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.