13 August 2007

Undocumented Mexican jaguars infiltrate border, steal American deer.

Unqualified Offerings' Thoreau riffs on an older news item about jaguars in Arizona:

Jaguars are moving from Mexico to Arizona. Now, it would be tempting to look at them and admire their beauty, but consider some of the facts. A Mexican jaguar is willing to hunt deer for 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, and for less money than American-born mountain lions. And they have large families, often as many as 4 kittens per litter, while American-born mountain lions are struggling just to maintain their numbers. Indeed, given how difficult it is for a mountain lion family to get by in Santa Monica these days, why should we be letting immigrant cats in to compete for resources?

It would be tempting to say that we should let the market decide, but we don’t have a free market for deer, rabbits, and other small to mid-sized game. Besides, jaguars are beneficiaries of state programs, enjoying special protected status. As long as the state insists on regulating endangered species, how can we justify letting jaguars in to enjoy those benefits at the expense of American-born mountain lions, wolves, and other predators? [...]

It’s time to stop being a bunch of pussies in the face of a threat to our way of life, and finally take action. What we need is a large fence. There’s no way a jaguar could ever climb…
Includes a jaguar lolcat.

In a major campaign strategy breakthrough, Tancredo finally figures out a way to bring 'the children' into his xenophobic lunacy:

A Tom Tancredo campaign office in Council Bluffs, IA provides this running tally of sex crimes committed against children by illegal aliens since 9/11. (Via Tancredo Watch; TW also explains why we all ought to support Tancredo's presidential candidacy: "The longer he's in the presidential race, the less likely he will be to declare for re-election in Colorado's Sixth Congressional District.")

Colorado Mushroom Blogging

Camped this weekend near Tolland, CO (formerly Mammoth, CO!) and watched the Perseid metor shower. Also, since it's been unusually humid this summer, saw an incredible array of mushrooms, none of which I was allowed to eat. We saw approximately a trillion of these:

The King Boletus, or Porcini. Good to eat, although we didn't try any. Some of these were 10-12 inches across. We also spotted quite a few of these right around our campsite:

As soon as I saw these (Amanita Muscaria), they reminded me of Alice in Wonderland, which it turns out is a correct association. Different varieties are psychoactive, deadly, or most often both (the red/orange type we saw is the most potent). The AM has a fascinating history and is widely considered a good luck token, so this weekend I will go back and collect a few for drying. If I decide to sample them, will report back on results.

Also spotted: Purple Coral, Pear-shaped Puffball, and some kind of pinkish mushrooom that I haven't identified yet.

Unintended consequences in the coyote industry

Via Hit & Run, I found Debbie Nathan's feminism-and-immigration themed blog, where she describes some interesting consequences of Bush's move to criminalize employment of undocumented immigrants:

Jose has crossed solo several times in the past 15 years to work in agriculture. Lately, though, stepped up border enforcement has made it so difficult to get past Laredo that he’s taken to hiring a coyote for $1300. He knows lots of people who’ve always used smugglers, and until recently, he says, the coyotes were a nasty lot. “They would cross 40 people at a time, impose the charges at the border, make everyone walk three to six days to San Antonio, often rob customers, and frequently rape the women travelers.”

But now, Jose says, all those Border Patrol agents are having an effect. It’s so hard to cross now that fewer people are coming. This has created intense competition among the coyotes, who have responded by vastly improving their services.

“Now, they pay your way on a first-class bus from your home town to the border. They cross only 8 people at a time. After they get you to the US side, you only have to walk a few hours because they’ve made arrangements with farmers in South Texas to put you up for the night, even feed you. And some of those farmers are gringos,” Jose adds. “Then they put you in vans and drive you to Houston.”

“And they’re much nicer to women now. No more robberies. No rapes. They know it will get out by word of mouth, and they desperately want to maintain and expand their customer base.”

Good reporting -- will be checking out Debbie's blog more often.

10 August 2007

It's, like, the circle of life or something.

From Neurophilosophy:

The spores of the fungus attach themselves to the external surface of the ant, where they germinate. They then enter the ant's body through the tracheae (the tubes through which insects breathe), via holes in the exoskeleton called spiracles. Fine fungal filaments called mycelia then start to grow inside the ant's body cavity, absorbing the host's soft tissues but avoiding its vital organs.

When the fungus is ready to sporulate, the mycelia grow into the ant's brain. The fungus then produces chemicals which act on the host's brain and alter its perception of pheromones. This causes the ant to climb a plant and, upon reaching the top, to clamp its mandibles around a leaf or leaf stem, thus securing it firmly to what will be its final resting place.

The fungus then devours the ant's brain, killing the host. The fruiting bodies of the fungus sprout from the ant's head, through gaps in the joints of the exoskeleton. Once mature, the fruiting bodies burst, releasing clusters of capsules into the air. These in turn explode on their descent, spreading airborne spores over the surrounding area. These spores then infect other ants, completing the life cycle of the fungus.

The original post has video of this. This fungus, and many other varieties of bug-killing parasites, are used as environmentally-friendly pest control. (The other brainwashing parasite mentioned in the post: the gordian worm, which as a juvenile takes up residence inside a grasshopper or beetle, then induces the insect to drown itself so that the adult worm can emerge and reproduce.)

I think I found this post especially vivid because I just finished reading the Worlds trilogy (Joe Haldeman), in which humans colonizing a new planet are terrorized by the Eveloi, a parasitic species that directs its hosts' actions by means of a tiny filament accessing the brain through a hole in the skull. (An interesting thing I noticed about the Worlds books -- there are references throughout, in character and place names, to giants of sci-fi/futurism like Asimov, Heinlein, and some others that seemed familiar but I couldn't place.)

09 August 2007

A carbon-neutral oasis in the desert

I guess someone had to be first:

It may seem strange that the emirate of Abu Dhabi, one of the planet's largest suppliers of oil, is planning to build the world's first carbon-neutral city.

But in fact, it makes a lot of financial sense. The 3.7-square-mile city, called Masdar, will cut its electricity bill by harnessing wind, solar, and geothermal energy, while a total ban on cars within city walls should reduce the long-term health costs associated with smog.

Masdar will be filled with shaded streets to encourage walking. A solar-powered transit system will take you to the airport.
(HT: Gristmill)

The Jujitsu of Geek

Julian has an interesting post up about the different ways in which people can 'own' labels originally directed at them as insults. He differentiates between ironic acceptance ("See how little bothered we are by the petty schoolyard taunt you've tried to apply to us," applied in cases where there's no risk that the label will be interpreted as literally true) and defiant appropriation ("Damn right we are -- get used to it," applied as spin where the Label is factually true). As noted, insults like 'bigot' are unlikely to be adopted through either mechanism -- too sensitive for irony, too dangerous to admit in any context.

I'm wondering how 'geek-chic' fits into this paradigm. Some extremely hip technophiles have commandeered 'geek' in what seems to be an ironic way, but I suspect there's more to it. Possibilities:

Ironic: "I am so cool that your insult lacks all credibility, and is humorous."

Defiant: "Yes, I'm a geek, and will eventually have lots of money and hot women (or men). What was your insult, again?"

Pre-emptive: "I am worried that someone, someday might notice that I am a geek underneath my layers of cool, so I will say it first."

Conspicuous consumption: "I am so hip that I can afford the coolness-expense associated with being a geek, and still be more hip than you."

Countersignaling: "I have no need conceal my geek nature, because I am confident that you will eventually find out how cool I am."

06 August 2007

Why research and teaching functions should probably be separated out at the university level.

How we know Einstein maybe wouldn't have made such a great science prof:

You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat.

03 August 2007

Friday time-suck: a different kind of world clock.

The Spirit of Now: a world clock keeping a running tally of things like births, deaths, HIV infections, CO2 emissions, etc. The numbers are not quite real-time, but are continuously updating from various international official sources. Unexpectedly transfixing.

02 August 2007

Star Trek: The Newly Enhanced, But Still Corny, Original Series

Good news for ST enthusiasts: TOS is being given a cosmetic makeover to add better backgrounds and effects. In other words: not every planetary surface will bear a striking resemblance to southern California! But every improvement comes with a cost:

Remastering the show has also given every scene a crisper, more vibrant look that will thrive in the brave new HDTV world, although there is a downside: Enhanced visual information renders a too-much-information view of Capt. Kirk's ripped-shirt torso and confirms his nondigitally enhanced pate.
I need a DVR.

Do not get Tyler Cowen's book for free

Tyler Cowen's new book is out today: Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist. He makes the following offer via Marginal Revolution: write him a paragraph explaining why you should get the book from him, for free. Tyler will mail free copies of the book to the top 15 commenters who meet his requirements. Some of the commenters articulate very clever reasons why they should receive the book for free, and some are less clever. Here is what I posted, in the spirit of yesterday's MGTW post on avoiding the accumulation of stuff:


You should definitely not send me your book, especially for free. Here's why: I will eventually read it via the local library, which is how I read all books. I never buy them, except for favorite novels and small paperbacks suitable for beach reading. Plus, decision theory seems to show that after any transaction involving exchange of money for goods/services, the purchaser places less value on a purchase that was cheap or free than on one that was expensive, and will be less likely to use/wear/read it. In other words, giving your book to anyone who would have read it anyway is a net loss -- they will undervalue it just because they got it cheap. You should only give it to people who already dislike it, if you must give it away. So please do not send it to me; I will be forced to return it so as not to lower my value estimate of what's in it.

01 August 2007

Getting un-stuffed

Paul Graham has an enjoyable short essay up on stuff: why we accumulate it, why it's bad for us, what to do with it, etc. A couple choice bits:

Stuff has gotten a lot cheaper, but our attitudes toward it haven't changed correspondingly. We overvalue stuff.That was a big problem for me when I had no money. I felt poor, and stuff seemed valuable, so almost instinctively I accumulated it. [...]

I've now stopped accumulating stuff. [...] I'm not claiming this is because I've achieved some kind of zenlike detachment from material things. I'm talking about something more mundane. A historical change has taken place, and I've now realized it. Stuff used to be valuable, and now it's not.

In industrialized countries the same thing happened with food in the middle of the twentieth century. As food got cheaper (or we got richer; they're indistinguishable), eating too much started to be a bigger danger than eating too little. We've now reached that point with stuff.
This is true, obviously, but hard to implement. Back when postmodernism was cool, Don DeLillo wrote this about shopping:

I shopped with reckless abandon. I shopped for immediate needs and distant contingencies. I shopped for its own sake, looking and touching, inspecting merchandise I had no intention of buying, then buying it. I sent clerks into their fabric books and pattern books to search for elusive designs. I began to grow in value and self-regard. I filled myself out, found new aspects of myself, located a person I'd forgotten existed. [...] The more money I spent, the less important it seemed. I was bigger than these sums. These sums poured off my skin like so much rain. These sums in fact came back to me in the form of existential credit. I felt expansive...
(For the full passage, which is exquisite, go here. Or better yet, read the book.)

I myself have moved almost once a year since leaving home for college, which is an excellent way to avoid accumulating stuff. Some other, less disruptive ways to get rid of stuff:

  • Yard/garage sales -- for those with way too much random stuff, accumulated by living too long in the same house.

  • Ebay, for valuable and/or easily shipped stuff, and craigslist, for stuff that is marginally valuable, or is easiest to sell locally.

  • Salvation Army, Goodwill, Vietnam Veterans of America -- for large items and large amounts of stuff that need to be picked up.

  • Freecycle -- for individual items that aren't quite valuable enough to sell, but still might be useful to someone, somewhere.

Checking the mood of the internet.

Via Mind Hacks, I found We Feel Fine, a site that collects feelings (statements from bloggers about how they're feeling) from the internet and catalogues them. I've only fooled around with the interface a little, but there are many options for looking at the data in interesting ways -- by location, weather, gender, age, type of feeling, and so on.

The methodology: The data collection engine searches blogs for sentences containing 'I feel' or 'I am feeling,' locates the full sentence and saves it. Then it checks the sentence for any of its 5,000 'feelings,' adjectives and adverbs entered in by the developers. If there's a match, the engine looks in the blog's profile to find out the location, age, and gender of the 'feeler;' it also uses the location data to look up current weather conditions. According to the site, the engine acquires between 15,000 and 20,000 feelings each day.

These basic, raw feelings create the first view of the data, but there are several others which model various statistics about the feelings. As of now, the mood here in Boulder is pretty good, to which I add the following statement: I feel zestful. I wonder if that's in their 5,000 pre-approved feelings?

30 July 2007

Why 'obesity is contagious' is contagious.

Russell Roberts explains what the heck goes on with the whole 'obesity is contagious' news item, which has itself been spreading pretty infectiously:

You see, the more it's LIKE a virus, the more increasing obesity is like an epidemic rather than a failure of personal responsibility or merely a pleasant experience, say, of eating more ice cream and being a little less trim. The more it is like a virus, the less it is a personal choice, the more justified is government involvement on "public health" grounds.
A ha, as they say.

Related: earlier this month, Seattle's King County banned trans fats in restaurants, joining New York City, Philadelphia, Brookline, MA and Montgomery County, MD. California, which surprisingly did NOT lead the way this time, is catching up. Many national chains are also going trans-fat free, some in response to the bans, some who started reformulating several years ago to get ahead of the trend. Incidentally, I think I've tried several versions of Starbucks' trans-fat-free Maple Oat Nut scone (my favorite breakfast junk food), and it is not good, not good at all. They're going to have to do better. My grandparents routinely tell me that I don't know what real tomatoes (cucumbers, apples, corn, etc.) taste like, now that they're grown so efficiently for pest resistance and cross-country shipping. I will be saying this to my grandchildren about donuts, I suspect.

A worthy public service project

Thanks to Marginal Revolution for the pointer to Biologists Helping Bookstores ("Reshelving pseudo-scientific nonsense since 2007"):

It is my mission to correctly re-shelve books to the appropriate section of the bookstore.

For example, "Darwin's Black Box", the famous pseudo-science book by the non-evolutionary non-scientist Michael Behe, should not be in the "Evolutionary Biology" section, but something more appropriate, such as "New Age", "Religion", "Christianity", or even "Fiction". You get the idea.

Although I am not, by training, a scientist, I nevertheless accept the author's invitation to join in on this potentially powerful campaign. Colorado bookstores, red alert! Another great candidate for recategorization: neuroscience books written by self-help authors.

The (Web) Search for Spock

An InformationWeek article describes Spock.com (currently in beta testing), which allows users to search for profiles compiled out of public information, vote on how accurate the information is, and manage the accuracy of their own profiles. The site is also running a contest (the 'Spock Challenge') to find solutions to one of its major problems, teaching a search algorithm how to correctly tag new information when people share the same name.

The site is currently by invite only, so while I'm waiting for mine, let me just say this: the creators claim that they named the site Spock for its consumer recognizability factor, and that it stands for Single Point of Contact and Knowledge. To which I say: Yeah, right. As a long-time Star Trek enthusiast, I'm comfortable admitting that I've had a crush on Mr. Spock since high school, and I find it hard to believe that the 'patron saint of computer science' had nothing to do with the naming of the company.

Will report back on Spock's search capabilities soon. In the meantime, here's my favorite sentence in the IW article:

"In the absence of privacy, control is the next best thing, and Spock stands out for giving its users a least a little say over how they and others get represented online."
Italics added -- I'm thinking the company could get this printed on a T-shirt, with an image of Spock looking severe.

27 July 2007

One of the few interesting things in Southern California that has not yet been turned into a theme park.

Hiked today with friend Leslie through Rustic Canyon, in the hills above L.A., to check out a WWII era commune hidden down in the bottom of the canyon. I will defer to this Derelict Urban Structures blog post for the detailed history, but to sum up, a wealthy heiress was persuaded by her fiance, a German Nazi official, to build a self-sufficient community that would survive a potential Nazi attack on America (after the inevitable victory in Europe, naturally). The commune cost about $4M to build and fortify, and featured buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. In Los Angeles, if you're going to do it at all, better to do it right, including trendy architecture.

We hiked up some paved and dirt roads until we found the first staircase leading steeply down to the canyon floor. The first building we encountered was the old concrete generator house, now artfully decorated by layers of graffiti. The effect was pretty cool, but it was exactly the kind of place I wouldn't want to be after dark, when it must surely serve as a hangout for tougher types than me.

We came upon a burnt-out and twisted steel building which probably had some living quarters (and a bathroom), and then a steel and wood barn-type building, fenced off and quite unsafe looking. Most of the living areas were probably wood structures, destroyed by fires; at least, we didn't see any foundations, etc. The path was paved with asphalt at one point and was mostly still intact, though overgrown with lots of poison oak. The road and staircase network is extensive (it was designed for security patrols), but we successfully found the main road/path leading back up to the massive metal and stone gates fronting onto the main canyon road. What a good way of staying inconspicuous! We also saw a concrete cistern and another round steel structure, maybe for storing gas?

The group was shut down after about a year, after reports of gunfire and military drills. (An art professor later bought the land to use as a commune for artists, until it was gutted by fire in the 70's.) It was a fantastic hike, more interesting than most. Also, it reminded me of hiking in the Colorado mountains, except that every so often we'd feel a sea breeze, and catch a view of the beach between the hills. A few questions I have about the commune:

1. Were these people Nazi sympathizers, waiting for the liberation of America? Or were they simply survivalists, believing that WWII would eventually reach America, and hoping to avoid the chaos?

2. Were they trying to fly under the radar, or were they open about their plans? The big gate and the military drills would seem to give it away a bit.

3. How many people lived there? The canyon is totally dry except during spring, and many buildings were probably destroyed in fires, so it's hard to know if we're talking about a handful, as some histories suggest, or up to forty families, as others claim?

24 July 2007

Autism: Probably not caused by vaccines, mercury, television, or unaffectionate mothers.

Via Nobel Intent, a group of autism researchers has developed a genetic model of autism that comes pretty close to predicting the incidence rates that we actually observe in reality. Many researchers have aspired to this and failed, using single-mode genetic models, but this new study finds that introducing a few very specific assumptions about the genetic character of autism helps:

1. Familial susceptibility to autism is a dominant trait, with offspring of autistic parents having a 50% chance of inheriting it. (Autism is known to be passed on from observably autistic parents.)

2. But, while almost all males who inherit the susceptibility for autism develop the disorder, only about 30% of females with this inheritance do. (Boys are much, much more likely to be autistic than girls, autistic parents or not.)

3. Mutations associated with susceptibility to autism are common in the general population. (Females are very likely to act as 'non-symptomatic' carriers, so when autistic children appear in families with no previous signs of autism, they will often be in sudden clusters (rather than being interspersed randomly). Older parents are more likely to have an autistic child, as older germ cells = higher mutation rate.)

Very interesting stuff, and beats the heck out of the timeworn but still common belief that autism is caused by childhood vaccines. For other hypothesized causes, see post title.

23 July 2007

Interlude on the beach

Yesterday my hosts and I went to the beach to watch a fire-spinning demonstration. We went around 6, unaware that once the day crowds leave, this particular beach becomes a gathering place for lots and lots of tough guys, along with their fancy cars and good-looking women. Our group spotted an unoccupied firepit and set up camp; immediately several rather intimidating delegates from the parking-lot-wide tailgate party advanced upon us, gesticulating wildly until they got into shouting range. 'That's our firepit,' they announced. 'But there was no one near it,' we said. The situation seemed tense, and some members of our group were in favor of moving on to a less controversial cooking spot, but through continued negotiations we agreed that our party would use the firepit for cooking until dark, at which point we would go looking for our fire-spinning friends, and the tailgate group would take over the area for their bonfire. Hurray for the non-zero-sum thinking displayed by my friend Leslie, the chief negotiator on our side!

Once these formalities were out of the way, we were besieged by all of the kids in the tailgate group, who wanted to know how come we were cooking in a firepit instead of on grills and portable deep fryers. They also wanted to look over our food supplies, inspect and eventually admire our attire, and show us their sand crabs in paper cups. After we finished up with our cooking, we approached the tailgaters to compliment their decorated cars and take our leave; they invited us to hang out at their bonfire and party with them. We had to regretfully decline, although Leslie handed out some business cards; the little girls in particular were sad to see us go. Overall it was a very pleasant beach picnic, although we never were able to successfully meet up with the fire-spinners.

20 July 2007

Hey, you can't say that on television!

In an op-ed Sunday, cognitive scientist Steven Pinker lists 'dangerous ideas,' ideas that seem to be widely perceived as too dangerous to even talk about. (HT: H&R.) A few of the taboo topics I found most interesting:

Do women, on average, have a different profile of aptitudes and emotions than men?

Did Native Americans engage in genocide and despoil the landscape?

Do African-American men have higher levels of testosterone, on average, than white

Is morality just a product of the evolution of our brains, with no inherent reality?

Do parents have any effect on the character or intelligence of their children?

Pinker only offers two mechanisms by which certain ideas become 'too dangerous': slippery-slope thinking and us-them polarization. It seems to me that there must be some more interesting reasons why this happens around certain ideas -- maybe some evolutionary psychology is in order here? In fact, if your answer to the fourth question above is Yes, then a nice circularity emerges: our evolutionarily-designed moral feelings might very well dictate that certain moral questions are never to be considered or talked about. On the other hand, some of the taboo subjects seem to be loaded on a more obvious political basis -- there are perfectly understandable political reasons why no one wants to say that black men have higher testosterone levels than white men.

I think the perception that discussion of these ideas is widely condemned depends an awful lot on who you spend your time talking with. There are some people, mostly friends, to whom I wouldn't hesitate to pose any one of these questions, because interesting debate would ensue. There are some people, mostly family, in whose company I would never bring these subjects up, at all, ever, because for them it is never okay to talk about this stuff. However, I'm sometimes caught by surprise when I learn which group someone fits into -- I have family members, by all appearances quite conservative, who are more than willing to entertain some of these 'dangerous ideas' in a pretty matter-of-fact way, and I have friends who certainly seem to be socially progressive and scientifically minded, but who reject some of these possibilities out of hand, with a superciliously raised eyebrow.

Friday time-suck: tell me what you see.

Check out this incredibly cool blog post over at Neurophilosophy on how the brain interprets 'ambiguous' images -- images that are capable of more than one interpretation, and therefore cause the brain to flip-flop back and forth, perceptually. I could include here the mind-bending sample image, but wouldn't want to deprive you of the opportunity to read the whole thing.

Update: I just saw Voltaire in the Dali painting -- whoa!

17 July 2007

Che Guevara was a murderer and your t-shirt is not cool

The facebook group (from which I borrowed the title of this post).

The casualty list.

A list of celebs sporting Che shirts.

Okay, so it's clear that teenagers, as part of their ongoing search for an identity, require hip subversive icons. I propose having some shirts printed up in the same revo-chic style, using lesser known freedom fighters -- how about Guy Fawkes? Post-"V for Vendetta," he's acquired a certain hipness, but his image lacks Che's romantic appeal... maybe some photoshop work to provide him with that tortured, windblown look?

13 July 2007

Irresistable force, meet immovable object.

The WSJ says:

In neighborhoods across the country, there's a battle brewing: the environmentalists vs. the aesthetes.

As "green"-minded homeowners move to put in new energy-efficient windows, solar panels and light-reflecting roofs, they are bumping up against neighbors and local boards that object, saying the additions defy historic-district regulations, will look ugly or damage property values.
I have a front-row seat for this: Boulder, always a nexus of green policy, and its bedroom communities are starting to brush up against Denver's upper-middle-class northern suburbs, consisting entirely of covenant-controlled neighborhoods. (HT: TigerHawk.)

On capitalism and commerce-free zones

Julian Sanchez today:

It is perfectly coherent to be a thoroughgoing free-marketeer, to appreciate how deftly the price system harnessed the self-love of thousands of individuals, from lumberjacks and miners to carpenters and plumbers, in order to produce your local church—and yet still prefer that Starbucks refrain from opening up shop in the narthex. Having bought prophylactics at the corner deli in the evening does not forbid you from taking umbrage if your lover leaves a fifty on the nightstand the following morning. The most ardent capitalist will want a few spaces where she can feel confident that her neighbor's friendliness is not the opening gambit in a pitch to sell her a T-shirt, even if she was happy to buy the one she's wearing.
This is exactly right, except that an awful lot of people who describe themselves as anti-capitalist or anti-corporate miss this point completely. It seems to be hard for these types to get that, by the miracle of private or quasi private (co-op) property, you can take what benefits you choose from commerce even while excluding unwanted commercial interactions from certain spheres.

Full post here, on why Burning Man attendees who are frustrated that some companies will get to exhibit new green technologies this year have a point.

Campus police blow off threats to CU biology professors

The situation: the University of Colorado biology department has been receiving threats from a middle-eastern religious fundamentalist for teaching evolutionary theory. One letter reads, "EBIO (evolutionary biology) professors are terrorists against America and intellectual and spiritual child abusers of their young and impressionable students..." and an email sent today says that "every true Christian should be ready and willing to take up arms to kill the enemies of Christian society.”

Although they've identified a suspect, the campus police dismiss the seriousness of the threats; here's CU police commander Brad Wiesley: "Just because you feel threatened, it's not necessarily a crime. It's not directed against a specific person, John and Jane Doe. It's more along a line of ideology - if you believe this, we think you're wrong, kind of thing.”

The suspect is an Israeli Christian fundamentalist -- is it cynical to suggest that if he were a middle-eastern Islamic fundamentalist, trying to mobilize religious zealots against an American university, the response would probably be a bit different?

12 July 2007

As long as they're born in America, right, Tom?

Tancredo today at the NAACP presidential forum:

“We may not agree on all issues, but we do have a very common cause – that the playing field is level for everyone, and the gates of opportunity are open for all.”

On mammoths

A well-preserved baby mammoth, my favorite of all extinct species, was found recently in Siberia. Reasons I like mammoths:

1. Like me, they thrived in cold environments, but not so much in snow.

2. They were the subject of one of the most famous pop-science hoaxes.

3. The ancestors of modern elephants diverged from mammoths around the same time humans and chimps split off from their common ancestor.

4. According to several web sources, "mammoth" comes from old Russian "mammut" meaning something like "earth mole." Evidently Estonian farmers who found the bones thought they belonged to giant burrowing animals that died on contact with the light.

5. If mammoths are like their elephant relations, they spent about 16 hours a day looking for food, eating food, giving each other food, fighting over who gets the food, moving to where more food is, and so on. Also like me!

Can we revoke this guy's Colorado citizenship or something?

Colorado's Tom Tancredo in the news again:

Republican presidential candidate Tom Tancredo knows what he wants. "Oh boy, I'd love a plane," Tancredo said. It's not that the Colorado congressman is enamored with flying. In fact, he's spent enough time waiting to board planes to last a lifetime. And that's the problem.
Tancredo, like the other lesser-known presidential candidates, must make his way to Iowa and other campaign stops by flying commercially. While the leading candidates fly on charter or corporate jets, the rest of the field deals with delays along with other travelers [...].

"It can be very challenging," Tancredo said. "Just from a logistical standpoint it's a nightmare."
A shame that something as trivial as a total lack of serious campaign funding can interfere with the vital business of running for president.

Oh, and Tancredo also introduced today the Optimizing Visa Entry Rules and Demanding Uniformed Enforcement (OVERDUE) Immigration Bill. Are there consultants who specialize in coming up with the all-important cute acronyms?

Early Friday time suck: do your part to organize the universe.

Following the trend of using human brains to do visual classification work that is easy for us, hard for computers, GalaxyZoo.org uses web surfers to classify the million galaxies being photographed by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Procrastinators, follow me!

John Mackey, I want to give you a break, but c'mon...

More online adventures with Whole Foods' CEO John Mackey:

The chief executive of Whole Foods Market Inc. wrote anonymous online attacks against a smaller rival and questioned why anyone would buy its stock, before Whole Foods announced an offer to buy the other company this year.

The postings on Internet financial forums, made under the name "rahodeb," said Boulder-based Wild Oats Markets Inc.'s stock was overpriced. The statements predicted the company would fall into bankruptcy and then be sold after its stock fell below $5 per share.

The company acknowledged that the postings by "rahodeb" were written by CEO John Mackey.

One posting, from January 2005, questioned why anyone would buy shares of Wild Oats at their price then of about $8 each, The Wall Street Journal reported. "Would Whole Foods buy (Wild Oats)? Almost surely not at current prices," rahodeb wrote. "What would they gain? (Their) locations are too small."

Rahodeb also said Wild Oats' management "clearly doesn't know what it is doing." The company, he wrote, "has no value and no future."

I was more or less in sympathy with Mackey's anti-FTC blog rant, but this is awfully silly. I'm curious to know how somebody dug this up, though.

Colorado Highlights from 2006 State Energy Efficiency Scorecard

Overall, Colorado ranked 15th nationally in energy efficiency policies, according to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. (PDF here; free registration required to view the full report.) Score breakdown (points/possible points):

Spending on Utility and Public Benefits Energy Efficiency Programs: 1.5/15
Energy Efficiency Resource Standards (EERS): 5/5
Combined Heat and Power (CHP): 3/5
Building Energy Codes: 3/5
Transportation Policies: 0/5
Appliance and Equipment Efficiency Standards: 0/5
Tax Incentives: 1/3
State Lead by Example and Research & Development: 2/3
Total score: 15/44

The three highest ranking states, with scores of 33, were California, Connecticut, and Vermont.

11 July 2007

Lest we bloggers forget how good we have it:

Writers were as desperate to get their work published in medieval times as they are now. As books were exclusively hand-written until the invention of the printing press around the middle of the 15th century, publication sometimes meant reading your text aloud to a public that was lavishly entertained - at your expense.

10 July 2007

Starbucks and secret pricing

Whoa! Via Katherine, my favorite Hit & Run-er, behold the secret Starbucks 'short cappuccino':

Here's a little secret that Starbucks doesn't want you to know: They will serve you a better, stronger cappuccino if you want one, and they will charge you less for it. Ask for it in any Starbucks and the barista will comply without batting an eye. The puzzle is to work out why.

[The short cappuccino] is the Starbucks way of sidestepping a painful dilemma over how high to set prices. Price too low and the margins disappear; too high and the customers do. Any business that is able to charge one price to price-sensitive customers and a higher price to the rest will avoid some of that awkward trade-off.

The difficulty is that if some of your products are cheap, you may lose money from customers who would willingly have paid more. So, businesses try to discourage their more lavish customers from trading down by making their cheap products look or sound unattractive, or, in the case of Starbucks, making the cheap product invisible.

A firm in a perfectly competitive market would suffer if it sabotaged its cheapest products because rivals would jump at the opportunity to steal alienated customers. Starbucks, with its coffee supremacy, can afford this kind of price discrimination, thanks to loyal, or just plain lazy, customers.
First of all, how did I miss this crucial bit of information, being a more-than-occasional Starbucks consumer? Second, what's the problem here? The author of the above analysis faults SB for making this special bargain 'available only to those customers who face the uncertainty and embarrassment of having to request it specifically.' Isn't this true for basically every type of service profession, and many types of goods? Although America has never really taken to the haggling concept, it's effective for getting better deals on (just from personal experience) car repair, phone service, clothing, printing costs, and airline tickets. Not one of these businesses advertises the fact that lower prices are available for the asking. I understand that for right now, Starbucks = Evil Corporate America, but is this really that different from other, popularly accepted forms of price discrimination?

Attention childhood science fair geeks:

I am so into this. I knew about it once, but forgot, and then Wired reminded me.

That darned scientific consensus again...

From Rob Day's Always On post: 'Update on the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics... it still applies.'

What's clear is that all the hyperbole surrounding "free energy" and the like isn't helping the adoption of any such efficiency-improvement technologies. It's making potential customers even more skeptical, and holding back adoption for these and any other similar-sounding approaches. And thus, VCs are forced to consider the Steorns of the world when they see a new electric motor concept promising significant gains...

[The examples mentioned in the post] serve as good illustrations of the kinds of reputation-endangering activities out there in the broader world of cleantech that VCs are having to pay attention to. Because serious or not, when such overly-aggressive claims are put out there it competes with more sober claims being made by VC-backed startups. And if and when these companies fall flat on their face, it could hurt overall market adoption of next generation technologies, making it that much more difficult for VC-backed startups to get traction in the marketplace.

I get that companies working on alternative energy don't want to be embarrassed or discredited by companies doing work in 'silly' areas, and zero-point energy is almost universally accepted as a silly area, except by those who think it will solve our energy problems forever. What's the big deal, though? There have been snake-oil salesmen before, and there have been inventions that, by respected scientific consensus, were completely impossible until they turned out to work. Why not let the market sort things out here, since scientific consensus invariably operates as a repressive force where inventions are concerned?

Libertarian smackdown, 20th century fiction version: Galt v. Frodo

Two of my favorite things, together at last! Via Reason Hit & Run, Juliusz Jablecki contrasts the respective masterpieces of J.R.R. Tolkien and Ayn Rand, and wonders which novel presents the truer libertarian vision. The essay focuses in on one major difference: the answer to the question of how to fight the system. Rand, of course, disliked statism and went after communism with a vengeance every chance she got, but Jablecki correctly notes that "in Atlas Shrugged [...] it is hard not to notice that somebody drives the world, maintains the reality in order, and without him everything would plunge into chaos." In Middle-Earth, on the other hand, there's no big plan for the world, no one running things, no unified political consciousness, no system. Rand, despite her big talk about statism, seems determined to have her characters implement a top-down solution, a solution based on crashing and then rebooting society around the most productive, creative members. Tolkien's solutions to Middle-Earth problems are much smaller, more individualistic, bottom-up.

I'm on board with this analysis as far as it goes, but it seems to overlook some important questions about motivation. Hobbits, presented by Jablecki as the ideal small-libertarians, content to cultivate their gardens, can only be moved to action by powerful wizards, who themselves have some decidedly unlibertarian tendencies -- plans for everyone, and the willingness to intimidate others into following along. It's worth remembering that Tolkien frequently described the hobbits as child-like, not just in stature but in moral character: simple, generous, fun-loving, innocent, ignorant of the great evils afoot in the world. The part of the world where hobbits live is protected by the aforementioned powerful wizards, for the purpose of preserving this child-like nature. This seems to be not a great model for libertarians in the 21st century, or any century, really.

Jablecki also criticizes Rand's tendency to anoint 'supermen' among her characters, people who are just more productive, more creative, more intelligent. I think this is a reasonable criticism, especially since for many of Rand's characters (especially women), philosophy seems to be more or less replaced by hero worship. But Tolkien's world, too, is populated by those who seem to motivate others by virtue of their power or personal charisma, rather than by reasoned persuasion. Mostly these are wizards and elves, endowed with extraordinary gifts, but sometimes they are humans endowed with extraordinary destinies. Interestingly, these more-than-humans always have ancestry tracing back to elves somewhere along the line. There's a strong element of hereditary destiny and elitism running through Tolkien, which for me has always overpowered the more parochial, small-libertarian hobbit lifestyle.

06 July 2007

Exploding the energy myths of the 20th century

From a Gristmill guest blog from the Policy Director at Climate Solutions, on assumptions about energy that are (finally) being blown out of the water:

"Cheap" gas: The gig is already up. But c'mon, it was a lie anyway. The price at the pump is a small fraction of the true cost of gas -- in dollars, blood, and climate disruption. Expensive gas is just the ugly truth about fossil fuel addiction: it's unaffordable.
The whole post is worth reading, both for its nicely non-hysterical take on the (environmental and economic) necessity of moving away from fossil fuels, and for its discussion of why nuclear power ought to be back on the table as a potential renewable power source.

05 July 2007

I'd like to think I'm more of a 'chartreuse.'

Reason Hit & Run gives a pointer to this article from the New York Times covering the 'light green' movement, middle- and upperclass shoppers who have transformed green consumerism from weird, hippie stuff into luxury status symbol. The article is filled with quotable soundbites, but here's my favorite, from environmentalist blogger Chip Giller:

“Over even the last couple of months, there is more concern growing within the traditional camp about the Cosmo-izing of the green movement — ‘55 great ways to look eco-sexy,’ ” he said. “Among traditional greens, there is concern that too much of the population thinks there’s an easy way out.”

I understand the concern being expressed in the article, at least insofar as it reflects a genuine worry that people will buy more and more stuff because it's eco-friendly, the way that some people eat more and more cookies because they're fat-free and thus 'healthy.' Buying more and more stuff, even if it's 'healthy' by comparison, can't be part of an overall plan to reduce waste and energy costs.

But in reality, buying green does make a difference (a very small one) and is often the beginning of a lifestyle transformation, so one would think that its increasing trendiness should be celebrated by all as a promising start. I get the impression here that the real gripe among hard-core environmentalists is that they don't want to lose their unique status. In many social circles, the movement created a 'green chic' for those who were insightful and educated enough to adopt early; these people do NOT want to be lumped in with the next-wave imitators.

Giller also mentions the 'culture of self-abnegation' that goes along with traditional environmentalism -- for this branch of the movement, if it doesn't hurt, you're not doing it right. If you've sacrificed a lot in the belief that it was required by environmental consciousness, you might very well want to exclude from the movement those who buy their way in via a $104,000 Lexus hybrid. What's going to be very frustrating for this latter group of 'give-till-it-hurts' environmentalists: the way of the future will almost certainly be ecologically responsible consumption without any appreciable decline in the standard of living we've come to know and love. Changes, yes, but barring a major environmental disaster, probably not of the belt-tightening, self-denying type glorified by the early green movement; most Americans will, in fact, get to take the 'easy way out': shifting gradually to an eco-friendly lifestyle as it becomes cheaper, simpler, and trendier to do so.

Bio science fiction

From Nature: science fiction writers interviewed about why sci-fi tends to focus on technologies from the physical sciences, and why the genre is good for exploring tough questions in (bio)science ethics. In my case, they're preaching to the choir: in college, I organized an entire philosophy seminar course around Is Data Human? The Metaphysics of Star Trek. Sure, the in-class dialogue sounded a little silly, but I'm pretty sure that class was where I learned how to actually think about philosophical issues (as opposed to how to read and interpret philosophy texts).

03 July 2007

Life: a Newtonian property of molecules?

Last week's Nature editorial tries to look on the bright side regarding 'cut and paste' manipulation of genes on a cellular level:

Synthetic biology's view of life as a molecular process lacking moral thresholds at the level of the cell is a powerful one. And it can and perhaps should be invoked to challenge characterizations of life that are sometimes used to defend religious dogma about the embryo. If this view undermines the notion that a 'divine spark' abruptly gives value to a fertilized egg — recognizing as it does that the formation of a new being is gradual, contingent and precarious — then the role of the term 'life' in that debate might acquire the ambiguity that it has always warranted.
The interesting bit of information at the heart of the editorial is that, contrary to what common sense would tell us, it's actually kind of difficult to find a bright-line test for aliveness at the cellular level. It's true, of course, that this ought to be a problem for those who believe that human life starts at conception. But advocates of the 'divine spark' position have had no problem resisting decades of data about fetal development indicating that, for whatever uniquely 'human' qualities one might define as central to the question, development of these qualities is always "gradual, contingent and precarious." It's unlikely that those committed to belief in the 'spark' will be troubled much by the additional complexity of deciding when a bundle of cells can properly be called 'alive.'

On a larger level, it seems that synthetic biology is positioned to do for the concept of 'life' what quantum mechanics did for the concept of 'physical reality.' Just as QM tells us that, way down on the subatomic level, physical reality breaks down into a set of wave functions and probabilities that just looks like the Newtonian world we think we inhabit, synthetic biology suggests that way down on a cellular level, life breaks down into a series of looped molecular processes that just looks like a 'spark of life.' Results: no bright-line test to distinguish matter from energy, or life from not-life. Which is fine and good, and fun to contemplate, but when was the last time you heard someone outside of a physics lab describing the world in terms of wave functions? Most non-physicist people, even people who accept the mathematical inevitability of QM, still perform their day-to-day thinking in terms of a classically physical universe, because it makes sense on the human scale. What's more, they believe in the physical universe, no matter what physics has to say. Similarly, even as people other than molecular biologists come to understand and accept a non-vitalistic, complexity-oriented view of life, it doesn't seem likely to become a big part of the public debate over things like abortion; it simply fails to fit into the human-scaled belief structure that almost all of us bring with us into ethics discussions.

29 June 2007

Most fun I had reading today:

We live in a very special time in the evolution of the universe: the time at which we can observationally verify that we live in a very special time in the evolution of the universe.

Context: A soon-to-be published paper, The Return of a Static Universe and the End of Cosmology (via Ars Technica). The basic idea here is that as the universe continues to expand, and things get further apart, and light dopplers beyond our detection abilities, the only things we'll be able to see will be our local neighborhood of galaxies, still bound together by 'gravitational' forces. For related reasons, the wavelength-shifted cosmic background radiation will have diminished, and will be indistinguishable from interstellar noise. Thus, the perceivable universe at this point (100 billion years from now) will look a lot like what we could see before we learned to measure Hubble expansion and learned about the Big Bang in the first place. So, if a new universe-pondering species were to come of age in this era, they'd never find out that their galaxy cluster wasn't the entire universe.

As a non-physicist, I think this is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it's curious to think that if anyone was around 100 billion years ago, the universe probably made much more sense to them, since the evidence was that much less attenuated. Second, it seems to violate the rule that information is always preserved in physical interactions -- since the information is still there, in the form of propagating waves of light, it seems like it ought to be possible to detect it somehow, even if our current detection techniques aren't up to the challenge. But to reiterate, not a physicist, so feel free to correct this perception.

28 June 2007

Colorado on the nano map

This is a nifty interactive map from the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies indicating emerging nanotech hotspots; Denver is listed as one of 12 Nano Metros with over 15 institutions working in this sector (companies, research centers, research universities). Currently the Colorado map is heavy on materials and electronics, with only one medical nanotech company listed, but would imagine we'll see that change in the next several years or so.

27 June 2007

Economics vs. applied ethics

Going on my ever-longer reading list: Diane Coyle's The Soulful Science: What Economists Really Do and Why It Matters. (Reviewed this month in Nature.) I confess to wondering about this a lot lately after reading a few trendy new economics books -- in particular, Steven Landsburg's More Sex is Safer Sex: The Unconventional Wisdom of Economics. It's nice that economists want to extend their paradigm beyond the traditional goods-and-services arena, but the same language that sounds reasonable and useful to me in that arena sounds downright clueless when trying to explain how people make (or ought to make) other, more private decisions (when and with whom to have sex, e.g., borrowing from Landsburg's titular example).

Perhaps this book will turn me around -- I don't want to dislike economics, or the way economists talk about decision-making in ethically-charged situations. What I want is for economics-style thinking to provide some useful information about making decisions on the individual level, where all ethics happens. Maybe this is beyond what economists can legitimately tackle -- we'll see.

26 June 2007

Whole Foods: Slicing up the natural foods market

Via Cafe Hayek, Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman comes out with the same argument Whole Foods CEO John Mackey makes:

Organic food consumers would not be the suffering captives of this new company. Every grocery store has a raft of organic offerings, and chains from Wal-Mart to Trader Joe's are fighting to get their share of sales. If the bigger Whole Foods tries price-gouging, customers can easily find other sources for what they want - from farmers markets to online suppliers.

The key government error is defining the market as a narrow sector isolated from other sectors that provide reasonable substitutes.

Yup. For virtually any company, one can define its market so narrowly that any merger would sharply inhibit competition (FTC's position here), or so broadly that no merger could meaningfully decrease competition (Mackey's position). As a libertarian, I tend to default to the latter position except in cases of genuine -- often government-induced -- monopoly (and its equally mischievous but oft-overlooked cousin, monopsony). I realize there are somewhat persuasive arguments for FTC intervention in markets that, for one reason or another, closely approximate these two conditions, but the booming natural foods industry just doesn't seem like a good candidate.

Council of Europe on creationism and human rights

Excerpts from the Council of Europe's draft resolution "The Dangers of Creationism in Education":

The Parliamentary Assembly is worried about the possible ill-effects of the spread of creationist theories within our education systems and about the consequences for our democracies. If we are not careful, creationism could become a threat to human rights, which are a key concern of the Council of Europe. [...]

There is a real risk of a serious confusion being introduced into our children’s minds between what has to do with convictions, beliefs and ideals and what has to do with science, and of the advent of an “all things are equal” attitude, which may seem appealing and tolerant but is actually disastrous. [...]

The war on the theory of evolution and on its proponents most often originates in forms of religious extremism which are closely allied to extreme right-wing political movements. The creationist movements possess real political power. The fact of the matter, and this has been exposed on several occasions, is that the advocates of strict creationism are out to replace democracy by theocracy.

The Council has no binding authority, but considerable influence around the subject of human rights (hence the presentation of creationism as a potential threat to basic human rights via the mechanism of 'replacing democracy with theocracy.') The resolution goes on to urge educators to teach creationism as an alternative religious theory if necessary, but never alongside evolution as scientific theory. The whole thing was, naturally, sent back to committee for further retooling to make the language a bit less hysterical. (Incidentally, the resolution claims that post-Darwin creationism is more or less an American phenomenon -- can this be true? I suppose so, since the older European religions have pretty much tolerated evolution as something that can fit inside God's creation of the universe, whereas fundamentalist religions popular in America haven't. But what about Islam, which has its fair share of fundamentalist sects? More to come on this, after I do a little research.)

25 June 2007

Colorado biotech is selling, Big Pharma is buying

Colorado biotech blogger (and my work associate) Adam Rubenstein got some press over the weekend in the Denver Post, discussing drug development in Colorado. Aside from his day job, Adam manages the Colorado Life Science Deal Flow and OnBioVC blogs.

Men are from California, women are from New York?

Via Feministing, I discover this map from National Geographic indicating where single men outnumber single women (blue dots) and vice versa (red dots). (Click on the map for a larger version.) Some explanations that have been offered so far:
  1. Sexuality -- Gay couples are counted here as unmarried, and areas that are welcoming to gay culture ought to attract similar numbers of gay men and women. But San Francisco, for example, features a big blue dot, indicating more men than women. Insofar as this has to do with the high concentration of gay men there, where are the gay women who would counterbalance this? Maybe lesbians are less reviled by their original communities, so are less likely to relocate to friendlier towns?
  2. Age -- Cities to which older couples retire should have a (relatively) high concentration of unmarried women, because there are more widows that widowers, because women tend to live longer. This is probably why Miami is a big red dot. But what about Phoenix, the new Miami for active retirement? Perhaps the mortality gender gap is less pronounced because of the emphasis on 'active' retirement there, or perhaps it hasn't been trendy as a retirement spot long enough to see the effects of age in gender distribution.
  3. Career choices -- If men are more willing to relocate for employment than women, and more likely to work in the tech industry, we should expect to see more men in technology growth areas hungry for employees. Denver and the entire West Coast fall into this category. This alone would also account for many of the red dots to the east, but some have hypothesized that many college-educated women are moving east for their careers, and are also likely to postpone marriage.
  4. Immigration -- Areas receiving lots of immigrants should have blue dots, because single men immigrate much more often than single women. This seems to be more or less accurate.
  5. Lifestyle choices -- Are men more likely to move west in search of fun, sun, tech jobs and California girls? Conversely, are women somehow motivated to move away from same?
Off the top of my head, I'm inclined to think that #3 is probably the biggest driver of the general disparity here, with particular cities bucking the trend for various reasons (Miami due to mean population age, for example).

22 June 2007

To protect internet freedom, Google suggests bribery more effective than finger-wagging

The Google Public Policy blog presents a new way to deal with governments imposing significant internet censorship on their populations:

Just as the U.S. government has, in decades past, utilized its trade negotiation powers to advance the interests of other U.S. industries, we would like to see the federal government take to heart the interests of the information industries and treat the elimination of unwarranted censorship as a central objective of our bilateral and multilateral trade agendas in the years to come.

A useful approach, based on the idea that heavy-handed governments will be less offended and more cooperative if this issue is presented as 'trade negotiation' rather than 'human rights.' Google goes out of their way to say that it's not a 'political thing,' it's just about growing the information industry, but for those to care to go a level deeper, it nicely highlights the connection between freely flowing information, freely flowing trade, and increasing well-being.

(FYI, here's a link to the Top Ten Most Censored Countries, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.)

Trent Lott's 'barnyard' policy approach

Via Reason Hit & Run, this bit from Trent Lott unites two of my favorite topics of discussion: immigration fences and goats:

Sen. Minority Whip Trent Lott, R-Miss., was talking to reporters Wednesday about the immigration bill, when he said, "If the answer is 'build a fence' I've got two goats on my place in Mississippi. There ain't no fence big enough, high enough, strong enough, that you can keep those goats in that fence."

"Now people are at least as smart as goats," Lott continued. "Maybe not as agile. Build a fence. We should have a virtual fence. Now one of the ways I keep those goats in the fence is I electrified them. Once they got popped a couple of times they quit trying to jump it."

"I'm not proposing an electrified goat fence," Lott added quickly, "I'm just trying, there's an analogy there."

Given the current hair-trigger climate on immigration issues, it's easy to see why Lott starts worrying towards the end that he might be misunderstood as advocating something even sillier (by a slim margin) than Colorado Rep. and presidential hopeful Tom Tancredo's ideas. But the original news item goes on to report that Lott thinks a fence isn't such a bad idea, using appropriate technology to support it. (There's the analogy he was looking for -- good thing his spokesperson was handy to explain it.)

Dear Ralph: Enough is enough. Love, the voting public.

Ralph Nader is threatening to run for president again. He says it's because the two parties are, again, so much alike as to offer voters no real choice. I think Nader just likes to shake things up, which is not such a bad thing when done in, say, the consumer advocacy arena, but gets tiresome in the political arena, especially if done more than once. From Obsidian Wings yesterday:

Ralph Nader: Please go away. Devote your golden years to some new hobby, like ninepins or philately. If you must involve yourself in politics, find some small municipality whose government is in need of reform, and do the hard work of making things better in small, concrete ways.

I second this. Besides, the Democrat-ish voters who gave Nader 2.7% of the popular vote in 2004, and have been blamed by some for costing Gore the election, probably won't want to dance this time around anyway.

21 June 2007

Congress passes resolution: robots are cool.

From today's Sciam blog post, 'U.S. Congress to give robots a big think':

From Al Gore to Mitt Romney, the ranks of politicians who have been accused of being robots continues to swell--so maybe it was inevitable that, having spent decades with humans who are occasionally confused with machines, Congress would eventually develop an affinity for the real deal.

Mike Doyle (D-PA) and Zach Wamp (R-TN) announced yesterday that they'll hold a Congressional Congress on Robotics some time in September.

In the tradition of libertarian humorist Dave Barry, I need to observe here that Zach Wamp and the Wamp-nots would be a pretty good band name. Also, I was going to make a remark about the event's name, but have confirmed that it's actually a Congressional Caucus, which is marginally less ridiculous. Continuing:

"The increase in the number of emerging and potential applications for robotics is astounding," added Congressman Zach Wamp. "Microsoft Corporation chairman Bill Gates has stated his belief that the robotics industry is developing in much the same way that the computer business did 30 years ago."

Now, I can kind of understand why congressmen, not that knowledgeable about technology, might decide to use Bill Gates as their magic 8-ball; there are probably better prognosticators out there, but Gates has done okay. What I cannot understand at all is why the appropriate response to learning about an exciting tech trend is to have a Congressional Caucus about it. The post quotes Congressman Doyle: "[I]t is important that we create a forum by which Congress can familiarize itself with the impact this first great technology of the 21st century is likely to have on the lives of all Americans." Some tech publications are calling this good news, but it sure sounds like preparation for meddling to me. If I worked in the robotics industy, I'd probably be concerned right about now.

BBC gets in on US immigration debate

This series of interactive billboards, deployed around NYC last year during the launch of BBC World in America, won a U.S. Gold prize for outdoor advertising at the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival this week. People who saw the billboards could text their vote, with results continuously updated on the board. This was my favorite, but other interesting themes included Liberator/Occupier (photo of U.S. troops in Iraq) and Befriend/Beware (Chinese flag).

20 June 2007

Teflon, defeated at last.

Ars Technica carries an excellent story about researchers working on replicating the stickiness of geckos. Paraphrasing the story, these folks have created carbon nanotubes mimicking the fibers on gecko feet that account for their ability to stick to pretty much any surface. Moving along in their research, they learned that actual gecko-feet fibers are arranged in interesting hierarchical arrays, so they tried to simulate this using the nanotubes. Quoting from Ars:

They experimented with creating various bundles of carbon nanotubes, and compared their adhesive properties with both unbundled nanotubes and live geckos (join me, if you will, in imagining the gecko harness involved...).

See, this is exactly why a certain type of little boy or girl goes into science in the first place -- to get grant money for things that, done as a kid, probably got them in trouble. As an added bonus, the bundled nanotubes do, indeed, stick to Teflon, though with only 50% strength.

19 June 2007

Unsealed FTC docs reveal Whole Foods' business strategy, provoke blog rant from CEO

Via the Boulder County Business Report:

Whole Foods Chief Executive Officer John Mackey told his board of directors the purpose of buying Wild Oats would be to "eliminate forever" the chance that a mainstream grocer like Kroger or Safeway would launch "a competing national natural/organic food chain to rival us," according to a document revealed today by the Federal Trade Commission.

"Eliminating them means eliminating this threat forever, or almost forever," Mackey said.

Whole Foods had requested that parts of the company's testimony related to its motive for the Wild Oats buyout be blacked out of the injunction order, but the FTC had the documents unsealed. Mackey promises he'll explain why he asked for the testimony to be kept secret on his blog -- more on this soon. Meanwhile, his post today covers his views on what the FTC has done wrong, so far, in their investigation of the merger. Overall, his issues fall into three categories:

1. The FTC are big bullies (evidenced by burdensome requests for info, deadline extensions, and insistence on having access to all company documents).
2. The FTC failed to collect any comparative pricing data before voting against the merger.
3. The FTC wishes to consider competition only within the special category of 'premium natural and organic supermarkets,' rather than among supermarkets generally.

I don't have much to say about 1 and 2, but here's Mackey on this last point:

A big part of the FTC's argument is their belief that Wild Oats and Whole Foods exist in a very narrowly defined category that they call "premium natural and organic food supermarkets". We aren't sure exactly what other companies the FTC believes exist in this narrowly defined category, perhaps only Earth Fare, with about 10 stores all existing in the southern United States. The "premium natural and organic food supermarket" category therefore apparently consists of only three companies-Whole Foods Market, Wild Oats, and Earth Fare.-and of course the FTC apparently believes that if Whole Foods Market acquires Wild Oats then there would only be two companies left in this category.

Is there actually a separate category of "premium natural and organic supermarkets"? Let me state quite clearly up front that there absolutely is! However, that category actually consists of only one company-Whole Foods Market. We created the category and to-date we are the only company that actually belongs in it.

Mackey wants to say that even though Whole Foods looks like the big bad national chain compared to niche stores like Wild Oats, they're actually just a little fish in the big pond of supermarkets. Which is supported by the newly unsealed testimony, but doesn't look so good for Whole Foods -- it seems like Americans love to support the 'little guy,' as long as he doesn't show any signs of wanting to become the big guy.

Mexicans vs. the enemy within

Jane Galt succinctly refutes the idea that the current massive influx of non-English-speaking, non-assimilating immigrants is a unique threat to our nation. She describes the eventual assimilation of even the most 'foreign' immigrant populations, leaving only their tastiest cultural contributions behind (hello, bagels and falafel!). She also offers a striking counterexample, an immigrant group who successfully maintain separate, non-English-speaking communities and resist Americanization by removing their children from public school after 8th grade, yet are seen as either inspirational or charmingly quirky by most Americans. (Read her post to find out the identity of this group, if it's not clear.)

On my better days, I like to believe the panic about the Mexican menace (the anxiety over hearing only spanish in some parts of town, the resurgent fears of 'Popism,' the conviction that they're really after American welfare checks) isn't really racist, is just the result of lack of familiarity. On my less charitable days, I echo JG's question: "Can someone explain this in terms that don't devolve into 'But the Mexicans are brown?'"

(Incidentally, on the welfare/immigration issue, I meant to link earlier to this recent Cafe Hayek post. Excellent title: They're So Lazy We Must Use Force to Stop Them from Working.)

UPDATE: Apparently due to some negative comments, Jane Galt feels compelled to explain herself further on this issue. I think the original post was nicely concise, but here she fleshes out the history of immigration and assimilation in the U.S.

15 June 2007

Brazil update: looking good supersedes soccer as national pastime

I was going to post just one of these, but this series of truly offensive Brazilian ads for Fit Light Dairy deserves to be seen in entirety. The tagline for all three ads reads, "Forget it. Men's preference will never change. Fit Light Yogurt." (In order, the ads reference famous photos of Mena Suvari, Sharon Stone, and Marilyn Monroe.) It ought to be obvious what's wrong with these ads, but: first of all, preferences about female body shape most certainly do change, over time and across cultures. Plus, like many American food ads, the seemingly positive word 'fit' is being used as code for 'thin;' I guess the difference is that in most American ads, the connotation is a little more subtle.

I went in search of some information about female body image in Brazil, and found this (on AdiosBarbie.com):

Of the 160 million people in Brazil, almost a quarter million go under the knife each year. Many Brazilian women have breast reductions before their eighteenth birthdays, hoping to achieve the ideal Brazilian body: small breasts and a large
behind. Plastic surgery is not taboo.

Cosmetic surgeon Ivo Pintaguay is considered a national icon because he nips and tucks for next to nothing. Apparently, making Brazilians beautiful is considered a public service. Last year, Pintaguay and his staff performed nearly 1,500 cosmetic operations on the poor, charging only a nominal fee for medicine and materials.

"The only ugly Brazilians left are those who want to be ugly," declared Veja, the country's popular news magazine.

Hmm. Historically, women tend to be very under-represented in Brazilian political office, but I suspect Paris Hilton could be a major political figure here. Campaign slogan: Poor people deserve to be hot, too.

Goatherds seize business opportunity

Thanks to Marginal Revolution for the pointer to the ultimate in cleantech: rentable goats to clear land of vegetation cheaply and without chemicals. The best thing I read today, by far.

This month in Marie Claire: Tom Tancredo on immigration policy, summer skin care regimen.

Obsidian Wings offers an update and, shall we say, critique of US Rep. Tom Tancredo's current position, according to a June Marie Claire Q&A, on immigration: that we probably also better build a fence along the Canadian border. Aside from the general silliness of this idea, OW is particularly interested in how Tom foresees funding these expensive exercises in national paranoia, given his official position on tax reduction. And I have to repeat OW's question: What about the illegal alien underwater frogman problem?

This man, who represents Colorado's 6th district, has become the national spokesperson for bad ideas about immigration reform. How do Coloradans feel about him? In September 2006 a poll indicated that 61% of Coloradans favored a policy giving illegal immigrants pathways to citizenship, which is pretty much consistent with the national figures. Tancredo, of course, favors mass deportation. For more on Colorado's increasing embarrassment over having elected him, check out Tancredo Watch, a blog from the 6th district dedicated to publicizing his ongoing antics.

A final Tancredo quote from the Marie Claire interview (will add a link when June issue is archived), about the fact that former KKK leader David Duke is among his supporters:

I don’t know what David Duke likes about me and I don’t know what to do about it. You know, I am a compassionate person. What I say about immigration has nothing to do with racism. Nada. My press secretary’s name is Carlos Espinosa.

14 June 2007

The usefulness of "Energy Independence"

TigerHawk offers a nice discussion of why politicians who talk about 'energy independence' are being disingenuous. The concept, of course, is popular because it provides a way to get hawkish types who want to quit playing nicely with the middle east on the same side with warm fuzzy enviros. The post offers a couple good arguments against it: focusing on "supporting" the declining American oil industry (subsidizing it) translates to a failure to focus on actual reduction of fossil fuel use, and American fossil fuels production will never be enough to make us 'energy independent' without dramatic changes in our energy habits. The post also wants to know how come, if we're so concerned about having economic ties to politically unstable regions, we don't hear politicians calling for 'diamond independence' or 'cheap electronics independence,' given that those products also come from countries with "dodgy" politics. The answer, I think, is that interruptions to our supply of oil are disruptive on a level way beyond what would happen if we suddenly couldn't import African diamonds or Korean electronics. Diamonds suitable for use in research applications and jewelry are already made in labs; electronics can be acquired from other countries for a tiny increase in cost. Oil flow, though, affects pretty much every aspect of daily life; the threat of cutting us off is a powerful threat.

The post concludes:

Anthropogenic global warming is a very good reason to cut fossil-fuel consumption, but that means grubby American coal as well as greasy foreign oil. It has nothing to do with “energy independence.”

True. But a lot depends on where the 'energy independence' talk leads to -- if it results in real action to address fossil fuel use and efficiency, I'm willing to go along with it for awhile, if only to get the U.S. acclimated to a new way of thinking about energy.

Creation, evolution, and the origin of the universe: rehashing Aristotle

During the first few days of June, Gallup conducted a telephone poll asking respondents about their views on evolution vs. creationism. USA Today reports the following results: 53% of respondents think that the theory of evolution is either 'definitely true' or 'probably true.' 66% think that creationism is 'definitely' or 'probably' true. Clearly there's some substantial overlap here, which makes sense when you consider the 'scientific creationists,' who believe that evolution may well be true, but that God kind of 'set up' the process to work just the way it did (and still does), and so is still responsible for the creation of living things and especially humans. Although this viewpoint deviates from the technical details contained in the Bible, it's easy to see why it's satisfying to people of a religious inclination who are also enthusiastic about the scientific endeavor.

But there's no need to stop there: a sufficiently creative (hah) creationist can accommodate any amount of scientific data by continuing to move the 'God threshold' further back in time, until finally God becomes merely the guy who flipped the switch on the Big Bang, or whatever story of the origin of the universe you prefer. From that point on, the universe proceeds according to its own design, following physical laws, acting basically the same as a universe untouched by divine intervention, but always propelling itself forward to whatever God had in mind. Some questions about this kind of situation:

Could God intervene if he wanted to, violate his own laws of physics? In other words, what about prayer, etc.? Is this created universe more like an ant farm, which is blocked off from further interaction with the observer, or is it more like a sea monkey aquarium, where the observer can stick his finger in and whirl it around a bit whenever he feels like it? Does the system keep on ticking along, even if God gets bored with watching? For those who think our universe is an oscillating universe, eternally bouncing back and forth between the Big Bang and the Big Crunch, what's God doing, running simulations? Why? What's he trying to find out?

13 June 2007

The morality of illegal immigration

Cafe Hayek produces an elegant example for use when talking to people who have a problem will illegal immigrants because they broke the law to get here:

For me, an illegal immigrant who comes here to work is like a father speeding to the hospital to get his son medical care. When he arrives, the hospital could say:

I'm sorry, I wish we could take care of your kid, but you broke the law on the way over here. You were speeding. So we can't give you medical care. That would reward criminals--people who break the law by speeding.

But what hospital would say that? Everyone speeds on the way to the hospital. Everyone understands that speeding, while always illegal, is only immoral when it endangers. And we pardon speeding under circumstances such as a sick child on the way to the hospital. Why do people want to keep out those who come here to work, legally or illegally? What does the legality have to do with it?

I like these kinds of analogies; I like the amount of emotion they (rightfully) inject into the debate.

Prepare to have your mind blown

Via ScienceDaily, I learn this:

Women who enjoy good childhood relationships with their fathers are more likely to select partners who resemble their dads, research suggests. In contrast, the team of psychologists from Durham University and two Polish institutions revealed that women who have negative or less positive relationships were not attracted to men who looked like their male parents.

I apologize in advance for offending the Journal of Evolution and Human Behaviour, scheduled to publish the study in July, but there's no other way to say this: Duh! One of the authors clarifies: "[T]he quality of a daughter's relationship with her father has an impact on whom she finds attractive." Whoa!

To Mr. Wizard, who showed me how to irritate my parents in more interesting ways.

Via GenomeWeb:

Goodbye, Mr. Wizard

The TV star who turned generations of kids, from baby boomers to their children, onto science died on Tuesday. Don Herbert, better known as Mr. Wizard, died of bone cancer at age 89. His show illustrated how things found around the house could be used in experiments and he encouraged kids to try science out at home.

In my life, Dr. Wizard came second only to George "Mr." Witman, my 9th-grade earth science teacher, in terms of making science more fun and less intimidating. Although I switched out of my chemistry major freshman year, I still think it's about as much fun as you can have wearing a lab coat. (Now I work in technology, which is even more fun in some ways than basic science.) So: thanks, Don. Your show kept whole generations of smart kids off the streets, and gave them somewhere to focus their prodigious mental powers other than on video games.

12 June 2007

More on neural networks (and how to win at 20 questions).

As I was thinking about interesting applications for artificial neural networks, I happened upon 20Q.net, a surprisingly addictive ANN-based 20 Questions Game. I tried out the Classic, Music, and Harry Potter games; I was able to stump the Music game about half the time, but only fooled the others very occasionally. This confirms an intuition about neural nets -- they learn best when their universe is small, when they get lots of human input, or both. The classic game is very general, but also almost 20 years old (works well due to plenty of human feedback); the Harry Potter game is relatively new, played frequently, and only deals with objects within the HP universe (works even better, due to the limited universe and the sheer number of HP enthusiasts out there). The music game is fairly new and very general, and doesn't work well at all. It asks silly questions that aren't appropriate based on earlier answers, and fails to ask really obvious ones. You might expect as much from a computer, of course, except that the other two games were a lot like playing 20 Questions with a real person who happens to be way smarter than you. These two skilled games ask questions that are unexpected, but make sense once you ponder them. And they're eerily good at guessing the answers.

So what? Well, this is interesting to me because I've been thinking lately about search engines. The only commercially available search engine I can find using neural net technology is MSN Search, introduced in 2005. It uses a centralized 'supervised learning' approach -- that is, somebody at MSN (probably lots of somebodies) is in charge of telling the engine which search results are the most on-target. Since the 'universe' here is big (the whole internet), it seems like a decentralized input approach would be in order: have users evaluate the search results, which is presumably what Google's doing with its new facial search module (see recent post and comments). As I've mentioned before, this is what Google's good at -- finding ways to make use of the work web users are already doing anyway.

Meanwhile, and probably next for websearch technology, there's semantic websearch: getting a computer to understand what words mean, so that it can find relevant results more creatively. The cheater's solution to this is the Semantic Web approach, tagging everything on the internet to explain what it is and what it's about in a way that makes sense to search algorithms. The real goal, though, is to teach a search algorithm what search terms mean, or at least what they might mean, so that it can find related content that doesn't use the same keywords/tags. Earlier this year Read/WriteWeb asked, 'Is Google a Semantic Search Engine?' and concluded that G. has at least introduced rudimentary semantic analysis in the related searches it suggests at the bottom of the page. This is based on statistical analysis of word context, though, not on true semantic analysis. Enter neural nets, which are the only way (so far) to give a computer the complexity necessary to 'get' language. More on this to come.