Thursday, August 31, 2006

LTGH -- 8/31/2006

Today's entry in the "Like That's Gonna Happen" file:

Stopping a ballistic missile in midflight is a very hard thing to do. So is ... killing off a bad system when you've already sunk billions into hardware. What's needed here is an honest assessment of whether the current system has any chance of working and how much more will have to be spent before it does.

--from "Stars in Their Eyes," a NYTimes editorial about the anti-ballistic missile shield

The only thing dumber than George W. Bush pushing forward an idea proposed by Ronald Reagan is ...

Nope. I got nothing.

Bad Choice for Initialization

I understand from an article in the NYTimes, about the future of downloading movies, that "Movielink will include a burn-to-DVD option with a copy protection program called the Content Scramble System (CSS)."

No! Don't call it CSS! We already use CSS to mean Cascading Style Sheets!

This will be another instance of an OTLA.

Don't know from TLAs? Read the entry in the Jargon File, especially Paul Boutin's accurate prognostication.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

It's Not Just Brownie

Remember Kenneth Tomlinson? He of the (failed) attempt to turn PBS into another platform for right-wing shilling? Like we don't have enough of those already?

K-Tom, as I propose we call him, was ousted from his "job" as chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting last year, but landed softly, scoring a White House-appointed gig in public diplomacy. His duties include running the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.

He just got busted, again, for cronyism and corruption. The lede in a story from the NYTimes:

State Department investigators have found that the head of the agency overseeing most government broadcasts to foreign countries has used his office to run a "horse racing operation" and that he improperly put a friend on the payroll ...

Tomlinson's defense, in part:

He also said he spent more time on broadcasting responsibilities at his farm and residences than he spent on his horses at the office.

Heckuva job.

What is it with all of these Bush guys and their love for horse manure?

cc: Letter to Dick Cheney

A recent email from asked the readers to say something to Dick Cheney, concerning his recent blather about "Dean Democrats." Here's the one I sent.

Dear Mr. Vice President,

I have to say that I don't pay much attention to your speeches anymore, as I am convinced that you have lost the ability to entertain alternate points of view, listen to constructive criticism, or tolerate even a whiff of dissent.

I have, however, caught wind of your recent remarks equating people who voted against Joe Lieberman with a stance of defeatism.

Please be advised that none of us who supported Ned Lamont are in any way prepared to "give up" to the terrorists. We are merely stating, firmly, that we think that the approach used by the Bush Administration is not working, and we would like to try something else.

Lest you forget, we love our country as much as you do.

Brendan Keefe

Write one yourself.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

LOTD, Runner-Up -- 8/29/2006

Most of the libertarians I know have given up on the G.O.P. The odds that we'll stick around for the midterm election are about as good as the odds that Rick Santorum will join the Village People.

--Nick Gillespie, the editor in chief of Reason, as quoted in John Tierney's column (T$)

Line of the Day -- 8/29/2006

Clyde Haberman, referring to Ray Nagin's recent apologies for calling the ground zero monument a hole in the ground, called Hizzoner "Mayor Culpa."

Read the whole article (T$).

Monday, August 28, 2006

Lest Ye Forget

The promise:


The truth:

katrina vics -- please send help

Happy anniversary.

Image sources: Sticker | Katrina pic (via the Huff Post)

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Teenagers Rule!

Excerpt from a comment left on Matt's MySpace page:

I'm on the computer!!!


Hahaha My mom forgot to change the password last night! =P

My Stephen Wright-like Thought for the Day

There's a really long article on "procrastination" on Wikipedia.

Arch comment

When I first saw this story, I thought it had to be satire. But, as we all know, The Nation has very little sense of humor, and they're reporting on it, too.

For a limited time, all little boys who order a Happy Meal get a toy Hummer.

Re-read that last sentence in case you missed all of the outrageous aspects.

Yes, only boys. Little girls get "Polly Pocket Fashion Dolls."

Here's my reaction:

Hate our freedoms.  Please.

Make your own sign.

[Update: 2006-08-30 10:58 EDT]: You can play a similar game, with a friendlier host, here. (Thanks to Brando/CJSD for pointing this out.)

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Signs of the Times

There must be an election coming up or something, because the profusion of lawn signs is out of control here in Rochester. I saw two good ones today:

After about twenty consecutive houses, each with different signs, there was one that said:

For Attorney General

Later in the day, I saw a kid mowing a lawn down the street. He had to repeatedly work around the sign that said:


Banned words

Extracts from a recent email exchange with TC:


More later I'm whipped tonight.


Admit that, in an earlier age, you might have written
> More later I'm bushed tonight.



I'm whipped and we've all been bushed. LOL :-P

This got me to thinking about the other phrases that I can't bear to say, or even hear other people say, any more. Here are my top three:

  • "..., if you will." (Cheney)

  • "In other words, ..." (W)

  • "I understand that." (W)


Reading Recommendations -- 8/26/2006

Sorry -- a couple of these are a little old. Lemme know if you want copies of the ones that now might cost $$ to see.


Lighter side:

  • Mike Brown, co-discoverer of 2003 UB313, unofficially known as Xena, talks about whether this should be the tenth planet, whether Pluto should be demoted, or whether we should have 53 planets. I know how the school kids would vote: "Mang, we got to memorize what?"

  • Basketball, as played by software developers. Two of my favorite things, in one! Howlingly funny, the further down you read.

Friday, August 25, 2006

More Stealth From W & Co.

Yesterday's NYTimes has a very disturbing article: "Evolution Major Vanishes From Approved Federal List."

Evolutionary biology has vanished from the list of acceptable fields of study for recipients of a federal education grant for low-income college students.


[T]he evolutionary biology sub-subsection is missing from a list of "fields of study" on the National Smart Grant list -- there is an empty space between line 26.1302 (marine biology and biological oceanography) and line 26.1304 (aquatic biology/limnology).

Despite protestations by spokesdrones from the Department of Education, this smells exactly like an intentional deletion. The one bright spot is that the agent was obvious clueless about editing documents.

So, you got your theocracy, you got your secrecy, and you got your incompetence. Just another day inside the Bush bubble.

Dr. Lawrence Krauss, whose NYT essay about the teaching of evolution I recommended a while back, put it more politely:

Removing that one major is not going to make the nation stupid, but if this really was removed, specifically removed, then I see it as part of a pattern to put ideology over knowledge. And, especially in the Department of Education, that should be abhorred.

Bad Apples

Apple is recalling the batteries for some of their laptop computers.

If you have a Mac laptop, either an iBook G4 or a Powerbook G4, or if you have obtained a replacement or extra battery for an iBook G3, you should immediately visit Apple's battery exchange page.

I've had a look at this page, and the procedure seems like it will be pretty painless.

Executive summary: the exchange is free, and they'll send you a new battery before you have to send in your old one, but Apple does advise that you remove your battery and use the computer only on A/C power until you get the new one.

That last is no doubt mostly to keep their lawyers happy, but "Why take a chance if you don't have to?" is probably a reasonable attitude. This could happen to you.

Thanks to Rick and Sydney for getting this news out right away.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Kill Me Now

And the Number One selling book on Amazon right now is . . .

State of Emergency:
The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America

Can you guess the author?

Nope. Not Ann Coulter. Close, though.

It's none other than Mr. Culture War himself, Pat Buchanan.

Do The Math ...

... or, you know, let someone else do it for you.

If you want a clear perspective on what the Iraq war, tax cuts for the rich, and other horrible choices made by W cost us, check out the National Priorities Project's tradeoff page.

Thanks for the link, Jinnet.

More from Stevey

Steve Yegge writes good essays, as I've mentioned before. Often, they're a bit technical for general consumption, but he does sometimes stray from his usual software development beat.

"Clothes for the Soul" is a provocative one, so you may need to be in a receptive mood to appreciate it.

Some of the responses are pretty good, too.

Math Cartoons

Clare said, when sending the following, "Someone told me these were funny. I dunno."

I thought they were hilarious, of course. Thanks, Clare!

(click the images to zoom)

radical hypoteneuse Trig Binomial Limits

Let this be a lesson

This morning, after getting out of the shower, I went over to the sink to shave. I took the shaving cream, razor, and deodorant out of the medicine cabinet. I wet my face, shook the can of shaving cream, sprayed a nice glob into my left hand, (mmm, lime), and

stopped just before I applied it to my right underarm.

A house without caffeine is a dangerous house.

Okay, i'm back from the store now. All is well.

Oh, crap. I just poured maple syrup in my coffee.


Wednesday, August 23, 2006


I forget whether I've mentioned this before (I know I have, in person, to some of you), but have you ever seen the online comic strip Everybody Loves Eric Raymond?

If you don't know who Eric Raymond is, not to mention Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds*, you might not get some (most?) of the jokes. But I think this strip is screamingly funny.

Latest one here.

First one here. (Follow the ">>" link to move forward -- top right of the screen.)

*These guys are, respectively, the Best-Known Proselytizer, the Founding Father, and the current Grand High Exalted Mystic Ruler of the open source movement, to oversimplify somewhat.

Line of the day -- 8/23/2006

An update to the cliche, from Mo D (TimesSelect):

It would be easy to make fun of Mr. Spears. Too easy -- shooting tuna fish in a can, as they say.

That's K-Fed she's speaking of.


He looked like someone doing a really bad Eminem or Vanilla Ice imitation on YouTube.


"OK," wrote one YouTube viewer, "this is definitely a sign of the end of the world."

I'd like to just ignore this guy, but as long as I have to look at him every time I'm in the checkout line at the grocery store, it helps to pass along the bashing.

Friday, August 18, 2006


Guess today's top emailed story from the NYTimes.

The Marine coverup of the civilian killings in Iraq? The decision by a federal judge that warrantless wiretapping is illegal? Even, God help us, the latest in the JonBenet Ramsey case?

No, it's "Throw Your Tweezers Away," an article about whether or not women should pluck their eyebrows.

Maybe they should move the fashion pages behind the TimesSelect wall. Who knows what revenues could be reaped?

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Line of the Day -- 8/17/2006

"Safe sex is for straight women - I'm a lesbian in a committed relationship," said Parker, who has cheated on Tyson seven times since they began dating.

What's the Matter with America?

(Click graphic to zoom)

The question: "Did human beings, as we know them, develop from earlier species of animals?"

Yup, that's the good ol' US of A, second from last. I guess it's not just Kansas.

I guess it's not surprising, given these other disheartening poll numbers.

[Update 2006-08-18 21:04 EDT] Just some typo-fixing

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Quote of the Day -- 8/16/2006

What should really worry the country is not whether the Democrats are being dragged to the left by antiwar activists who haven't thought a whit about the larger struggle we're in. What should worry the country is that the Bush team and the Republican Party, which control all the levers of power and claim to have thought only about this larger struggle, are in total denial about where their strategy has led.
-- Thomas Friedman

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Reading Recommendations -- 8/15/2006

  • Further evidence in the argument against rampant privatization. No, not in Iraq, this time, but right (t)here in NY.

    "Thousands of elevator inspections once done by the city are now handled by private companies. Some of the companies are hired and paid by the landlords themselves. Often these companies are inspecting the same elevators they are paid to maintain ..."
  • "How to Make Sure Children Are Scientifically Illiterate," by Lawrence M. Krauss. Reflections on the recent pleasantness in Kansas.

  • Cool phrase: synchrotron X-ray tomographic microscopy of fossil embryos. (The NYTimes's summary might be an easier place to start. The actual article is a bit specialized.)

  • Cool pic: The self-similarity of the universe, at incomprehensible scales.

  • Hot news: Coffee is good for you. Again. This week. Whatever.

While looking for that interview ...

I think I'm not alone in wanting to see Mike Wallace and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's conversation, and maybe we've overloaded the youtubes. Great error page, though:

We're currently putting out some new features, sweeping out the cobwebs and zapping a few gremlins.

We'll be back later. In the meantime, please enjoy a layman's explanation of our website...

¡Viva La Revolucion!

The headline: "Governors Resist Shifting Authority Over Guard"

My first response: Why? Didn't the Bush Administration do a heckuva job last time it assumed command?

In all seriousness, it's absolutely great to see growing resistance to the imperial nature of this presidency. Fifty-one governors signed a letter protesting recent legislation that was sneakily inserted in the dead of night "tucked into a military authorization bill that the House recently passed ..."

Read the whole story.

And no, I don't know why it's 51, either. American Samoa, maybe?

WARNING, from Sen. Tube Stevens

See what happens when you try to treat the Internets like a truck?

(picture source)

Monday, August 14, 2006

Fish. Barrel. You Get the Idea.

There's something that's just unfair about a story involving Boy George and trash, so I'm going to leave it alone.

I can't resist quoting one line, though: "Among his other proposals to the court: holding a fashion and makeup workshop . . ."

A member of the reality-based community weighs in ...

Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium, answers a reader's question:

Q. I'm very surprised that you advocate manned spaceflight to the moon, Mars and beyond. I believe our emphasis should be on robotic exploratory spacecraft like Voyager, Galileo, Cassini and the like. There is not a more cost effective way to enhance our understanding of the Universe. -- Richard J. Seuffert

A. Yes, I agree. And if scientific discovery were the only driver for space exploration, then we would simply never send people. But science is not, and has never been, the only driver. To think otherwise in delusional. Other factors include national pride (the recent Chinese Astronaut and the Japanese Astronauts that have visited the space station are as popular as rock stars in their home countries), national security (the military quest for the "high ground" is eternal), and the socio-political value of large NASA contracts that spread across congressional districts. Another driver, which philosophically floats above the rest, is the human urge to explore, with or without a science agenda. Note that hardly any of the great explorers of the past were scientists. And so we should recognize that the urge to visit a planet, simply because we have not done so before, expresses a desire, if not a need, that transcends time and culture.

My question: Why aren't you in charge of NASA, Mr. Tyson, and who can I sue, because you're not?

Read the whole thing.

Okay, so it's now 8/14 . . .

. . . but add this one to the 8/13 edition of my reading recommendations:

If I ever meet this guy, I'm either gonna beat the crap out of him or buy him a drink. This is the usual Irish dichotomy. When we meet someone who can write like this, it burns right through the soul.

Wait, I just checked his bio. Hmmm. "... retired Special Forces Master Sergeant ..."

So, Mr. Goff. Would that be on the rocks, or straight up?

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Here's one of the freedoms they don't hate

The president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has started his own blog.

As cool looking as Arabic letters are, you'll probably find it easier to read the English version. Click on the flag image near the top of the page that looks like this: en.gif. I mean, on his blog.

I haven't gotten to the content yet, but there is a "poll" available on the home page. The question, verbatim:

Do you think that the US and Israeli intention and goal by attacking Lebanon is pulling the trigger for another word war

As of right now, the results are 3058 (35%) yes, 5580 (65%) no.

Think Dick Cheney's carpal tunnel is flaring up?

In all seriousness, I think it's great that we have this additional option to gain some insight into Ahmadinejad's thinking. It's probably going to be mostly propaganda and PR puff, but it almost never hurts to listen.

Thanks to the Huff Post for calling this to my attention, and to Fox News, yes, Fox News, for having the guts to print the actual URL.

[Update 2006-08-13 19:50 EDT]: Okay, I just read the first post. (And posted a comment -- I'm so going to jail.) The English is not perfect, although you gotta love that the translator knows the word "crapulence." The piece does give you a sense of what it feels like, from an Iranian point of view, especially concerning the Shah and the 1980s war with Iraq.

Have a look for yourself.

Shaw Lives!

Say it out loud: Attack of the 800,000 pound woman!

Okay, it really reads: £800k woman.

Two countries separated by a common language, indeed. (One of my all-time favorite quips.)


  1. Yes. That Shaw.
  2. The article is nothing special, but I liked the verbal/optical dissonance in the headline.

Reading Recommendations -- 8/13/2006

  • Roy Peter Clark has a fun piece on writing, posted on Poynter Online, titled "Find the syncopation -- and the funk."

    While looking around on Clark's section of the Poynter site, I came across his announcement that he has written a book called Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer. Apparently, Clark had been working at the Poynter Institute for 25 years, as of 2004, and decided to celebrate by writing a series of essays. He then collected them into a book which was just published. He'll be doling out these tools for free, three per week, on his blog.

    Bonus: here's a list of all his Poynter Online articles.

  • Patricia Marx takes a light-hearted look at the junior senator from NY. A good antidote to the usual political analyses.

  • Thomas Frank, whose last book was What's the Matter with Kansas?, is a guest NYTimes OpEd columnist for August. His 12 August piece, "The Spoils of Victimhood," is quite good. Teaser:
    "[T]o hear conservatives tell it, every election is still a referendum on the monster liberalism, which continues to loom like a colossus over the land."
    This piece lives behind the TimesSelect wall. Email me if you want a copy. Or, you know, don't pay your cable bill for a month, and get TS for a year.

  • Steve Yegge, who used to work at Amazon and now works at Google, has made available some of the essays that he posted on what was an internal blog at Amazon. One of particular note begins this way:
    This is certainly the most important thing I'll ever say in my blogs: YOU should write blogs.

    Even if nobody reads them, you should write them. It's become pretty clear to me that blogging is a source of both innovation and clarity. I have many of my best ideas and insights while blogging. Struggling to express things that you're thinking or feeling helps you understand them better.
    (Admittedly, readers of this blog may quibble at the universality of Stevey's last line.)

    More essays from the Amazon days are listed here, and the new stuff appears here. Lots of it is focused on software engineering ... WAIT, COME BACK ... but the boy can write, and it's not all geekery.

Did You Know This?

I just looked up something on At the bottom of the page, it says: "An Amazon company."

Not that there's anything wrong with Amazon. (He said invitingly to the flamers.)

Not that I mean "gay."

Not that there's anything wrong with being gay.

And you thought that guy was just a blowhard

You like Dr. Phil? Me, neither.

But maybe the following will change your mind. (Thanks for forwarding, KK!)

Subject: finding peace

I am passing this on to you because it definitely worked for me, and we all could use more calm in our lives.

By following the simple advice I heard on a Dr. Phil show, I have finally found inner peace. Dr. Phil proclaimed the way to achieve inner peace was to finish all the things you have started.

So I looked around my house to see things I started and hadn't finished, and before leaving the house this morning, I finished a bottle of Merlot, a bottle of White Zinfandel, a bottle of Baileys, a bottle of Kahlua, a package of Oreos, the remainder of the Valium prescriptions, the rest of the cheesecake, Doritos and a box of chocolates.

You have no idea how freaking good I feel.

Please pass this on to those you feel are in need of inner peace.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

The Latest National Security Threat

This just in: The Department of Homeland Security has discovered that Microsoft Windows is vulnerable.


Not that computer vulnerabilities aren't a legitimate concern, and I did, in fact, apply the patch. But anyone using Windows and possessing a grain of common sense already uses some variation of Windows Update, right?

And doesn't DHS have better things to do, like watching the Canadians, securing petting zoos, and protecting Amish popcorn factories?

Priorites, fellas. It's all about the priorities.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

News Flash -- David Brooks Still Clueless

One of the bad parts about paying for TimesSelect is that you get access to David Brooks's OpEd pieces. Well, there isn't an a la carte option, and besides, I was raised Catholic, so I'm always up for a little mortification.

Oh, that's not really it. The truth is that I am on a never-ending quest to hear something, anything, from the right that might actually sound different from the latest edition of Karl Rove's talking points. It's a futile quest, I suppose, because every time I find someone who I think might qualify, it turns out that the right has just revoked his or her conservative credentials.

I often wonder why the NY Times can't find someone more coherent than David Brooks to represent the right. (It's sure not John Tierney. Everyone knows that.) I miss William Safire -- I rarely agreed with him, but at least he made me think.

Anyway, Brooks's 8/10 piece is bad even by his standards. He has decided that despite the 1,047,876,923,912,375 Lieberman/Lamont analysis pieces already posted on the Web, he should weigh in with his own bad craziness musings.

He starts off sounding like he's proposing a middle-ground type of thinking, saying that "the McCain-Lieberman Party" is the new third party in the US.

Okay, a plea for moderation is . . . understandable, I guess is the charitable way of putting it. But this is a ludicrous example of a "third way." These two guys have spent the past five years kowtowing to W. How is that not 100% Republican?

Brooks's plea is also more than a little bit stupid. McCain is doing what he has to do to stay in the Republican Party's good graces -- witness the recent sucking up to Falwell. Lieberman, by contrast, has flat-out abandoned the Democrats.

Brooks throws the typical right-winger hate card right away: "Ned Lamont on a victory platform with ... Al Sharpton smiling just behind."

Ooooh, Al Sharpton was on stage with Ned Lamont. Hey, Dave? Rev. Al may be a bit of a loose cannon, but he's really not coming to kill your puppy.

Here's another classic: "Lamont's voters are rich ..."

It never fails to amaze me that the party of the fat cats continues to say this with a straight face.*

And then there's the technique of juxtaposition: "... the continuing jihad, Speaker Pelosi, a possible economic slowdown ..."

I'm sure he'll protest tomorrow that he never meant to say the House minority leader is a jihadist. Nooooooo.

Brooks calls the people of Connecticut who voted against Lieberman, and the people of the United States who supported this effort, "net-root DeLays," straining to compare a righteously dissatisfied electorate with the Republicans' erstwhile hero. And my, my, how they do turn on their own.

He calls the pushback of a people fed up with the disasters caused by six years of Republican hegemony a "Sunni-Shiite style of politics."

Look, Dave, I know that revisionist history is a favorite parlor game of the right, but let's not forget the launch of the right wing hate machine back in the Clinton Administration. We on the left have been laughed at, forever, for trying to be accomodating. We finally see it won't work with this bunch. We've been backed into a corner, and suddenly we're the extremists?

He characterizes people like me and my friends as "ideologues on the left, perpetually two years behind the national mood ..."

Last question, Dave: What were W's poll numbers two years ago, and what are they now?

Two possible conclusions: Either three-fifths of the country has suddenly become flamingly liberal, or someone's time machine is on the fritz. As much as I'd like to believe the former, I'm a card-carrying member of the reality-based community. Unlike Dave, evidently.

Brooks concludes: "... highly educated secular liberals are pulling the Democrats upscale and to the left."

I conclude: Like that's a bad thing?

* And, as usual, it's not particularly true. Mickey Kaus, no lover of the left, cites a CBS/NYT exit poll [pdf]: "Lamont got 48% of those making less than $50K, 52% of those making more than $100K, and 53% of those in between."

[Update 2006-08-10 08:45 EDT]: Above footnote added

[Update 2006-08-10 10:10 EDT]: Jonathan Chait piles on, too

Reading Recommendations -- 8/09/2006

More On Drilling

I speculated a couple of days ago that the recent shutdown by BP of some of its Alaskan oil pipelines would likely provoke a kneejerk reaction by irresponsible politicians bought and paid for by the oil industry Republicans to increase drilling. As opposed to, say, using this as a wake-up call to address the real problems.

Today's NY Times's editorial page offered an interesting rebuttal to such madness:

According to the nonprofit National Environmental Trust, if Americans had started a 10-year phase-in of 40-mile-a-gallon driving standards in 2001, they would already be saving 267 million barrels of oil a year. That's nearly twice the amount produced annually at the Prudhoe Bay field.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Chiming In

The headline:

Lamont Defeats Lieberman in Connecticut Race

My reaction:


Monday, August 07, 2006

Line of the Day -- 8/7/2006

In what can only be read as a sign of the apocalypse, Paris Hilton has been given her own line of Hello Kitty figures by Sanrio.

--The Superficial

Ignore This Post

There have been too many words written about science versus religion, and I don't know what makes me think I'm adding anything but noise. Call the following a self-indulgence.

There's a good interview on Salon with the head of the Human Genome Project, Dr. Francis Collins.

Collins has earned both a degree in medicine and a Ph.D. in physics. (But I nobly resist the temptation to call him Dr. Doctor.) He is also an evangelical Christian, and has been one, most of his adult life.

It's probably unfair to review just the interview, but if Collins sees nothing wrong with going out and pimping his new book before sending me my advance copy, here goes.

The interviewer, Steve Paulson, begins with a nice line, describing Collins standing at the side of then-President Bill Clinton, who was announcing the decoding of the human genome:

It turns out that Collins worked with the president's speechwriter to help craft Clinton's religious spin on this scientific breakthrough. "Today," Clinton said, "we are learning the language in which God created life."

Throughout the interview, Collins had plenty of level-headed things to say. It's obvious that he hasn't gone completely fundamentalist:

It's a very interesting argument, but I fear there's a flaw. The intelligent design argument presumes that these complicated, multi-component systems -- the most widely described one is the bacterial flagellum, a little outboard motor that allows bacteria to zip around in a liquid solution -- that you couldn't get there unless you could simultaneously evolve about 30 different proteins. And until you had all 30 together, you would gain no advantage. The problem is it makes an assumption that's turning out to be wrong. All of those multi-component machines, including the flagellum, do not come forth out of nothingness. They come forth very gradually by the recruitment of one component that does one fairly modest thing. And then another component that was doing something else gets recruited in and causes a slightly different kind of function. And over the course of long periods of time, one can in fact come up with very plausible models to develop these molecular machines solely through the process of evolution as Darwin envisaged it. So intelligent design is already showing serious cracks. It is not subject to actual scientific testing.

And (my scare quotes added):

The shelves of many evangelicals are full of books that point out the flaws in evolution, discuss it only as a "theory," and almost imply that there's a conspiracy here to avoid the fact that evolution is actually flawed. All of those books, unfortunately, are based upon conclusions that no reasonable biologist would now accept. Evolution is about as solid a theory as one will ever see.

I'm happy to be reading all this. Are we on the brink of hearing from someone important who has found a balance between personal beliefs and science? It gets even better when Collins is asked further about whether scientific investigation and theorizing threaten religion:

My God is bigger than that. He's not threatened by our puny minds trying to understand how the universe works.

Ah. The exact stance I challenge all fundies to take. I ask them: If your beliefs are so strong, then what are you so afraid of?

I find no problem with Collins saying this, either:

[F]or a scientist to say, "I know for sure there is no God," seems to commit a very serious logical fallacy.

I agree, because it's well-nigh impossible to prove the negative. But nothing that I've ever heard, from Collins or anybody else, proves the positive. I've long held that it doesn't matter whether or not there is a God when doing science -- the name of the game in science is to see how much we can explain without resorting to supernatural explanations. Playing the game by the rules doesn't mean that God can't be part of another body of thought, any more than deciding whether to lay down a sacrifice bunt requires that one consider the existence of a field goal kicker.

Collins rankles me a little bit here:

Frankly, I think many of the current battles between atheists and fundamentalists have really been started by the scientific community.

Ah, c'mon. Scientists aren't perfect, and maybe science can never hope to supply all of the answers, but organized religion has been burning people at the stake for millenia, just for daring to suggest something outside of current doctrine. Science, despite its fits and starts and the unintended consequences of applying some of its discoveries, has shown us the way out of the Stone Age and the Dark Ages. Scientists today who argue strenuously against fundamentalist religious beliefs, and the attempts to impose them by fiat, are doing little more than defending ground already won at the cost of way too much blood.

Another area of disagreement: I don't buy Collins's belief that there is no basis for the new idea that altruism might have evolved from evolutionary pressures. I think it's an interesting idea, and I think it's consistent with the (somewhat hyperbolic and possibly tongue in cheek) view of animals being mere vessels for the continuation of genes. Besides, it's not just humans who do things for the good of the herd. Ever surprise a mama bear? Or a mama cat? Or a mama bird? And why are male cardinals bright red? No, not those cardinals.

Collins invokes the old saw about the universe appearing to be optimally designed for creatures just like us. This is the so-called Anthropic Principle, which mentions fifteen or so fundamental physical constants and then says, if even one of them were different by (some really small number), none of us would be here!

Every time I hear this argument, it sounds weaker. It is just as easy for me to believe, first, that an evolution toward intelligence is bound to occur in any sufficiently complex and dynamic system; second, that humans in particular happened along because this universe is what it is; and third, that four or fifteen billion years of random changes could easily shape a creature capable of saying, "Gosh! Look how well this all works out!" God may well have created all that we see, but the mere existence of the universe doesn't prove anything more than the fact that the universe exists. Or that the Devil is playing a big trick on me, of course.

In fact, Collins undercut his own belief that God designed the universe for humans with an earlier statement, in which he declines to aver that God threw an asteroid at Earth to wipe out the dinosaurs and make room for the mammals:

Need they [any intelligent creatures] have looked exactly like us? Does "in His image" mean that God looks like us and has toenails and a belly button? Or is "in His image" an indication of the spirit, the Moral Law, the sense of who we are, the consciousness? In which case perhaps it didn't matter so much whether that ended up occurring in mammals or some other life form.

I like this. I'm happy whenever someone wants to talk about the sense that we should, every one of us, strive to be better, and I'm glad that Collins doesn't suffer from speciesism. I have no idea where our apparently innate sense of righteousness comes from, but I believe in it. If attributing it to a higher power and a higher calling works for some people, fine. Of course, when evangelists in general start talking morals, I tend to grab my wallet, watch my back, and vote against the Republicans. Whose Moral Law, Dr. Collins?

Collins also invokes the Big Bang theory as further "proof" of the existence of God. This is what I thought, too, when I first heard of the Big Bang. Later I thought, okay, maybe let's just take this as a good place to draw a line -- physicists currently decline even to entertain questions about what happened "before," so here's a good place to say, "believe what you want." But when he says, "I can't imagine how nature, in this case the universe, could have created itself," I say, well, I can't imagine God. So what's that prove?

Collins also bugs me when he is asked about whether he believes in miracles:

[T]here's no reason that God could not stage an invasion into the natural world, which -- to our limited perspective -- would appear to be a miracle.

Easily dismissed, long ago, by Arthur C. Clarke:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

In other words, I could as easily say that we just don't understand everything. Yet. And any real scientist would be the first to admit that.

Overall, I'm a little troubled by his tone when he speaks of religion, because it sounds to me as though he thinks that his personal beliefs are as rock-solid as the combined output of a planetful of scientists working over the past several hundred years.

But in the end, I'm mostly happy that someone who is distinguished and scientifically credible has found a way to embrace both science and religion. I don't share his religious beliefs by any stretch, but if they get him through his dark nights, fine. I'd like to see the irrational zealots that dominate the world adopt most of his attitudes, and I'd bet that the few in-your-face scientists (quick: name three beside my hero, Richard Dawkins) would immediately back off if that happened.

I know I would.

CFL Update

Bulb number two installed last night. Thanks, KK!


Oh. You must have missed this.

Thoughts Provoked By Letter . . .

. . . but probably not the ones desired by the sender.

I just got an email from a friend, who had clearly just received it and forwarded it right along. My friend was nice enough to use the Bcc: option that is the least courtesy that one can employ when passing along spam, but judging from the embedded CC: lists from previous senders, there's a good chance that you have gotten this email yourself.

Yes, I said "spam."

Now, I'm sure that the senders and forwarders of this email meant well, and judged the letter to be "information." In particular, my friend has good reason to be concerned about the email's message.

In case you haven't gotten your copy yet, the email discusses the risks associated with dioxins, their link to cancer in humans, and their presence in plastics. The letter goes on to say that you therefore shouldn't use plastic containers in the microwave or freezer, nor should you use plastic wrap as a cover in the microwave, and while you're at it, you'd probably better distrust the cardboard containers that heat-and-serve meals come in.


My first thought: Okay, I'm pretty sure that dioxins are not good for people, and second, there are any number of reasons to avoid plastic containers and plastic wrap. But playing the cancer card?

My next thought: What is the magnitude of the risk? How does it compare, say, to smoking a pack a day of cigarettes?

I therefore Googled "dioxin cancer saran wrap." This is the top link returned. The next few pages of search results are exclusively filled with links to various other sites that debunk the connections, including this one, which traces the propagation of this spam to an interesting degree.

In other words, what I originally suspected to be a small risk turns out to be non-existent.

I think it's probably not worth going on about this at length. But please, people, there are enough real things for us all to worry about without mindlessly forwarding scare stories.

Drill Your Way Out of This One

BP is planning to shut down one of their Alaskan oil pipelines because of corrosion in the line, according to the Associated Press. There was a small spill of about 150-200 gallons of crude from this line. Another line from the same area spilled over ten million gallons this past March, and has been offline ever since.

The one bright side to this story is that you now have a snappy comeback for the next moron you hear arguing for increased drilling in Alaska. Just invoke Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska): It really is just a series of tubes.

Leaky tubes.

Mommy, Billy's Looking At Me ... BLAM!

According to the NYTimes, fifteen states have changed their laws to make it easier to shoot someone and claim self-defense. Surprisingly, the NRA is pleased. They plan to lobby eight more states in the near future for this happiness.

No comment yet from the White House on whether Dick Cheney plans to take advantage of this the next time he is "attacked" by one of his hunting companions.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Fogey Talk

So, I'm at a gas station filling up, in preparation for the next leg of the weekend road trip. I decide I'd better call ahead. I go inside and ask the two twenty-somethings working behind the counter, "You all got a pay phone?"

Their eyes could not have bugged out more had I pulled a gun and said, "This is a stickup."

Finally, one recovers enough to say, "Um, yeah, on the other side of the building." He waves his hand wildly in that direction. Maybe he was trying to shoo me outside.

I walk out, walk back in, see them still looking at each other, and say, "You probably haven't heard that question in about three years, right?"

They nod wordlessly.

I try to play the hipster card. "Yeah, I threw my cell phone away when I left L.A."

They were not impressed.

Friday, August 04, 2006

New Google?

Have you seen the new look on the search results page returned by Google?

There's a new column at the left of the screen, showing bar graphs linked to Google's Images, Maps, News, and Groups. The length of the graph doesn't seem to correlate to the results; e.g., if I Google "bjkeefe," it looks like there are more links under the Maps section than in any other, but clicking on the Maps link yields, as expected, zero results.

At least it doesn't measurably slow the response. But it's irritating, because I feel like I'm missing something obvious.

Remember that game you'd play as a kid? You'd all stand around staring at a hole in the ground, and see how many passers-by, like me, you could trick into looking, too. That's what that new Google thing makes me feel like.

[Update 2006-08-07 11:13 EDT]: Could be they heard me. It doesn't seem to be happening any more.


Minor update available. This one fixes a problem with some embedded Windows Media content. (details)

In related news, Mozilla released a patch for the executive branch of the United States. This patch is strongly recommended for all Americans. It fixes a tendency of the executive to grab system resources without bound, causing sluggish performance on the part of the legislature and the judiciary, and eventually leading to complete system failure.

Hey, a boy can dream . . .


Lee Siegel recently posted a plea in his blog, asking the world to lighten up a little bit on Mel Gibson, saying, yeah, he's this and he's that, but arguing that he's kind of washed up, and we should be talking about something else.

Naturally, I quickly clicked the "Comments" link. However, williamyard beat me to it:

Hey, don't spoil the fun, dude. We've had a tough coupla years here: Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, North Korea, Katrina, global warming, China hoarding our Treasuries, India taking our jobs. Cheeses Christ, I've had a nagging cough since March.

It seems as if all of Western Civilization is in a slump, its batting average down in the low .200s. But now Gibson has served up a nice hanging curve, belt-high and right over the plate.

Allow us this pathetic chance at catharsis, however shallow and all too brief.

Looking for more cheap thrills, I had a look at Darryl Cagle's collection of other political cartoonists' takes on the small man with the big mouth. I have to say, a disturbingly large fraction of them seem about as anti-Semitic as Mel's ravings.

Here's one of the good ones, though, by Ingrid Rice, out of British Columbia:

Rummy, Hill'y. You Know the Drill.

For a guy who is supposed to be good at playing the Washington game, Donald Rumsfeld certainly seems to have dropped the ball on this one. Called to participate in a grill session before the Senate, he at first declined, saying it was "just politics."

One might admire the candidness of this assessment coming from someone else, but coming from a man who has gotten where is he by doing nothing but "just politics," it rang a little hollow.

It also rang a little stupid, as his initial refusal to appear caused a mini-uproar among the media and bloggers. He ended up appearing dragged to the panel, and caused a lot more attention to be paid as a result. My Bloglines notifier started pinging during the hearing itself, playing up the criticism directed at the Secretary of War Defense by the junior senator from New York.

Am I tired of Rumsfeld's speech habits? Yes. Does it make it ever harder to take him seriously? Yes. Can we agree that asking yourself the questions is really, really annoying? You bet.

For her part, Sen. Clinton deserves a modicum of praise for taking a clear stance on something, ANYTHING, for once. But her constant fine-tuning of her path along the middle of the road has made me too cynical to take it seriously. I immediately wonder what she's up to. Here's what first comes to mind: She knows that even many on the right now think Rummy's a dummy, so she saw this as an opportunity to pick up a couple of points of cred with the left.

Did it work for me? No. Will I vote for her in the primaries? No. What about in the election, against (fill in any Republican here)?

You have to ask?

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Heat Death of the Universe

or at least

My Own Little Bout of Heatstroke

So, I'm getting up to refill my coffee cup, and I pick up a flash from the roof next door, and part of my mind thinks, huh, there's a little bit of snow still not melted next to that chimney.

For those of you keeping score at home, it's about 311 kelvins here (aka 100 °F), and it's been about that for some time now.

I became aware of my own semi-consciousness. Took another look.

Bird poop.