31 March 2008

For those who, like me, sometimes want to write a book:

If you want to write, kill the magic: a book is just a bunch of writing. Anyone can write a book. It might suck or be incomprehensible, but so what: it’s still a book. Nothing is stopping you right now from collecting all of your elementary school book reports, or drunken napkin scribbles, binding them together at Kinko's for $20, slapping a title on the cover, and qualifying as an author. Want to write a good book? OK, but get in line since most pro authors are still trying to figure that out too.

Writing a good book, compared to a bad one, involves one thing. Work. No one wants to hear this, but if you take two books off any shelf, I’ll bet my pants the author of the better book worked harder than the author of the other one. Call it effort, study, practice, whatever. Sure there are tricks here and there, but really writing is a kind of work.
I intend to print this out, put it on my wall, and review regularly (from The Berkun Blog).

21 March 2008

Good Friday links

RBC has an astoundingly interesting point-by-point comparison of the (two) trials of Jesus Christ leading up to his execution (widely believed to be miscarriages of justice) vs. two sets of trials at Guantanamo Bay, using 22 criteria from Human Rights First. A fascinating read, but I'm inclined to disagree with one of the scoring conventions, where the author counts 'not applicable because anachronistic' as equivalent to 'meets this criterion.' In other words, legal rights that are now recognized in the US count against the Gitmo trials and in favor of the JC trials, since these rights weren't recognized in ancient Jewish or Roman law. I guess this is an okay way to compare 'adherence to proper legal procedure,' since this attribute is defined by which procedures were in place at the time, but certainly not for comparing 'fairness' or 'justice,' unless by these terms you only mean 'adherence to proper legal procedure' with no substantive expectations.

More info on the political context of Jesus' trials.

17 March 2008

Coolest web fact I did not know:

Via Wikipedia:

reCAPTCHA supplies subscribing websites with images of words that optical character recognition software has been unable to read. The subscribing websites (whose purpose is generally unrelated to the book digitization project) present these images for humans to decipher as CAPTCHA words, as part of their normal validation procedures. They then return the results to the reCAPTCHA service, thereby contributing to the digitization project. The result is that the university receives approximately 3,000 man hours per day of free labor to help in the preservation of books.

I always thought those words with squiggly lines were just especially clever CAPTCHA tests; I had no idea they were actually part of an incredibly cool distributed processing scheme. Spammers, of course, have learned how to use a reversed version of this system where a program entices real humans to decipher CAPTCHAs, in return for which they get to view racy images for free.

14 March 2008

Friday fun links: time travel and economics

Tyler Cowen and Glen Whitman think about the effects of time travel on, respectively, interest rates and immigration. The conversation started when Tyler linked to Paul Krugman's 1978 paper, The Theory of Interstellar Trade (PDF).

12 March 2008

Reflexive inactivity

Brian Moore, in a good post about us 'crazy legalizing libertarians':

This might be a bit nitpicky, but I also like the abuse of the term “reflex,” as if cultural libertarians were reactively doing something in this situation. It works for cultural moralism — when confronted with the stimulus of prostitution, they spring into action by calling for prohibition. When the cultural libertarians hear of prostitution, they say, “So?” You can’t reflexively do nothing.
I dunno -- I suppose amongst the blogger community the libertarians are a bit more considered and thoughtful about their preference for private action, but most regular, workaday libertarians I know are actually exactly like this: present them with a new potential policy problem, and their gut reaction is, "So what?" In other words, "please now provide arguments for why this problem needs solving on a coercive, governmental scale." In fact, I'd go so far as to argue that this is the distinguishing characteristic of the natural-born libertarian -- a robust intuition that the burden of proof is always on the party proposing new/more governmental action.

10 March 2008

How to deal with know-it-all philosophy majors:

Eliezer Y. introduces a technique bound to make college parties much less violent (if somewhat less fun):

When you are faced with an unanswerable question - a question to which it seems impossible to even imagine an answer - there is a simple trick which can turn the question solvable. Compare:

"Why do I have free will?"

"Why do I think I have free will?"

The nice thing about the second question is that it is guaranteed to
have a real answer... [...]

Cognitive science may not seem so lofty and glorious as metaphysics. But at least questions of cognitive science are solvable. Finding an answer may not be easy, but at least an answer exists.

Coming Up: Startup Weekend Boulder (Round Two)

Startup Weekend, in which a bunch of people spend one weekend building and launching a tech startup, was created here in Boulder in July 2007 (launching VoSnap). It's now spread to about 15 other cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Boston and London, and Boulder II is coming up next weekend, March 21-23, hosted by the University of Colorado. Register using the link above, or go read local rockstar-entrepreneur David Cohen's top ten reasons to go.

Somebody Put Something in My Drink

There's an AP investigative report out today detailing the wide variety of pharmaceuticals to be found in the American water supply -- we're talking about very very small concentrations, which seem to be harmless in the short term, but there's some reasonable concern about what consequences we might see in a decade or two from constant, low-level exposure to antibiotics, antidepressants, sex hormones and heart meds (among others).

One interesting thing about this: the AP article says these drugs are finding their way into the water after being incompletely metabolized by patients, but there's no mention of the drugs being dumped in, full-strength, by health care facilities. Speaking from my own experience, I can say that a single medium-sized nursing facility might dispose of thousands of pills a month from expired or discontinued prescriptions by flushing them down the toilet. Hospitals and pharmacies, who knows? What's frustrating about this, aside from issues of water contamination, is that there's no mechanism in place to convert these wasted meds into meds for developing-world medical projects. I assume there are several sophisticated political and economic explanations for this, but seriously, dumping wasted drugs into our own water supply seems nearly as smart as subsidizing farmers to not grow corn (which would go bad, because it can't be shipped off to staving countries, for similar reasons).

HT: Sand in the Gears

06 March 2008

Maps: Starbucks, Walmart, and more

Via Marginal Revolution, maps representing per capita distribution of Starbucks and Walmart, respectively:

An interesting feature of these maps is that while most areas seem to be saturated with either WM or SB, there's a relative lack of saturation on the east coast -- neither Starbucks nor Walmart has acheived high per capita distribution here. Do east coast shoppers and coffee drinkers have a stronger preference for independents or regional chains?
Here are a couple more maps for comparison--
Median household income (2006 data):

Deaths from heart disease (white males, based on 1997 CDC data):

05 March 2008

A Beginner's Guide to Muslim Bioethics

Too interesting to relegate to the link sidebar; via Wired. Excerpt, from a Brown University anthropologist:

Of course there are always people who are extremists and who take absolutist positions -- but as a scholarly orthodox tradition, Islamic scholars have generally incorporated social contingencies into their opinions about the permissibility of modern practices, especially with the legal tool of "maslaha" -- which is a calculus of weighing particular benefits against risks (measured both socially and spiritually) [...].
The detailed breakdown provided by a bioethicist from King Faisal University (Saudi Arabia) is also highly educational. Although its phrasing is on the strict side, the actual range of technologies permitted is surprising.