Friday, December 31, 2004

Another Chinese revolution in the making?

The New York Times has a long article on conditions in China.
Though it is experiencing one of the most spectacular economic expansions in history, China is having more trouble maintaining social order than at any time since the Tiananmen Square democracy movement in 1989.

Police statistics show the number of public protests reached nearly 60,000 in 2003, an increase of nearly 15 percent from 2002 and eight times the number a decade ago. Martial law and paramilitary troops are commonly needed to restore order when the police lose control.

China does not have a Polish-style Solidarity labor movement. Protests may be so numerous in part because they are small, local expressions of discontent over layoffs, land seizures, use of natural resources, ethnic tensions, misspent state funds, forced immigration, unpaid wages or police killings. Yet several mass protests, like the one in Wanzhou, show how people with different causes can seize an opportunity to press their grievances together.
China (and perhaps the Bush administration) hasn't learned the lesson that greed and the amassing of individual power is not the solution to every problem. A society (either ours or the Chinese) divided between extreme haves and extreme haves not's cannot survive in peace.

See the next post on risk for how we seem to be following the same path except with a bit more subtlety.

More on risk

As I commented in an earlier post (The engine of the innovation: making it possible for people to take risks), how risks are allocated seems to be as significant a differentiator between liberals and conservatives as other political issues. Yet this issue has not received the attention it deserves.

Both businesses and individuals want to minimize the risks that they face. We all want a certain degree of stability, and we all want some form of safety net (i.e., insurance policy) to protect us from volatile conditions.

The current administration is now attempting to reduce the insurance aspect of Social Security and turn it into a program in which people put their future retirement security at risk in return for possible increased returns. That clearly is not the point of social security. It is an insurance plan for retirement, not an investment plan.

The LA Times has a nice story on the generally increased degree of financial risk we are all bearing.
The Times has sought to make sense of an American paradox: why so many people report being less financially secure even as the nation, by many measures, has grown far more prosperous.

The answer, the newspaper has found, lies in the shifting of economic risks from the broad shoulders of business and government to the backs of working families. [emphasis added]

Over the last quarter of a century, many safeguards that people once counted on to shield them from financial harm have been weakened or completely lost. These include formal protections such as guaranteed corporate pensions and state and federal unemployment benefits. And they include informal ones, like the loyalty that employers once showed their workers by offering secure jobs with relatively little prospect of long-term layoff. Other cushions that families … have relied on, such as the financial stability that comes with a college education, also have eroded.

The result is that families, even well-off ones, operate with little margin for economic error. And they can pay a steep price if anything goes wrong. The price grows exponentially if … several things go wrong at once.

The Times has tried to gauge the effect of this risk shift over the last 25 years by tracing the rising volatility of family income.

During the early '70s, the inflation-adjusted income of most of those in the middle of the economic spectrum — making about $50,000 a year in today's terms — bounced up and down by no more than $6,500 annually. By the beginning of this decade, those fluctuations had climbed to as much as $13,500, the newspaper's figures show. At the same time, the increase in volatility has been far greater for the working poor, while even top earners haven't been immune from ever-larger income swings.

Million Dollar Baby

I was very disappointed by this movie. The only reason to bother writing about it is that it keeps getting good notices. I heard Kevin Turan on the radio this morning praise it as the kind of movie grown-ups want Hollywood to make.

Based on a series of short stories about boxing by F. X. Tool, the movie features one-dimensional cartoon-like characters, melodramatic emotions (not even done well enough to engage me seriously), and a plot with choices that were both so formulaic and so arbitrary that it could have been written by tossing dice and stitching together old B-movie plots.

But some people really like it. This (unbelievably) is what Roger Ebert says.
Clint Eastwood's 'Million Dollar Baby' is a masterpiece, pure and simple, deep and true. It tells the story of an aging fight trainer and a hillbilly girl who thinks she can be a boxer. It is narrated by a former boxer who is the trainer's best friend. But it's not a boxing movie. It is a movie about a boxer. What else it is, all it is, how deep it goes, what emotional power it contains, I cannot suggest in this review, because I will not spoil the experience of following this story into the deepest secrets of life and death. This is the best film of the year.

Are car-share plans the right compromise between private cars and public transportation?

Technology Review has a first-person AP article on Zipcar and Flexcar.

Both services rent cars around the clock in increments of a half-hour or longer. Prices in Boston range from $8.50 an hour to $12.50, depending on the vehicle model. Gas is included. That's not bad when you also factor in the insurance, maintenance and repair costs that come with ownership. …

To make a reservation, I simply visit Zipcar's Web site and am immediately directed to my personal Zipcar page -- my computer retains my logon information. If a computer's not handy, I can phone in the reservation.

Online, I get a list of five cars in assigned parking spaces within a few blocks of my apartment. I can also sort the list by rates or the cars I rent most frequently. I also see a round-the-clock schedule indicating which cars are available when. …

Flexcar customers can enter a car using their card anytime, without needing reservations, provided nobody else has reserved the car.

After I start my Zipcar, I can drive as far as I want and refuel using a Zipcar card at the company's expense -- gas is factored into the hourly rates, along with insurance.

These days, I reserve cars for an extra half-hour to be on the safe side, even though I have to pay for the time if I return the car early. I learned the hard way about the $25 minimum late fee when I got stuck in traffic and couldn't get back in time.
When we were in Boston last week, our host mentioned Zipcar. So I guess it is becoming increasingly popular. But it's been around for a while and still has only 30,000 customers. (Flexcar has 25,000.)

After Boston, we spent some time in NY. The subways are marvelous. Go anywhere you want whenever you want. Who needs a car? I'm not yet convinced that Zipcar and Flexcar are an effective compromise.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

Snow in Cincinatti

MAeX Art Blog spent Christmas at home in Cincinatti.

Here's the street where I used to play as a kid. My grandparents lived on this street and, the house directly across the street belonged to my grandmother's cousin. The house is still there. There used to be more trees on this street, too. Snow doesn't scare me but, driving in this kind of weather is dangerous! Good thing I still have lots of warm cycling gear from when I used to race!
What's amazing about blogging is that it so many people are now able to make their perspective available to the public — and so many of these pperspectives are worth looking through.

People of the Year: Bloggers

ABC News has named bloggers People of the Year. In doing so, they note that
blogs have made such an impact this year that Merriam-Webster named blog the word of the year.
Cartoon from The Joy of Tech.

The Efficacy of prayer

The Preposterous Universe blog notes that
the NBA's New Orleans Hornets begin each home game with a prayer. Not just the team, the whole arena — the prayer is read over the loudspeakers by someone standing at center court. Since the Hornets are not a government institution, they certainly have a right to hold a prayer, but it seems obnoxious, as there are certainly plenty of non-religious people, or devotees of different religions, in the crowd for each game.

Apparently New Orleans is the only NBA franchise to have a prayer before each game. Among other things, the prayers ask for success for the Hornets and the NFL's Saints. This gives us a nice chance to check on how useful it is to ask for divine intervention.
Apparently the New Orleans Hornets have the worst record in the NBA: 2 wins and 25 losses.


As you can see, there is now an Amazon Honor System pay box on the side bar. This is an experiment just to see what happens. Any income generated by the pay box, along with any income generated by the Google AdSense ads, will be donated to charities. See the pay box page for details.

Amazon page for Red Cross donations

Amazon has set up an Amazon Honor System page for Red Cross donations to help Tsunami victims. As of this writing, donations have reached $6,000,000.
At least 120,000 people have lost their lives in East Africa and South Asia in the aftermath of the earthquake and resulting tsunamis on December 26. Thousands of people in Sri Lanka, India, Thailand, and Indonesia are still missing; many others have lost their homes and livelihoods. Sri Lanka and Indonesia suffered the highest number of deaths, but India, East Africa, Seychelles, Maldives, and Thailand were all affected by the tsunami waves, which reached as high as 20 feet. Aid workers and volunteers are focused on stopping the spread of disease and delivering food and drinking water to survivors. The American Red Cross reports that emergency assessment and first-aid teams were on the ground quickly and are already working with local groups to support relief efforts. Your financial donation will help provide medicine, clothing, food, and shelter for victims of the East Africa and South Asia earthquake and tsunami disaster. One hundred percent of your donation will go to the American Red Cross. Thanks in advance for your participation during this critical time. The American Red Cross name is used with its permission. For more information about the American Red Cross, please call 1-800 HELP NOW or e-mail
The Amazon Honor System
is a safe and easy way for you to support your favorite Web sites and to buy digital content on the Web. has successfully completed hundreds of millions of online transactions and has more than 25 million customers. Now, the Amazon Honor System lets you use payment technology to make payments to Web sites as small as $1.00.

Web sites use the Amazon Honor System to collect voluntary payments from their users and to accept payment for digital content. In many cases, the Honor System is the only way a Web site can economically collect small payments. In others, the Honor System allows the Web site to raise money for continued operations without resorting to intrusive banner advertisements.

When you visit a participating Web site, you'll see an Amazon Honor System paybox. Click on the paybox's "click to pay" or "click to give" button to view the Web site's PayPage at There, you'll learn more about the participating Web site and its reasons for collecting money. To make a payment, click Pay now on the PayPageTM, and rely on to complete the transaction quickly and securely.

Tsunami Relief

The tsunami in southern Asia and Africa may be the worst natural disaster of our time. Rising to this challenge is at the heart of global leadership.
MoveOn has a Tsunami Relief web page through which you can help provide relief for the tsunami victims in two ways: urge congress to provide adequate aid and make an individual contribution to Oxfam.

Customer Service: The Hunt for a Human

The New York Times has a good story on the frustration of trying to reach a customer service person.
Try to reach customer service at to fix a problem with an order and you will encounter one of the most prominent and frustrating aspects of the Internet era: a world devoid of humans. Not only is there no telephone number on Amazon's Web site, but the company makes a point of not including one. Instead, customers are asked to fill out an online form and wait for a response.

'It's incredibly annoying,' said Ellen Hobbs of Austin, Tex., whose frustration has led her to publish's customer support number at her own Web site ( 'They haven't invested the kind of money in helping you solve problems as they have in selling you things.' In December alone, some 1,100 people visited Ms. Hobbs's site. [The page now says 16,000 as of Dec 30. The NY Times story created a lot of traffic.]
I had the same problem with Amazon. After a very frustrating series of messages, I finally did get the number
Phone toll-free in the US and Canada: (800) 201-7575
Phone from outside the US and Canada: (206) 346-2992 or (206)-266-2992
and got satisfactory service. My experience with Amazon has generally been quite good—once you reach an actual person. I don't understand why they have decided to create such frustration for their customers. Is the cost that great? The person I talked to seemed to be in India. I imagine the cost is not that high.

One would think that some smart company would do well by raising their prices a bit and providing real customer service.

One would also think that someone would do well by starting a website on which people could contribute customer service numbers.

The invisible man

Technology Review has an article on the next generation of camouflage:
digital cameras that can capture nearby surroundings and then project that scene on uniforms and vehicles, turning the military into a mobile movie screen that is — if all goes well — indistinguishable from the surrounding cityscape.
As a parlor trick, it's been demonstrated at conferences. Mount a camera on your back facing backwards, and hook it up to a laptop that you carry in front of you with the screen facing the audience. The part of you that is covered by the laptop screen seems to be invisible because the screen shows what's going on behind you.

But converting this to real camouflage that works in 360 degrees and from all angles it a bit more complex.
The biggest challenge: working out how to accurately project a scene onto an entire surface and have it look correct from any angle -- not just from the front -- because there will always be multiple viewers in multiple positions who would be looking hard in the general direction of your invisible army, says Col. James R. Rowan, commander of the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center in Vicksburg, Mississippi. …

"It's a big investment in technology, and after all that the invisibility could be easily circumvented with a thermal imaging system or a paint bomb," says retired optical engineer Frank Kennedy. …

NASA engineers who have worked on active camouflage projects before funding was pulled several years ago cited shadows as the biggest problem in creating invisibility. To be truly hidden from above, noted the NASA scientists in their project paper, an object needs to cast the appropriate shadow.
"Proper shadows will be real hard to pull off when you have a tank camouflaged as part of a city block," says Kennedy. "It's the little details that cause the biggest problems."
This article from 21st Century Online describes similar work by Dr. Susumu Tachi of the University of Tokyo. The example picture (shown above) doesn't seem to me to reach the level of invisibility. But it's a start.

The picture was published in a number of newspaper stories in March 2003. Perhaps technology has improved since then. It's certainly an intriguing idea.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Even drug dealers are giving up on the dollar.

Daniel Gross in Slate reports on the decline of the dollar (and the corresponding rise of the Euro) as a reserve currency.
[T]here are signs that we're losing some of the most devoted fans of the greenback: drug dealers, Russian oligarchs, and black-market traffickers of all kinds.
Strange as it may seem, the fact that we are losing favor as the currency of choice is not as silly a concern as it may seem. Gross quote James Grant to the effect that "between 55% and 70% of the $703 billion of U.S. currency outstanding circulates outside the 50 states."

Most of this money is a loan that the rest of the world is giving use that we will never have to pay back.
[M]any of those bills never return to our shores to be redeemed for anything we make or produce. Instead, they stay under mattresses in Bogotá, circulate in Iraq, and are stashed in bank accounts around the world.

Tsunami vs. 9/11

Of course 9/11 happened here, but is Bush's near total invisibility appropriate? Here's a report from the Washington Post
Earlier yesterday, White House spokesman Trent Duffy said the president was confident he could monitor events effectively without returning to Washington or making public statements in Crawford, where he spent part of the day clearing brush and bicycling. …

Some foreign policy specialists said Bush's actions and words both communicated a lack of urgency about an event that will loom as large in the collective memories of several countries as the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks do in the United States. 'When that many human beings die — at the hands of terrorists or nature — you've got to show that this matters to you, that you care,' said Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.

There was an international outpouring of support after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and even some administration officials familiar with relief efforts said they were surprised that Bush had not appeared personally to comment on the tsunami tragedy. 'It's kind of freaky,' a senior career official said.

One man's retirement math: Social Security beats the Dow

From the Christian Science Monitor
Mr. Logue, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate, decided to go back and check his own records. Would he have done better investing his money than the bureaucrats at the Social Security Administration?

He recorded all the payroll taxes he paid into the system (including the matching amount from his employer), tracked down the return the Social Security Trust Fund earned for each of the 45 years, and then compared the result with what he would have gotten had he been able to invest the same amount of payroll tax money over the same period in the Dow Jones Industrial Average (including dividends).

To his surprise, the Social Security investment won out: $261,372 versus $255,499, a difference of $5,873.

A problem with gravity

This has been in the news lately.

Here's a story from Nature from last September. It discusses both John Anderson and his Pioneer anomaly and Marty Milgrom, an Israeli physicist who has an alternative explaination (besides dark matter) for why galaxies don't seem to behave properly. The discrepencies seem to be similar.
Physicists are looking at ways to study a tiny but mysterious force acting on a pair of spacecraft at the edge of the Solar System.

One research team is seeking support to investigate flight data from the early stages of the Pioneer 10 and 11 missions, in a bid to understand why the craft are now travelling slightly more slowly than mission planners envisaged. A second, far more ambitious proposal would launch a dedicated space mission to study the effect, which has left the craft hundreds of kilometres closer to the Sun than had been anticipated.

The Pioneer anomaly, as the effect is known, was first detected about eight years after NASA launched the two craft to probe the outer Solar System in 1972 and 1973, respectively. It suggests that an unexpected force — about a hundred million times weaker than gravity's force on the surface of the Earth — has been pulling the craft back towards the Sun.

Many physicists think the slow-down is caused either by some unknown physical change in the craft themselves, increasing their drag, or by errors in the techniques used to track them.

But others have suggested that gravitational theory needs to be modified to account for the effect. This view was boosted in 2002, when an investigation into possible causes, led by John Anderson, a physicist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, failed to find an alternative explanation (J. D. Anderson et al. Phys. Rev. D 65, 082004; 2002). The team rejected numerous effects, such as possible leaks of heat or gas from the crafts' plutonium thermoelectric generators.

In the absence of a conventional explanation, physicists have produced speculative alternatives. Mordehai Milgrom (The MOND pages) of the Weizmann Institute of Science near Tel Aviv in Israel, for example, has developed a modified version of classical gravity in which the strength of the gravitational field decreases more slowly than newtonian theory suggests. Milgrom produced his theory to account for discrepancies in the motion of galaxies, an effect normally attributed to the presence of dark matter, but physicists have pointed out that it could also account for the Pioneer anomaly.

Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: A Weblog: A Letter to a Noble Friend on the U.S. Budget

Brad DeLong is a professor of economics at UC Berkeley. He write a blog about economics, politics, and other items of interest. Here is a piece of his blog about the future of the federal budget, and the consqequences thereof.
You asked my opinion about Social Security, and about the long-run federal budget mess more general...

Well, the way I look at it (and this *is* what I do at my day job), we think that the promises and commitments the U.S. government has made and its standard operating procedures for setting spending amounts commit us to an average federal spending level of 25% of total production over the next two or so generations. We know that number will be off--it might be 23%, it might be 27%. But 25% is the number we should have in our minds when we plan.

Now taxes are currently set so that, if standard operating procedures for tax break extension, et cetera, are followed, the federal government will collect some 18% of total production in taxes. 18% is a lot less than 25%.

We as a society have two choices. We can either ignore the gap between 18 and 25 until the foreigners we borrow from lose confidence that we will ever solve it, and our economy and currency go smash in the way that Argentina's seems to every generation, that Mexico's did in 1994, that Germany's did in 1923, and so forth. Or we can take steps to close the gap between 18 and 25. And the sooner we start to take those steps, the easier things will be.

Insider trading as congressmen

By Jonathan Turley in USATODAY.
Congress has excluded investment income, such as stocks, from ethics limitations on income. The result is that members routinely make killings in the market in areas where they legislate. One study by the University of Memphis found that 75% of randomly selected members had 'stock transactions that directly coincided with (their) legislative activity.' …

[Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska] came to the Senate with modest means, particularly after heavy investment losses in the 1980s. In 1997, he had a Scarlet O'Hara "I'll never be hungry again" moment. According to a Los Angeles Times investigation, he decided to get "serious about making money" and contacted lobbyists about possible deals.

Real estate developer Jonathan Rubini arranged for Stevens to get into a deal in which he turned $50,000 into as much as $1.5 million — and Stevens was the only investor not liable for any debts, the Times said. In the meantime, he muscled through a $450 million contract for Rubini from the military, despite the view of Air Force officials that Rubini "lacked capacity and adequate funding."

Tsunami Kills Few Animals

I have no idea what this means. From ABC News
Wildlife officials in Sri Lanka expressed surprise Wednesday that they found no evidence of large-scale animal deaths from the weekend's massive tsunami indicating that animals may have sensed the wave coming and fled to higher ground.

An Associated Press photographer who flew over Sri Lanka's Yala National Park in an air force helicopter saw abundant wildlife, including elephants, buffalo, deer, and not a single animal corpse.
Floodwaters from the tsunami swept into the park, uprooting trees and toppling cars onto their roofs one red car even ended up on top of a huge tree but the animals apparently were not harmed and may have sought out high ground, said Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne, whose Jetwing Eco Holidays ran a hotel in the park.

'This is very interesting. I am finding bodies of humans, but I have yet to see a dead animal,' said Wijeyeratne, whose hotel in the park was totally destroyed in Sunday's tidal surge.
And here's Reuter's version
Sri Lankan wildlife officials are stunned -- the worst tsunami in memory has killed around 22,000 people along the Indian Ocean island's coast, but they can't find any dead animals.

Giant waves washed floodwaters up to 2 miles inland at Yala National Park in the ravaged southeast, Sri Lanka's biggest wildlife reserve and home to hundreds of wild elephants and several leopards.

'The strange thing is we haven't recorded any dead animals,' H.D. Ratnayake, deputy director of the national Wildlife Department, told Reuters on Wednesday.
'No elephants are dead, not even a dead hare or rabbit,' he added. 'I think animals can sense disaster. They have a sixth sense. They know when things are happening.'

Eye jewelry

From the Melles - Netherlands Institute for Innovative Ocular Surgery
The implant does not interfere with the ocular functions, ie the visual performance and ocular motility. The implant is made of a specially designed material that can be molded in all kinds of desired shapes and sizes.
The JewelEyeTM device is 3.5 mm in diameter and available in the following shapes: ring, heart, star. ring. The devices are packaged in a box with 10 sterile devices and the guidelines for use.
Click the image for a larger version.

Virgin Mary grilled cheese sandwich maker

The eBay page says it all.
Why buy Virgin Mary toasted sandwiches at $28,000 a pop, when you can buy the world's only Virgin Mary toasted sandwich maker and have a guaranteed apparition on every grilled cheese sandwich.
Ends Jan-02-05 04:15:44 PST.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Ray Kurzweil wants to live forever

In his new book, Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, published by the health publisher Rodale Press, Ray Kurzweil prescribes a regimen for long life. Here's how The New York Times summarizes it.
The authors advocate eating less than you need, with diets that are very low in carbohydrates and fat, high in vegetables and low in dairy products. Daily aerobic exercise is part of the formula. The authors are also big believers in the health value of antioxidants, like vitamins A, C and E.
The book's subtitle refers to Kurzweil's belief that
In 15 to 20 years … advances in the understanding of gene processes will make it possible for biotechnology therapies to turn off and reverse disease and aging. But only "a small minority of older boomers will make it past this impending critical threshold."

RealClimate on George Will

In its Will-full ignorance posting, the RealClimate blog takes on George Will. Will has written a column supporting Michael Crighton's claim (in State of Fear, his most recent novel) that global warming is a hoax. They do an excellent job—and I wonder if George Will will be intellectually honest enough to respond.

On aspect that I find most interesting is how clear it becomes that a fact does not necessarily mean what one would want it to mean. For example, one of Will's claims is that "Antarctica is getting colder and its ice is getting thicker. RealClimate responds as follows.
…Thickening ice in Antarctica has been predicted by climate scientists for a long time, as a consequence of the greater moisture-carrying capacity of warmer air, so evidence for a thickening ice sheet would actually support, not negate, other evidence for global warming. …
So even if we assume that the ice in Antarctica is getting thicker overall, that supports the underlying model of global warming that Will and Crighton are arguing against. Do Will and Crighton have an even more sophisticated model that captures the same phenomena but that predicts no global warming? If so that would be worth examining.

But the lesson here is that a particular fact does not necessarily support the more general conclusion that one supposes it might. A fact may provide evidence for a model. But it's the model that at least claims to capture the underlying nature of reality and that may allow one to make predictions.

For an earlier example of how Fox News used the same technique to mislead its viewers, see this post.

Monday, December 27, 2004

December in New York

I'm visiting my brother, sister-in-law, and parents in New York—after visiting my wife's family in Boston. It's cold for me here—especially since I live in Southern California.

Thursday, December 23, 2004


John Maeda of the MIT Media Lab is studying SIMPLICITY
"In regards to how complex gadgets are today
such that we find ourselves fiddling with objects
that even an MIT engineer can't operate."
He also has a blog: Maeda's SIMPLICITY.

We just bought what used to be called a clock radio—only now it also plays CD's. It has the standard anti-simplicity problems: poorly written manual (why should it need a manual at all?!), tiny buttons, confusing or uninformative labels on the buttons, buttons that you have to hold down while pressing other buttons, buttons that you have to press within a certain amount of time after pressing two other buttons simultaneously, etc.

But the real problem is not the manual dexterity required. The real problem is that you get no help in understanding the conceptual model you are manipulating. Imagine having to drive a car and being told the angle (in degrees or perhaps in radians) that you should turn the steering wheel. I think it was Karl Polanyi who talked about how a blind man senses the world around him through his cane. I can't find a reference; Google has failed me.) He doesn't think about how the cane touches various areas of his hand. He uses the cane to touch the world with its tip.

Device makers should understand that users don't want to manipulate buttons; we want to make something happen in terms of a conceptual model we understand about the device. The buttons are just the stick in our hands that allow us to have the real effect we want.

The first task in designing a simple interface is to design the conceptual model you want the user to understand. The second step is to communicate that model to the user. Only then do you want to tell the user about the buttons that are available to help him control the (simple) model that he should by now understand.

Babes in Space

William Stotler has a gallery of Babes in Space, covers of mainly 1950's era science fiction magazines.
The Babes in Space gallery was part of the Penn State Science Fiction Consortium Web site from May of 1997 to May of 1998. The entire PSSFC site was removed from the Internet by Penn State in May of 1998 due to lack of staffing.

William Stotler, the gallery's primary creator, currently hosts the site to serve researchers and fans of science fiction. The gallery, now, is in no way connected with Penn State--William Stotler is soley responsible for its content and its hosting.
As Stotler says on Cleaning up the babes for the Internet
Every image in the gallery took some form of digital manipulation to repair, correct, or improve. A good fifth of the images required extensive digital touchup with Adobe Photoshop. Six of the images had to be systematically rebuilt, meaning that I digitally recreated missing sections. You should never have noticed the difference when you were browsing through the gallery—as we intended. How long does this sort of thing take to do? The entire gallery's digital capture and enhancement was accomplished in eight-and-a-half grueling hours of detailed work.
What interest me about these pictures (besides my natural tendency towards prurience) is what can be shown. Most of these covers were published during the staid Eisenhower years. In the picture above, it's ok to show some skin and some interior(?) details. Only certain surface areas of forbidden.

Why is that? The excitement of sexuality is emotional. A close-up of a (pubic) hair follicle is not sexual. Yet it can't be shown. Nor can a close-up of even an unaroused nipple. Yet showing a submissive and presumably sexually available woman is perfectly fine.

Veterinary medicine to lead the way

The cat cloning story (First pet clone is a cat) reminded me of a column (Medicine Goes to the Dogs) Michael Schrage wrote about a year ago. He makes the point that because we apply different moral and bioethical standards to animals than we do to ourselves, veterinary medicine is less constrained than human medicine, and is likely to advance faster. This will create tremendous pressure to allow human medical care catch up(!) to the care we provide for our pets.
Odds are their veterinarians will play a bigger role in saving your life-or the life of your sick child-than your own doctor. Veterinarians for pampered pets will soon be in the vanguard of human health care, and the reason is regulatory. Controversial restrictions on embryonic-stem-cell research and cloning effectively squelch efforts to bring these biotechnologies to bear on human therapies. The moral quandaries and bioethical concerns underlying these restrictions can't be dismissed. But the different standards we apply to animals create provocative loopholes for the innovative and opportunistic biomedical entrepreneur. …

Yes, many people understandably blink at the thought of spending $10,000 to save a cherished pet. But market forces reveal that there are tens of thousands of pet lovers who don't. All it would take is one Labrador-loving billionaire to create the veterinary counterpart to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute-an enormously influential philanthropic funder of innovative biotech. …

The very effectiveness of veterinary biotech would subvert the regulatory and ethical underpinnings of human-research constraints. It's almost impossible to imagine society saying, "It's all right to use embryonic stem cells to save your dying dog, but it's not okay to use them to save your dying child." It's impossible to imagine a president or a senator or the CEO of an HMO asserting that a controversial biotech therapy that puts a cat's leukemia in remission must never be used to treat a sickly adolescent. Ain't gonna happen.

The conclusion? America's love affair with animals will slowly but inevitably undermine the religious, moral, and ethical arguments against genome-based therapies for people. Healthier cats and dogs will generate an irresistible demand for healthier children and adults. Wealthy pet lovers will be the essential instrument of innovation adoption that will drive the next generation of medical treatments. Tomorrow's biotechnical health-care challenge will literally be going to the dogs. I mean that in a good way. So should the medical community.

Mark Weisbrot on Venezuela

Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C.usually knows what he is talking about. He usually writes about economic issues. This week, he is writing about Venezuela.
[T]he biggest threats to Venezuela's democracy still come from Washington, which has funded and allied itself with the anti-democratic leaders of Venezuela's opposition, including supporters of the failed coup. This funding and support has been acknowledged by the U.S. State Department. The National Endowment for Democracy, which is funded by our Congress, has also funneled millions of dollars to opposition groups. And recently-released documents from the CIA show that the Bush Administration had detailed advanced knowledge of the coup but lied about what happened: the White House tried to convince the press and other countries that it was not a coup at all, but rather a legitimate seizure of power by 'pro-democracy' forces.

After failing to overthrow the government by means of a military coup and an economically devastating oil strike, the opposition turned to a recall referendum last August. They lost overwhelmingly. Although the vote was certified by the Carter Center and the Organization of American States, most of the opposition -- including the media -- has not accepted the results. And Washington seems intent on regime change, currently imposing several types of economic sanctions on Venezuela, despite the fact that it is a democracy and poses no security threat to anyone.

So expect to hear a lot of criticism of Venezuela in the next few years -- much of it exaggerated, dishonest, and false.

FBI E-Mail Refers to Presidential Order Authorizing Inhumane Interrogation Techniques

From the American Civil Liberties Union
A document released for the first time today by the American Civil Liberties Union suggests that President Bush issued an Executive Order authorizing the use of inhumane interrogation methods against detainees in Iraq. Also released by the ACLU today are a slew of other records including a December 2003 FBI e-mail that characterizes methods used by the Defense Department as 'torture' and a June 2004 'Urgent Report' to the Director of the FBI that raises concerns that abuse of detainees is being covered up.

'These documents raise grave questions about where the blame for widespread detainee abuse ultimately rests,' said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero. 'Top government officials can no longer hide from public scrutiny by pointing the finger at a few low-ranking soldiers.'
Also, see earlier comments.

First pet clone is a cat. John Sperling, the man behind the clone, is even more interesting.

Nearly 3 years ago, BBC News reported that researchers at Texas A&M University had cloned a cat named, naturally, copy cat.
CopyCat, or Cc for short, is a copy of her genetic mother, not of the tabby surrogate cat that actually gave birth to her. …

The Texas laboratory has already cloned a pig, bull and goat. Work is underway to clone a dog. …

Cats Protection, a UK feline welfare charity, said cloning was not the answer to replacing a lost pet.

Chief Executive Derek Conway said: "The cloning of cats interferes with nature and raises serious questions concerning whether a pet can ever be truly replaced."
However, not everyone agreed, especially cat owners whose cats have died. A number of news sources, including The Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune, reported today that
A Texas woman has paid $50,000 for a cloned cat. … Little Nicky, a 9-week-old kitten [was] delivered to a Texas woman who still missed the cat she had owned for 17 years. …

"He is identical. His personality is the same," the owner, Julie, said. She asked that her last name and hometown not be disclosed because she fears being targeted by groups opposed to cloning.…

The company that created Little Nicky, Sausalito-based Genetic Savings and Clone (GSC), said it hopes by May to have produced the world's first cloned dog — a much more lucrative market than cats.

And despite its whimsical name, the company has been working for more than four years on the cat-cloning process.

The founder of the company, Arizona billionaire John Sperling, funded the research at Texas A&M University that led to the cloning of the first cat in 2001, CC, or Carbon Copy.

Though based in the San Francisco Bay area, the company's cloning work will be done at its new lab in Madison, Wis.

Company spokesman Ben Carlson said four other people have cats on order, at $50,000 each. He said all the clones are expected to be ready by spring.
Moral: Research pays. The GSC website says, "GSC will not consider an IPO until after we add commercial dog cloning to our current services."

John Sperling himself has an interesting history. Here's what writes about him.
The founder of the University of Phoenix and chairman of its holding company, the Apollo Group, Sperling is an 83-year-old billionaire and an unapologetic rabble-rouser whose long-term passion has been delivering meaningful, affordable degree programs to working adults."I've never been interested in making widgets or anything like that," he says hotly. "I want to improve the quality of life for my fellow men. I am, by nature, an improver--and a meddler."

Sperling was his own first student. Poor, dyslexic, and semiliterate upon graduating from high school, he joined the merchant marines, traveled the world, and taught himself to read. The material he absorbed--everything from Nietzsche to Henry Miller--formed the foundation of his philosophy. When war broke out, he joined the Navy. Upon returning to civilian life he earned a degree in history from Reed College. It was at Reed that he began thinking about the acute disparity between comfortable, upper-middle-class students--who fully expected to go on to become people of influence in academia, business, and government--and students like himself, young people with little or no support, financial or otherwise. With trademark blunt humor, he described it in his autobiography, Rebel With a Cause, as the "period of my life [that] might well be entitled, 'How I Learned to Hate the Middle Class.'"

After completing graduate work at Berkeley and a Ph.D. in economic history at Cambridge, Sperling taught in London, at Ohio State, and then at San Jose State. It was in San Jose that he launched his first program for working adults. His first students, a group of police officers, longed for access to advanced-degree programs that accommodated their schedules. Sperling designed a curriculum for them, but when he tried to bring the program into the university system, his plan met with opposition. His ideas were considered academic heresy: No one wanted to create or accredit a separate track for midcareer working adults.

To hell with them. He took his curriculum and in 1973 founded a company, the Institute for Professional Development, around it. In 1976 he folded that company into the new Apollo Group and moved everything to the desert hills of Arizona. The flagship University of Phoenix is now the predominant for-profit university in the country, with campuses in 29 states and 186,000 students (including those in online programs). The Apollo Group, largely a collection of educational enterprises, has a market cap of nearly $13.5 billion.

Sperling still delights in his role as agent provocateur, backing everything from drug-reform legislation to the genetic engineering of agricultural crops (and, as a matter of fact, house pets). "I'm indifferent to opprobrium and disfavor," he says cheerfully. "Risk just doesn't bother me at all; I don't know why."
Sperling works hard for a number of liberal causes. He is listed on the anti-drug legalization National Families in Action web site as one of the major proponents — along with an honor role of promonent liberals, including Jocelyn Elders (former Surgeon General), Ira Glasser (former executive director of the ACLU), Peter Lewis (sponsor along with George Soros and Sperling of the California initiative to treat rather than imprison drug abusers), and others — of drug legalization.

In an MSNBC pre-election interview in which Sperling was promoting his self-published book The Great Divide: Retro vs. Metro America, Sperling described himself as follows.
I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian household in Missouri. So I did not have Metro values. I was raised in a poor household that was probably Republican. Then I went to sea, and met a lot of left-wing sailors. Not the Navy; these were the Merchant Marines. They were all loyal union members. That was starting in 1939.

Although Sperling lost the election, he is continuing the fight. The book is available online at the Retro vs. Metro website.

Here is a version of Sperling's early biography from the Washington Post.
Sperling grew up the youngest of six children in a log cabin in the Missouri Ozarks during the Depression. His parents were Calvinist fundamentalists. 'They didn't believe in instant damnation but pretty damned close.'

When he was 10, one of the preachers looked at him with pale blue eyes and asked, 'Son, are you saved?' Sperling looked deep into himself and knew that he wasn't, that 'I was going straight to Hell,' he recalls. At 16, he knew he would do something sinful, and 'I dared God to strike me dead.' He lived. 'That was it. That freed me from religion right there.'

There are other such moments in Sperling's biography that in retrospect look like bait to Republicans. For example, he says the only bright spot in his childhood was the day his father died. He rolled around in the grass giggling. 'I could hardly contain my joy.'

'I learned nothing from my childhood,' he writes. 'Except that it's a mean world out there and you've got to bite and scratch to get by.' Sperling's political awakening began at 18 when he joined the Merchant Marine. The ships were full of intellectuals escaping the Depression. They were Trotskyites who came with their libraries, Dostoevsky's 'Notes From Underground,' F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'The Great Gatsby.'

Sperling soaked up their endless discussions and subversive temperament. The GI Bill sent him to Reed College in Oregon and graduate school at University of California at Berkeley, where he studied English, history, philosophy and economics. Both places he remembers as an 'intellectual feast,' with people up all night debating.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Micrsoft has lost its attempt to delay the EU monopoly sanctions

Microsoft has lost its attempt to delay European Commission sanctions [PDF, 302 pps.] ordered by the EU's Court of First Instance. Here's the order [click on the top link]. The press release from The Court of First Instance is available as a PDF from this page. The court rejected Microsoft's application "in its entirety." The company hasn't decided yet whether to appeal to the higher European Court of Justice. Yesterday it said it probably would not.

"We need to focus on doing an excellent job with complying with today's decision," Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith said in a conference call with reporters. That includes sharing technical information so other software and hardware manufacturers can develop products that work with Microsoft's Windows.

Microsoft immediately announced that it will create a website later today to begin processing requests for the interoperability information. It will unbundle Media Player by January, it says.

Did Bush authorize torture?

Here's a report from Asia Times.
[T]he ACLU released copies late Monday of a two-page FBI e-mail message dated May 22 that refers repeatedly to an executive order signed by Bush.

The message 'states that the president directly authorized interrogation techniques including sleep deprivation, stress positions, the use of military dogs, and 'sensory deprivation through the use of hoods, etc.',' "
So the question now is what did that executive order say?

Of course, no matter what it said, since the Republican control both the House and the Senate, there won't be an impeachment. And Bush being Bush, he can claim that he didn't bother to read the details. But it would be nice to know what he actually signed.

(via Jack Balkin)

Writers and sexual harassment

A month ago I wrote about
a sexual harassment suit filed by a writers' assistant who was offended by the raunchy language and behavior of writers for the Friends TV show.

The plaintiff said, 'They would basically sit like teenagers in a locker room, talking about, you know ... Things they wanted to do to the cast and walking around pretending to masturbate and just ridiculous conduct.'
The case is expected to be heard by the California Supreme Court next year.

For some reason ABC News just published a long story (ABC News: Is Crude Language Part of the Creative Process?) about the case. It adds nothing new, but it is worth reading. Perhaps as a result of the publication of that story, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has now published a short summary of the case: Hollywood writers watch harassment case.

Nothing new has actually happened in the case. What I find interesting is that it is news again just because ABC decided to publish a story on it.

I found out about both of these stories because I created an alert on Google. I want to be informed when the case is actually heard by the California Supreme court. To create an alert, look up something in Google's News service. At the bottom of the page, you will be offered the opportunity to create an alert. Or you can go directly to

The actual story seems to be that the Friends writers were rather juvenile. But would you file a suit saying that the workplace was intolerably offensive if you were an elementary school teacher and your students made toilet jokes?

The original purpose of the sexual harassment laws was to protect mainly women (but men in some cases) from sexual bullies and predators. This case seems to me to be different. The gross sexual language was not directed as the plaintiff.

But what if one were a minority and were working in a work environment in which the other employees regularly used terms based on your ethnicity in a negative way—simply as part of their standard mode of expression?
  • What is one were Jewish and your fellow workers were constantly saying things like, "He Jewed him out of it." meaning that he drove an unfairly hard bargain.
  • Or what if one were black and your fellow workers were constantly using the term nigger as a general term of derision?
That's also at issue here. Apparently some of the writers mimed masturbation as a way of criticizing another writer's ideas. Is that offensive enough to merit a workplace harassment suit? I don't know to what extent one would have a case under those circumstances. I don't know how the workplace speech regulation rules are written.

But offensive as that sort of behavior may be, I'm not enthusiastic about having them written in a way that would allow law suits under those circumstances. Do we really want the government writing rules of etiquette for us?

Eliminating the filibuster on judicial nominations

Arianna Huffington writes about the Republican plan to
[eliminate] the use of filibusters against judicial nominees.

The Robert's Rules of Disorder scheme would involve — who else? — Vice President Dick Cheney, in his role as presiding Senate officer, ruling that judicial filibusters are unconstitutional and Majority Leader Bill Frist squashing the Democrats' inevitable objection to such an edict by tabling the motion. …

Over the course of his first term, 204 of Bush's judicial nominees received Senate approval; just 10 were blocked. This is the highest number of lower-court confirmations any president has had in his first term since 1980 — including President Reagan.
Arianna calls this "nuking the constitution." I'm all in favor of criticizing Bush, but let's think about this particular issue.
  • Bush has already had most of his appointees approved. In the coming session, with a clear majority in the Senate, he is likely to get nearly all of them approved anyway.
  • The filibuster was never the Democrats friend. Why are we suddenly mourning its possible curtailment? At some (perhaps distant) time in the future, the Democrats will again be nominating judges. Won't it be nice not to have to worry about a Republican filibuster?
  • The filibuster was never the democrat's friend. Why require a super-majority in the Senate? Besides, it will do little good this time around. Let Bush destroy it.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

The engine of the innovation: making it possible for people to take risks

Matthew Yglesias makes the point that something the right generally does understand is that
one of the main sources of American dynamism is the willingness of people to shoulder risk.

Something that the right doesn't understand well at all is the difference [between] policies that let people take more risks and policies that simply make life riskier.

To take a good example, one leading cause of America's relatively entrepreneurial business environment is that we have bankruptcy laws that are relatively un-punitive compared to what you have in many other countries. This empowers people to take risks by making it less risky to start a new business by taking out a loan.

One of the things Social Security does is by guaranteeing everyone a viable, yet modest, retirement income is to allow people to make relatively risky choices with their personal savings, secure in the knowledge that if the worst happens Social Security will be there to tide them over. What's needed are plans that spread this risk-taking capacity further down the income chain, not plans that simply force people into risky situations.
In other words, social insurance and the social safety net promote risk taking and entrepreneurial innovation rather than stifling it.

This could be understood as another fundamental difference between left and right. The right thinks that the best way to strengthen the country is to force people to take risks in order to survive. The left thinks that the best way to strengthen the country is to build a society in which people will be secure enough so that they are comfortable taking risks. This is another version of Lakoff's distinction between the stern disciplinarian and the nurturing community.

Intelligent Design? Which one?

Sean Carroll's Preposterous Universe refers to a collection of pages that point out that there are a number of competing "intelligent design" theories.
If you want to teach about intelligent design, you will have to decide which of the designers you should highlight. And, despite what you might read in comic books, there are a lot more designer-based theories of creation than science-based ones. Apostropher points to a helpful list of the Top Ten Intelligent Designs:

  • Norse mythology
  • Zorastrianism
  • Babylon's Enuma Elish
  • Egyptian mythology
  • The Aztec Earth Mother
  • China's Cosmic Egg
  • Japan's incestuous siblings
  • Hinduism's Rig Veda
  • Hesiod's Theogony
  • The Judeo-Christian-Islamic Garden of Eden

The Face of Globalization

Istanbul based photographer Mike Mike (left) took pictures all over the world (apparently mainly of people his own age), and then averaged them into male and female composites for a number of cities. For each city he also has a Flash video of the original faces. To the right is the composite female face of Lisbon.

Of course the composites he got depended critically on the people he included from each city. His point is that people around the world look more and more alike. I think that this result was strongly dependent on the fact that he decided to photograph a very diverse group of people in each city. If you look at the Flash images from Hong Kong, you will see many people who are not native of Hong Kong. Even though Hong Kong is a very cosmopolitan city, I doubt that the if you took a random sampling of people, the result would turn out looking as globalized as his result does.

Click either picture to get to the site: Ethnic and regional diversity - the effects of globalization on local populations.

(via Radley Balko,

Outsmarting bacteria? Why don't we know whether this will work?

From Weeding Out Bacteria in Technology Review. Apparently there are seaweed compounds, called furanones, that block communication among bacteria.
Many bacteria rely on quorum sensing -- a communication system that determines when enough bacteria is present to overwhelm the host’s immune system. The Australian seaweed, a red algal species found in Sydney's Botany Bay, prevents bacteria from sensing a quorum, thereby stopping the formation of biofilms on leaves. That's significant because in people, biofilms can cause resistant, chronic infections. …

[R]esearchers say bacteria won't have an incentive to develop mutations that will foil furanones because they don't actually kill bacteria, only block their communication with each other, which prevents them from growing strong enough to cause problems.

'The fact that the furanones do not kill the cells means that there is no disadvantage to the individual cell, but only to the (bacteria) community as a whole,'says Dr. Diane McDougald, a senior research associate at the University of New South Wales Centre for Marine Biofouling and Bio-innovation. 'So the (selective) pressure to develop resistance is very low or not at all.' …

Some researchers believe bacteria might eventually outsmart any obstacle thrown their way, including compounds derived from furanones. If bacteria can detect an advantage, they might mutate in a way that allows them to circumvent the furanone signal jamming.

'(The furanone approach) depends on the assumption that there is truly no selective advantage of quorum-sensing proficiency in life and growth of the organisms,' says Susan Rosenberg, professor of molecular and human genetics and molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor University in Houston. "This might be so. But if there is a growth advantage for those capable of quorum sensing, then mutants that defy the blocker will be selected."
This raises a very interesting issue. It is evolutionary gospel that mutations occur only if they help individuals, not groups. Furanone's target groups, not individuals. If an individual bacterium developed a resistance to furanones, it would not help that bacterium to survive. On the other hand, if enough bacteria developed such a reistance simultaneously (intelligent design?), presumably the colony would survive better, leading to the survival of the mutation.

It will be interesting to follow this research and see how the bacteria respond. It's amazing that we don't know!

India is catching us on the repressiveness front

Just as China is overtaking us on the decadence front, India is catching up to us on the repressiveness front. From a The New York Times article, EBay Fights India Arrest Over Sale of Sex Video.
Avnish Bajaj, chief of Baazee [a unit of eBay that is India's largest Internet auction site], was arrested Friday in a case related to the sale on the Baazee site of a video clip of a teenage couple from an exclusive New Delhi school engaged in a sex act. …

EBay said the video clip was not actually shown on the site - the seller had offered it to buyers by simply describing its content. "The listing violated's policies and user agreement and was removed from the site once it was discovered," the company said in a statement.

In a first-of-its-kind incident in India, the police arrested Mr. Bajaj under the Information Technology Act, which makes publishing or transmitting obscene material in any electronic form punishable by up to five years in jail. …

The National Association for Software and Service Industries, the influential software industry group known as Nasscom, said the arrest and detention of Mr. Bajaj was "not expected of a mature democracy like ours."
But then there are lots of unexpected things that seem to be happening in what one would hope are mature democracies.

Perhaps the lure of money will help.
Kiran Karnik, [president of the National Association for Software and Service Industries], said in a statement that because India is an attractive destination for outsourcing, the government should not send the wrong signals to global customers and investors. Mr. Karnik urged the authorities to release Mr. Bajaj immediately.

Monday, December 20, 2004

A Talk with Benoit Mandelbrot

Edge has just published a talk with Benoit Mandelbrot. Approaching 80, he sums up how he sees his life's work.
A recent, important turn in my life occurred when I realized that something that I have long been stating in footnotes should be put on the marquee. I have engaged myself, without realizing it, in undertaking a theory of roughness.
In the preceding quotation, he is saying that understanding roughness provides the unifying framework of his life's work and that fractals are, in effect, a theory of roughness.

Stem Cell Researcher Makes Paralyzed Rats Walk

From Technology Review:
Hans Keirstead [of UC Irvine] is making paralyzed rats walk again by injecting them with healthy brain cells. …

Keirstead hopes to apply his therapy to humans by 2006. If his ambitious timetable keeps to schedule, Keirstead's work will be the first human embryonic stem cell treatment given to humans. …

For the last two years, he has shown dramatic video footage of healed rats walking to scientific gatherings [I doubt that the rats walked all the way from Irvine to the conferences!] and during campaign events to promote California's $3 billion bond measure to fund stem cell work, which passed in November. …

Meanwhile, Keirstead and his corporate sponsor -- Menlo Park-based Geron Corp. -- are designing the initial human experiments, which will test for safety and involve just a handful of volunteers. The volunteers likely will be patients who have been recently injured. …

Critics complain privately that Keirstead is beholden to Menlo Park-based Geron, which claims a Microsoft-like grip on any commercial stem cell market that emerges.

Geron funded the work of University of Wisconsin researcher Jamie Thomson, who discovered human embryonic stem cells in 1998, and the company funds Keirstead's lab at $500,000 a year. Geron owns the commercial rights to any drug Keirstead may develop.
Disclosure. I just placed an order to buy a few shares of Geron.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Fired for blogging

Ellen Simonetti says she was fired from Delta for posting some pictures of herself in uniform. She has filed a sexual discrimination suit. You can follow her progress on her blog, Diary of a (Fired) Flight Attendant. She tells her story here.

"Merry Christmas" or else?

Kevin Drum read yesterday's article in the LA Times about the besieged American Christians.
I've now read at least a dozen assorted articles and op-eds about the horror — the horror! — of 'Happy Holidays' being used as a seasonal greeting instead of 'Merry Christmas.'
When I was a (non-Christian) kid, I was always uncomfortable with people wishing me Merry Christmas. More recently I have felt a lot more comfortable with the more generic Happy Holidays, and I have appreciated the consideration of those who have made the change.

But even then it didn't bother me enough to want to do anything about it. On the contrary, I tried to find a way to accommodate myself to it. I finally decided that when people wished me "Merry Christmas" I should understand it as an expression on their part that they were happy about celebrating a holiday that was important to them and that they wished to share their joy with me—and not that they were trying to push their religion on me.

Having figured that out, I was much more comfortable with the greeting. But it did take an effort on my part to work this out for myself. I wish the right-wing Christians would work out some stuff about tolerance for themselves.

Here's an earlier post.

More on creating life

Earlier and still earlier, I posted about a couple of steps toward creating biological life. Here's another one.

Virtual property for real money

The BBC reports a recent sale of a virtual island for $26,500.
The land exists within the game Project Entropia, an RPG which allows thousands of players to interact with each other.

Entropia allows gamers to buy and sell virtual items using real cash, while fans of other titles often use auction site eBay to sell their virtual wares.

Earlier this year economists calculated that these massively multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPGs) have a gross economic impact equivalent to the GDP of the African nation of Namibia.

The virtual island includes a gigantic abandoned castle and beautiful beaches which are described as ripe for developing beachfront property.

[The buyer] will make money from his investment as he is able to tax other gamers who come to his virtual land to hunt or mine for gold.

He has also begun to sell plots to people who wish to build virtual homes.

The Entopia economy lets gamers exchange real currency into PED (Project Entropia Dollars) and back again into real money.

Ten PEDs are the equivalent to one US dollar and typical items sold include iron ingots ($5) and shogun armour ($1.70)
Now the question is why this is any less real than buying an ad on a website–or on television for that matter. As the economists say, something is worth what you can sell it for.

If there are enough people who find playing this game valuable enough, then it has real value—as much value as any other entertainment product—or perhaps anything else that isn't a basic necessity.

Why is buying an island in cyberspace any stranger than buying a Coke?

(via Sharon)

China is overtaking us on the decadence front

China has become a fierce economic competitor. Now it's overtaking us on the decadence front as well.

Reuters reports that Feng Qian (with a prototypically vacant expression) has been selected to be China's first Miss Artificial Beauty. (All contestants must have had plastic surgery.)
Feng, wearing a flowing gold evening gown and a bright smile on her resculpted face, said she hoped the event would remove some of the stigma associated with plastic surgery. …

[Feng's four procedures] added a fold to her eyelids, liposuctioned fat from her belly, reshaped her cheeks, and injected botox to alter facial muscles.
Apparently she didn't have the leg-extension surgery that I mentioned earlier.

Three years of ecnomic growth, but no job gains

Jared Bernstein of the

shows the following graph of real wages since the recovery began 3 years ago.

(via Brad DeLong)

From RealClimate: Fox News gets it wrong

The new RealClimate blog has a nice example of Fox using a truncated quotation to imply that the author meant the opposite of what he really intended. What was quoted, "Any prudent person would agree that we don't yet understand the complexities with the climate system."

The full quotation, "Any prudent person would agree that we don't yet understand the complexities with the climate system and, since we don't, we should be extremely cautious in how much we 'tweak' the system."

The intent of the speaker was to warn against "tweaking" the system by adding greenhouse gases without knowing what we are really doing. What Fox implied the speaker was saying was that we shouldn't attempt to reduce greenhouse gases.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Jonathan Schwartz on the future of Sun Microsystems

has a nice post that makes a good case that Sun will survive.

Alex Halavais quotes Thomas Jefferson

"One day the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in the United States will tear down the artificial scaffolding of Christianity. And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as His father, in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter."

According to, this is from Jefferson's letter to John Adams of April 11, 1823.

Halavais was responding to a poll conducted by Cornell University and reported in that found that

Nearly one in two Americans believe the U.S. government should restrict civil liberties for Muslim-Americans ….

The survey also found respondents who identified themselves as highly religious supported restrictions on Muslim-Americans more strongly than those less religious.