrate that a lot of young, idealistic college students are misinformed and deluded, that's fine. But if you want to get a statement from environmentalists, wouldn't the natural place to start be Greenpeace or the WWF (who are prominently mentioned and criticized in the show)? Or Al Gore, for that matter? Someone who can actually make a coherent argument, for better or worse? Naive college kids are just straw people.

    What got me suspicious, though, was when they brought The Cato Institute, a "a non-profit public policy research foundation headquartered in Washington, D.C.", in. Not that I have any specific beefs with Cato, but what the hell are they doing in P&T's show talking about the environment? Ah, yes: "today, there is no greater impediment to American prosperity than the immense body of regulations chronicled in the Federal Register, and academic analysis has documented the economic inefficiencies engendered by the regulatory state." This is from Cato's "Regulatory Studies" page.

    Of course! All those pesky regulations that tell corporations to clean up their shit are hurting American prosperity! And it's Cato's mission, as a political group, to stop all that nonsense. Come to think of it, Cato's office was pretty nice. I'm sure cash flow is not a problem for any think-tank arguing against legislation - they're probably the darlings of every major corporation in America.

    I only noticed the Cato thing because P&T brought in Cato again in their episode on second-hand smoking, arguing against the regulation of smoking in public places. Now, I personally benefit from that, being a non-smoker, and able to go to a club without smelling like crap. And there's no shortage of evidence showing that first-hand smoke is one of the worst things you can voluntarily do to your body - from emphysema to mouth/tongue/throat/lung cancer (anywhere that stuff touches) - it's dangerous. So second-hand smoke probably isn't a whole lot better, considering it's the SAME SMOKE. But Cato's agenda is anti-regulation, and apparently P&T (and/or their writers/producers/directors) have the same agenda. Why else bring Cato in for two episodes in the first season alone?

    Again, I think P&T are doing a great service with this show, showing plenty of things as the BS that they are. But just like everything else, you have to take some of the things they say and portray with a grain of salt. Because just like the people in their sights, they're pushing an agenda, and they're running the show.


    p.s. As a side point, P&T use testimonials as evidence against the harmful effects second-hand smoke (a older, healthy bar owner in New York). But they rightfully dismiss the testimonial as any sort of proof in their other shows, because it's useless information. Individuals are not reliable to convey the state of their body, and even if they were, this particular man may have a built-in defense against SHS that others don't have. Or not - you just can't tell without real scientific data.


    Thinking About Conspiracy

    Make no mistake: the scope of some of the alternative explanations of what happened on 9/11 make them some of the biggest alleged conspiracies in modern American history. If any were proven true, they would make almost every other conspiracy theory that I know of look like small potatoes. Since "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" (Carl Sagan), I'm certainly not advocating that any of these theories are true, or even viable. However, there are many questions that need to be asked, and there are many coincidences that need to be examined.

    The best website for reading about these questions is probably 911Truth.org, and one good place to start is their "Top 40" page. Some are strong questions, some are not. Here are a few of the stronger ones:

  • '[M]ultiple military wargames planned long in advance and held on the morning of September 11th included scenarios of a domestic air crisis, a plane crashing into a government building, and a large-scale emergency in New York. If this was only an incredible series of coincidences, why did the official investigations avoid the issue?' (loaded question but still important).

  • 'What did officials know? How did they know it? Multiple allied foreign agencies informed the US government of a coming attack in detail, including the manner and likely targets of the attack, the name of the operation (the "Big Wedding"), and the names of certain men later identified as being among the perpetrators.'

  • 'Unknown speculators allegedly used foreknowledge of the Sept. 11th events to profiteer on many markets internationally - including but not limited to "put options" placed to short-sell the two airlines, WTC tenants, and WTC re-insurance companies in Chicago and London.'

  • 'Bush and Cheney pressured the (freshly-anthraxed) leadership of the Congressional opposition into delaying the 9/11 investigation for months. The administration fought against the creation of an independent investigation for more than a year.'

  • 'The membership and staff of the 9/11 Commission displayed awesome conflicts of interest. The families called for the resignation of Executive Director Philip Zelikow, a Bush administration member and close associate of "star witness" Condoleezza Rice, and were snubbed. Commission member Max Cleland resigned, condemning the entire exercise as a "scam" and "whitewash."' Mentioned elsewhere - Thomas Kean, who led the Commission, is on the Board of Directors for Hess (Oil). Seems like a conflict of interest to me...

    Not on this list is, for me, one of the strongest arguments: The "Visa Express" program:

    The Visa Express program [introduced in May 2001] was a U.S. State Department program that allowed residents of Saudi Arabia to enter the U.S. without proving their identities. It became controversial when some of the 9/11 hijackers used this program to gain entry into the country, and the program was eventually shut down... The U.S. had recently concluded that Saudi Arabia was one of four top nationalities of al-Qaeda members... A senior State Department official described the program as "an open-door policy for terrorists." No other country had this system to facilitate easy entry into the country.

    Ummmmm.... WTF? If this was, say, England we were talking about, it would still be an issue, but somewhat understandable. But we're talking about Saudi F-----g Arabia here! Whose brilliant idea was this? HELLO? Anyway, convenient timing, no?

    There's also stuff about the Florida aviation school where the terrorists trained that had all sorts of shady dealings, including drugs and politics. But it's not as solid as some of the other stuff, and it would be downright irresponsible of me to mention that the school also had strong connections to Jeb Bush and Katherine Harris, both very prominent in getting Florida for George W Bush in 2000. So I won't do that...

    As a counterpoint, Popular Mechanics has an article debunking several conspiratorial claims, but they don't address most of the questions being raised, although they do address quite a bit. They also take a snooty attitude to what are quite legitimate questions - as if questioning the official story is offensive somehow.

    I'm personally taking a cautious approach: I'd like to think that there is no conspiracy, and that the official explanation is correct, but without answers to some of these questions (particularly Visa Express), I can't fully believe it.

    UPDATE: I just noticed that the Popular Mechanics article redirects to hess.com! Who has, as I've mentioned before, Thomas Kean on their board. Jeez...

  • How To Lie About Your Blog

    Lore Sjöberg of Wired's Table of Malcontents has a great article about how to pimp your blog - tell you people you guest-blogged for one of the more popular sites like Boing-Boing, Fark, Joystiq, etc. The article doubles as a spoof of said popular blogs.

    Other priceless blog-related advice:
    Creating your own blog is about as easy as creating your own urine, and you're about as likely to find someone else interested in it.

    To be fair, some people have trouble creating their own urine, and some people go into a profession called "urology"... But perhaps I'm nitpicking?



    Katherine Harris: Vote Christian

    Florida Senate candidate Katherine Harris, who has been heavily criticized for her role as Florida Secretary of State in the 2000 presidential election, has said that not electing Christians will result in "legislating sin".

    I think she was trying to say that electing Harris would result in "legislating nutjobs".



    Better... But Stop Thanking Me Anyway

    Earlier this week, AccessoryGenie sent me another "Thank You" e-mail, this time with the subject line of "Regarding your order Thank You" (referring to a past order). I guess it's better than what I was kvetching about two months ago, when they sent me an e-mail that said "Thank You For Your Order" when I hadn't made one, which freaked me out a bit. Then today I got another e-mail from AccessoryGenie with the subject line "Thank you for your order L". That one came about because someone hacked my AccessoryGenie account and... no just kidding. I opened it up and saw the lines
    Thank you for your past order to AccessoryGenie.com. As our way of saying Thank You we have a ** GREAT LABOR DAY SPECIAL***

    Any one of those lines "Thank you for your PAST order", "Our way of saying thank you", "GREAT LABOR DAY SPECIAL", "ENLARGE Y@UR M@RT6A6E", etc etc, would have been fine subject lines, and I never would have brought it up.

    Well, maybe if they had said something Yoda-like, such as "For Your Order, You, I Thank". I would have definitely brought that up, but in a good way. See AccGenie? See what you've lost? But I forgive you: "Thank you for my material".


    FOX News Whistleblowers

    This is a very scary video of testimony by two reporters (Jane Akre and Steve Wilson) who say that FOX News tried to coerce them into dropping a highly damaging story about a sponsor, Monsanto. The report discussed Monsanto's use of bovine growth hormone to produce dairy products, and how Monsanto's own research indicated that this might have made the milk carcinogenic. Since, at the time, Monsanto owned G. D. Searle & Company, which in turned owned Nutrasweet, Metamucil, and Dramamine (frequent advertisers), Monsanto was able to use financial leverage to pressure FOX News into dropping the report. FOX of course caved like a sugar-addicted toddler being threatened with candy sanctions, and tried to pressure (and bribe) the reporters to drop the story.

    I'll let you watch/read the rest, but here are some more delightful products Monsanto has owned or produced (besides killer milk and :
  • Celebrex: Sound familiar? It was the arthritis drug that had the unfortunate side-effect of, oh, death. Good thing the FDA caught... wait, never mind (to clarify the Pfizer aspect: Monsanto-owned Pharmacia developed the drug - shortly afterward Pfizer acquired Pharmacia (just go to the website for Pharmacia).
  • Ambien: for putting Americans everywhere to sleep. And doing all sorts of freaky stuff in the meantime.
  • Enovid, the first commercial oral contraceptive (aka "The Pill")
  • Disneyland Hall of Chemistry
    And... drum roll, please,
  • Agent M---f----g Orange.


    p.s. As a highly relevant aside, G. D. Searle & Company was the owner of Nutrasweet, and there was some amount of controversy over whether it should be allowed on the market despite tests that were of some concern. Fortunately for Searle, a capable leader was on-hand to make sure Nutrasweet got past all that pesky red tape: Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld later left the company once the acquisition by Monsanto was complete.

    p.p.s. Here's a very recent article in New Scientist saying that Aspartame was "given the all clear". Read more closely and you'll see that all it says was that an earlier study that said it was dangerous was flawed, not that any subsequent studies indicated that it was safe. In other words, it's a temporary reprieve, not an all-clear. The study needs to be done again in a more controlled fashion.
  • Good News to Scream About

    Edvard Munch's stolen masterpiece "The Scream" has been found. They think.


    MSM Betting On Armeggeddon

    Here's a clip of Jon Stewart taking the MSM to task for giving quite a bit of airtime to discussing the idea that the apocalypse is coming. The best part is FOX news aggressively asking a priest for date when the apocalypse would start. Hard-hitting stuff.



    Katrina One Year Later

    I'm sticking to my conclusions that Katrina was anything but natural. I wrote about by initial reactions here, FEMA here, but what I'd like to reiterate is from my "2005 Suuuuucked" post:
    Shortly afterward, Hurricaine Katrina. I mean, Holy S---. A major American city, rich with history and culture, all but wiped out. And one of the worst parts is that just about every aspect of the disaster could have been prevented. From the levees to the shockingly incompetent response to the obnoxious stonewalling by insurance companies, it brought out the worst in human nature.

    When I say "just about every aspect of the disaster could have been prevented", there's a good case for saying that that includes the hurricaine itself. But even ignoring that, it's quite clear the American government failed the people of New Orleans in almost every possible way, at every stage (from preparation to prevention to crisis management to reconstruction, and everything in between).

    The tragedy of Hurricaine Katrina will be remembered as a shameful chapter in America's history.



    Wait... Wha?

    I did a double-take looking at this Reuters headline:
    Annan urges quick end to Israel, Hizbollah disputes

    The obviously correct way to read this is:
    Annan urges quick end to [Israel vs. Hizbollah] disputes

    But for some reason my brain saw:
    Annan urges quick end to Israel, [which] Hizbollah disputes


    Star Wars - Spot the Difference

    Via TheForce.Net, Star Wars (the official site) has a slideshow of the differences between the 1977 (theatrical) and 2004 (DVD) releases of Episode IV.

    I didn't get to the part where Han shoots first (there are 122 photos) - hopefully they didn't leave that part out...

    UPDATE: I don't think they're making a strong case for the changes with this pair of screenshots.


    When a Picture Is Worth Infinite Words...

    ...Because the words in the caption are worthless.

    I'm referring to this picture from the IDF, published by the AP.

    The caption is "In this picture released by the Israeli Defense Forces, an Israeli bulldozer destroys a Hezbollah bunker in southern Lebanon Sunday, Aug. 27, 2006. (AP Photo/Israel Defense Forces)."

    If you're like me (not particularly eagle-eyed), you are probably wondering what the big deal is. The answer is off in the distance, on the left side of the photo. Apparently that particular Hezbollah base had a friendly neighbor...

    The point is - WHY ISN'T THIS IN THE F-----G AP CAPTION?!? Did no one in AP notice, or was it a deliberate omission? In other words, incompetence or dishonesty?



    Why I Hate Gawker Stalker

    No, not because its real-time stalking map is a horrible violation of people's privacy - it's because it shows how celebrities avoid my supposedly hip neighborhood of Gramercy like the plague:

    I mean come on! True - there are no Upper West Side sightings either, but it's almost like celebrities are making a concerted effort to sidestep my 'hood.

    If you take out #10 ("Serena Williams at Paragon Sports on Broadway and 18th"), it's like we're in celebrity quarantine or something.

    My theory is that unlike residents of, say, SoHo or the Lower East Side, we Gramercerians don't feel the need to gush every time a mildly famous personage enters our sites.

    So screw you Gawker Stalker - we don't need your stinkin' celebs! And my neighborhood is cool!

    UPDATE: D'oh! I linked to the freakin' photo wrong, ruining the whole post! Which I'll admit, was of shaky quality to begin with...


    CSS vs. Tables

    Here's a comment I just posted on Frederic BRUNEL's blog:
    I think we’re at a stage where a growing percentage of designers will dismiss your work if they see tables used in the source code. Table proponents generally don’t care one way or another - if anything, they’re impressed by pure CSS layouts. So for the sake of job security, if nothing else, I recommend moving away from tables ASAP.

    That said, I still use them (I’m not a designer, though) ;-)

    The topic is the ever-raging tables vs. CSS debate. The CSS Zen Garden converted me to CSS :-) But since I have much more experience working with tables for layout, it's a lot easier for me to use them - especially for quick and dirty website work.



    My Firefox Extensions

    I'm a huge fan of Firefox (Mozilla's browser), so I decided I'm going to bore you with what extensions I have installed. :-) The fact that they even have extensions is already a huge boost over the rapidly aging Internet Explorer. Much of Firefox's power comes from the fact that it's completely extensible - anyone can create an extension that fulfills some sort of need, however obscure. Really obscure.

    Anyway, some of these extensions are really useful and/or interesting, and really give you tools that you never realized you needed. And of course, once you get used to them you don't want to give them up... which you'll have to if you're forced to use IE for any reason.

    Moving right along, a sample of some of my extensions, in no particular order:
  • Copy As Plain Text. Ever copy something from a webpage, and when you paste it, say, into an e-mail, you find that the font was pasted too, and it messes everything up? This extension helps quite a bit with that.

  • FormFox. This handy little tool tells you where that "Submit" button is really going before you click it. Paranoid people rejoice.

  • If your paranoia is a step above most, you'll need an anonymous proxy extension. I have FoxyProxy, but I mostly use TorButton, which is based on the EFF's excellent Tor software. On a side note, the EFF is suing Barney - you gotta respect that. And you can't make that stuff up.

  • For the truly paranoid: TrackMeNot. This extension "[p]rotects against search data profiling by issuing randomized queries to popular search-engines (sic) with fake data." In other words, it will spit out junk to all the search engines every few minutes so they can't tell which of your searches are real and which are gibberish. When AOL sells your data to the highest bidder, the bidder may be dismayed to see that you search for things like "artistic caterpillars" and "lemon dashboard" every 45 seconds.

  • Nuke Anything Enhanced: Bad name, great extension. Basically, if you're trying to print an article, and there's a big ugly Flash ad in the way, you can use this extension to temporarily expurgate it. It's not a full-featured ad blocker (that would be AdBlock) - just a quick fix for REALLY annoying web pages.

  • FlashBlock. This is a good one - basically you have a whitelist of websites that are allowed to play Flash files. If a site is not on the whitelist, a placeholder for the Flash movie is shown, and the movie won't load until you click on the placeholder. It's one of my favorite extensions, and it speeds up web page load times too!

  • Gmail Notifier. Just a cute little button in the corner that tells me when I have Gmail.

  • Video Downloader. A little buggy, but it gets the job done. The job being letting you download videos from YouTube, Google Video, iFilm, etc etc etc. I'm going to try out DownloadHelper as an alternative, though - I'm not crazy about Video Downloader when it comes to YouTube...

  • XML Developer. I just just got this one and it's really cool. It will load any XML document for you and help you work with it. My favorite feature so far is the "Create Schema" tool, which automatically creates a schema file for an XML you give it. Since XSD is ugly as sin, it's nice to have a tool that takes care of this for you in a very simple way. It also has an XPath evaluator and an XSLT transformation engine. A must for any XML developer.

  • And speaking of extensions for developers: Web Developer. For me, this is by far the most useful extension for Firefox. It does EVERYTHING - it lets you: disable Javascript/Images/Redirects/Cache, outline Images/HTML Elements/Links (incredibly useful for dealing with layout problems), track down broken links, edit CSS on the fly (and see the results immediately), validate your HTML... Whew! And I didn't even cover half of its features. It's a keeper!

  • IE View Lite. Some pages just aren't Firefox friendly. Luckily, there's an extension that lets you open up a link externally in IE (when you absolutely, positively have to).

  • ScreenGrab. It takes a screenshot of the web page you're looking at - either the whole page or just what fits in the window. I haven't really tested it, but it's a really cool idea!

  • Finally, NikkelWHOIS. A very cute tool that tells you who's behind the website you're currently looking at.

    So that's it. I have plenty more extensions installed on my machine, but this post is getting a little lengthy for a YYWW post... And I haven't even scratched the surface of the constantly growing library of extensions! Here's Firefox's extensions page - Go nuts!


    p.s. BUT... some of these extensions may install adware or worse, so be careful while you're going nuts. Read the user comments, and try to find a privacy policy on the developer's page.
    p.p.s. Apparently some developers (using a pseudonym) give bad ratings to their competitors so their own extension looks better. Sleazy stuff...