Paul Murray's weblog, with news you may have missed and my $0.02 worth on a number of topics.
"You can't make up anything anymore. The world itself is a satire. All you're doing is recording it."
I bet you don't have a friend who's an acupuncturist
E-mail me: pmurray [at] despammed.com
Sunday, October 31, 2004
Those who cannot remember the past... The current cover story of The Washington Monthly notes the frustration of many Republicans, and draws a historical parallel that should serve as a cautionary tale:
The Armey-Novak conservatives wanted the party to renew its commitment to the small-government principles of 1994 and 1980. Brooks and the moderates looked to 1904, to the strong government conservatism of Theodore Roosevelt. Both groups were wishing for a kind of soul transplant: If the party could just reclaim its essence, they hoped, the current drift might be resolved.
I was considerably younger then and not paying such close attention, but it seems to me that it's a compelling argument.
How many Iraqi civilian deaths? The British medical journal The Lancet has published a study estimating that 100,000 Iraqi civilians have died so far as a result of the war. Which is pretty horrifying ... but almost no one except for Fred Kaplan seems to have read the fine print (emphasis added):
The report's authors derive this figure by estimating how many Iraqis died in a 14-month period before the U.S. invasion, conducting surveys on how many died in a similar period after the invasion began (more on those surveys later), and subtracting the difference. That difference—the number of "extra" deaths in the post-invasion period—signifies the war's toll. That number is 98,000. But read the passage that cites the calculation more fully:We estimate there were 98,000 extra deaths (95% CI 8000-194 000) during the post-war period.
Those who conducted the study are overhyping it. One told a newspaper, "We're quite sure that the estimate of 100,000 is a conservative estimate." Either that statement is wrong or the study is wrong.
Perhaps more importantly, where are the journalists with a grasp of statistics? There aren't enough, and that's sad.
Kaplan proceeds to explain why the study is effectively useless. He then cites another ongoing effort that comes up with a number around 15,000; he argues that it's plausible to double this estimate, resulting in an estimated 15,000-30,000 civilian casualties.
Now if only we could explain why this sacrifice was worth it. Other than maybe getting a President re-elected, of course.
Thursday, October 28, 2004
Thoughts and predictions, five days out. This is the most nerve-wracking leadup to a presidential election I've ever experienced. 2000 was similar, of course, but we didn't know how bad it could be. Now we know, and that makes the dread even worse.
(Am I talking about the suspense or the result? Yes.)
Back and forth go the poll and the electoral predictions. This animation shows what I mean.
About a week ago it occurred to me that it would be deeply ironic if Bush won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote to Kerry. As the days have gone by, I'm thinking that may be the only way Kerry wins. I say that because Bush seems to maintain the lead when you look at national numbers. But as demonstrated four years ago, that's not what counts, and Kerry seems closer in electoral predictions than in overall polls.
I think Kerry can win, but everything has to go right for that to happen. Bush has more room for error. If Kerry wins, I think it will look like Kevin Drum's prediction. (I was going to play with interactive maps and come up with my own, but his seems like what I would have come up with, so I'll just point you to it.)
I don't even want to think about the prospect of a tie.
But nothing depresses me more right now than the thought of another four years under Bush.
Behold Clearview. If you're the sort of person who finds typography interesting, you might like to know about the new Clearview font that's about to start showing up on highway signs, now that the feds have approved it. Here are some examples and explanations of why it's better. (via Kottke)
Another notable Kerry endorsement. This one from British magazine The Economist, which is widely read by movers and shakers. It's a reluctant endorsement, but when such a conservative capitalist publication comes out for the Democratic challenger and against the Republican incumbent, that's saying something.
Many readers, feeling that Mr Bush has the right vision in foreign policy even if he has made many mistakes, will conclude that the safest option is to leave him in office to finish the job he has started. If Mr Bush is re-elected, and uses a new team and a new approach to achieve that goal, and shakes off his fealty to an extreme minority, the religious right, then The Economist will wish him well. But our confidence in him has been shattered. We agree that his broad vision is the right one but we doubt whether Mr Bush is able to change or has sufficient credibility to succeed, especially in the Islamic world. Iraq's fledgling democracy, if it gets the chance to be born at all, will need support from its neighbours—or at least non-interference—if it is to survive. So will other efforts in the Middle East, particularly concerning Israel and Iran.
Iraq was on his mind. Yet another source says George Bush had plans for Iraq early on -- before he was president. The source is a writer who was co-writing Bush's autobiography until he displeased Karen Hughes:
“He was thinking about invading Iraq in 1999,” said author and journalist Mickey Herskowitz. “It was on his mind. He said to me: ‘One of the keys to being seen as a great leader is to be seen as a commander-in-chief.’ And he said, ‘My father had all this political capital built up when he drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait and he wasted it.’ He said, ‘If I have a chance to invade….if I had that much capital, I’m not going to waste it. I’m going to get everything passed that I want to get passed and I’m going to have a successful presidency.”
Not a surprise by any means. But it's yet another piece of proof. (via Metafilter)
Tuesday, October 26, 2004
A brief usability rant. I found the Math Against Tyranny article reposted at Discover magazine's website. While there, I noticed that some of the site's features didn't work, probably because I wasn't a registered user. Registrations are annoying, but I thought in this case that it might be worth it. So I registered.
The first sign of trouble was when it told me my password had been e-mailed to me. What, I can't just create my own password? Well, I figured I could probably change it once I logged in.
So I retrieve the e-mail with the password -- which is a "good" password, in the sense that it's a nonsense collection of numbers and upper- and lower-case letters -- log in to the site, and start looking for a way to change it to something easier to remember. But apparently there's no way to do that. For security, I guess.
Folks, I'm not talking about accessing nuclear launch codes or my personal financial or health information. I'm talking about being able to log in and read some free articles, fer cryin' out loud! But I guess they actually expect me to record this incredibly valuable password somewhere in case I ever need to access their site while on a different PC.
Fat chance, guys.
Of course, I did notice that they're owned by Disney, a company which historically has been rather clueless about the Web, so perhaps that explains it. But still.
Episodes like this are one reason why services like Bug Me Not exist ... because of clueless publishers.
A well-timed rerun. For those who question or hate the idea of the Electoral College -- we have a neighbor who despises the idea -- I give you the November 1996 Discover article Math Against Tyranny.
Monday, October 25, 2004
Codec killers. I've been meaning to mention this for almost a week now. It seems that there are some popular recordings -- well, among some people anyway -- that don't convert well into the MP3 format. (I'll leave the technical explanation to the article.) I only know two of the seven recordings mentioned; somehow I'm not surprised that "Revolution 9" is one of them. But "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road"?
New endorsements. Two new John Kerry endorsements today.
One is from The New Yorker (where they've never endorsed a president before):
The damage visited upon America, and upon America’s standing in the world, by the Bush Administration’s reckless mishandling of the public trust will not easily be undone. And for many voters the desire to see the damage arrested is reason enough to vote for John Kerry. But the challenger has more to offer than the fact that he is not George W. Bush. In every crucial area of concern to Americans (the economy, health care, the environment, Social Security, the judiciary, national security, foreign policy, the war in Iraq, the fight against terrorism), Kerry offers a clear, corrective alternative to Bush’s curious blend of smugness, radicalism, and demagoguery. Pollsters like to ask voters which candidate they’d most like to have a beer with, and on that metric Bush always wins. We prefer to ask which candidate is better suited to the governance of our nation.
The other is from The Financial Times:
There are those, particularly in Europe, who would like to turn back the clock to before 9/11. They pine for the peace and prosperity of the Clinton years. Mr Bush recognised the world had changed. But he has taken the US in the wrong direction. As a candidate Mr Kerry often fails to inspire. He owes his rise more to opposition to Mr Bush than loyalty to his own cause. But on balance, he is the better, safer choice.
On the other hand, The Detroit News yesterday refused for the third time in its history to endorse any candidate. (The last time they did so, Franklin Roosevelt was on the ballot.) A staunchly Republican paper, they've never endorsed a Democrat -- and they still won't. But the snub to Bush is clear:
So what are we looking for in a president?
My reaction, then and now: this is a copout. Our next president will be Bush or Kerry, period -- pick one. "None of the above" is not an acceptable choice. A local pollster interviewed on the radio even argued that it was hypocritical for a newspaper to encourage people to vote, but withhold an endorsement, and there's something to be said for that.
Incidentally, Editor and Publisher is keeping a running tally of newspaper endorsements.
10/27 Update: So far, 36 newspapers that endorsed Bush in 2000 have endorsed Kerry.
Sunday, October 24, 2004
The smoking gun of mismanagement in Iraq. Remember how, before we invaded Iraq, sensible people were arguing that an invasion would only make it more difficult to keep track of the very materials we were worried about?
They were right.
It turns out that 350 tons of powerful high explosives were looted from an ammo dump during the early days of the war. Before the war, they were overseen by the International Atomic Energy Commission (IAEA).
But wait, it gets better.
U.S. forces kept this news from being reported to the IAEA, because it would then become known to the American people. The interim Iraqi government finally reported it on October 10.
And this is the likely source of all the bombs that are going off in Iraq.
One administration official told [journalist Chris] Nelson, "This is the stuff the bad guys have been using to kill our troops, so you can’t ignore the political implications of this, and you would be correct to suspect that politics, or the fear of politics, played a major role in delaying the release of this information."
Josh Marshall has more details here and here.
But George Bush would still do it all over again. Amazing.
Update: NYT also has the story.
Saturday, October 23, 2004
The proper use of copyright. Composer Philip Glass is suing the producers of the film "Celsius 41.11" (don't worry, not many other people have heard of it) for using his music without permission. (The movie is intended to be a conservative response to "Fahrenheit 9/11" -- clever, huh?)
The suit was filed in United States District Court in Washington, and a lawyer for Mr. Glass said that if the music was heard in the movie, which is being released today in 40 cities nationwide, he would consider seeking a temporary restraining order to stop the film from being shown.
If I could find my copy of the Glass recording, I could tell you, since I've been able to listen to the TV ads here. (The movie trailer uses Beethoven.) If I locate it, I'll report my findings. (via BoingBoing)
Martin Luther's lavatory thrills experts. I am not making this up:
Archaeologists in Germany say they may have found a lavatory where Martin Luther launched the Reformation of the Christian church in the 16th Century.
A handy, concise list of facts. From The Nation: 100 Facts and 1 Opinion - The Non-Arguable Case Against the Bush Administration, complete with links to sources and a PDF version for printing. (via Devoter)
What voters believe about foreign affairs. Here's some eye-opening insight into the pro-Bush crowd (I mean that seriously).
The Separate Realities of Bush and Kerry Supporters (PDF) details the results of a poll that identifies the facts about foreign affairs as understood by those respective groups. Here's a short HTML summary for those with limited time and/or attention spans, or who simply loathe PDF files. I encourage you to at least read the summary.
The one-sentence version is that Bush supporters have inaccurate perceptions about Iraq, Al Queda, and other international matters ... which they get from the current administration.
There's too much interesting material here to quote, but I did appreciate this paragraph from the summary:
"The roots of the Bush supporters' resistance to information," according to Steven Kull, "very likely lie in the traumatic experience of 9/11 and equally in the near pitch-perfect leadership that President Bush showed in its immediate wake. This appears to have created a powerful bond between Bush and his supporters--and an idealized image of the President that makes it difficult for his supporters to imagine that he could have made incorrect judgments before the war, that world public opinion could be critical of his policies or that the President could hold foreign policy positions that are at odds with his supporters."
And now for a bit of fun. With the interactive Mona Lisa. (via Metafilter)
Friday, October 22, 2004
Murphy's Law is alive and well at NASA. That's what James Oberg says. The original version of the legendary law, as noted in a linked story here previously, is "Every component that can be installed backward, eventually will be" -- and that's exactly what happened with the Genesis probe. He then recalls the Mars Climate Orbiter debacle, where the public explanation was that contractors had confused English and Metric measurements:
The easy answer — "blame the stupid contractors" — was actually a NASA public-relations gimmick to duck ultimate responsibility for the disaster. In order to promote the image of a faster-better-cheaper space program extolled by the Clinton administration, previously used checks and balances had been canceled. And reportedly, when space navigators intuitively developed a feeling that there was something wrong with the navigational database, they were told to hold the present course until they could prove something was wrong.
We've learned these lessons before; we shouldn't have to learn them again. (via Slashdot)
Wednesday, October 20, 2004
"We're not going to have any casualties." A follow-up of sorts to the Ron Suskind article below: Pat Robertson claims that before it started, he warned George Bush of the casualties that would result from a war in Iraq ... and Bush's response:
He described Bush in the meeting as "the most self-assured man I've ever met in my life."
(The current count as this is written: 1109 Americans, 139 other coalition members, and no one knows how many Iraqis.)
Naturally, Robertson still supports Bush. But if it's true, don't you find this story spooky? Who ever heard of an invasion without casualties?
And not to be too cynical ... but how is it that Robertson can get this message from the Lord, but our ever-so-religious President can't?
Tuesday, October 19, 2004
"Stop, stop, stop, stop hurting America." Jon Stewart was on CNN's "Crossfire" last Friday, and the result was one of the most interesting and uncomfortable segments I've seen in a long time. Stewart refused to play along with the format and instead criticized the show itself (and others of its genre). He also shredded co-host Tucker Carlson, who was determined to complain about Stewart's questioning of John Kerry:
CARLSON: Didn't you feel like -- you got the chance to interview the guy. Why not ask him a real question, instead of just suck up to him?This segment is already famous, and it's been estimated that more people have watched it off the Internet than saw it on CNN. And now you can be one of them: Jon Stewart on Crossfire | Transcript
Crossfire's other hosts, James Carville and Robert Novak, were predictably not amused.
Monday, October 18, 2004
Milliken endorses Kerry. William G. Milliken, the moderate Republican governor of Michigan from 1969-83 (longer than any other governor), has endorsed John Kerry:
As a lifelong Republican, I have had mounting concern watching this year's presidential campaign.
Here's his complete statement.
This isn't going to make the Bush campaign quake in their boots or anything, but hopefully it will give Michigan voters who are traditionally Republican something to think about before Election Day. And the AP has picked up the story.
Decision-making in the Bush White House. Sunday's NYT Magazine contained what may be the most frightening article yet by a respected journalist (former WSJ reporter Ron Suskind) about the Bush Administration's decision-making process. It relies on faith (both religious and "gut instinct") and is controlled by an increasingly smaller group of people.
This long article contains too many examples to include here; here are two. The first provides a decent summary of what the entire article is about:
Machiavelli's oft-cited line about the adequacy of the perception of power prompts a question. Is the appearance of confidence as important as its possession? Can confidence -- true confidence -- be willed? Or must it be earned?
This may be the most frightening quote; the unidentified aide sounds like one of the gung-ho neoconservatives that surround Bush:
In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.
Their denial of reality makes more sense now.
Thursday, October 14, 2004
Rooting for neither. Rolling Stone reports on how Wal-Mart cracks the whip on the record business (like all its suppliers), demanding lower prices. And since they account for about 20% of all US sales, they pretty much get their way.
As someone on Slashdot put it: Monopoly 1, meet Monopoly 2.
Monday, October 11, 2004
The Africantown fiasco, continued. When we last checked in, organizations representing various immigrant groups were protesting to City Council about the planned government-funded economic development that would exclude them (and anyone who isn't African).
In what I'm sure is a total concidence, the plan's chief proponent, City Council member JoAnn Watson, withheld her approval on the very next day for $330,000 worth of contracts to two Hispanic groups.
Watson is mum as to why she held the contracts. She did not return calls from the Free Press seeking comment.
It must be concidental. After all, one of her Web pages says "Accountability, Equity, and Respect for all Citizens will be reflected in my office as a servant of the people."
Yes, this whole story just gets better and better.
Sunday, October 10, 2004
Bush speaks in code. I was watching the second presidential debate Friday night -- of course -- when I was puzzled by one of George Bush's answers. Here's the complete question and answer from a transcript; see if it strikes you the same way:
GIBSON: Mr. President, the next question is for you, and it comes from Jonathan Michaelson, over here.
Dred Scott? Why would he bring up the Dred Scott case?
I should have figured it out, but I didn't. I only stumbled across the explanation by accident: He was speaking in code, another one of those things he slips in for the benefit of his followers, like at the end of the first debate ("We've climbed the mighty mountain. I see the valley below, and it's a valley of peace."). Except that Biblical allusion wasn't a secret message about what one of his policies would be. The Dred Scott reference was.
Dred Scott v. Sandford = Roe v. Wade
If you're anti-abortion, anyway. Here's where I stumbled across it, along with two explanations.
To see the parallel that many advocates do, refresh yourself with the Dred Scott decision:
The Court first held that Scott was not a "citizen" within the meaning of the United States Constitution as that term was understood at the time the Constitution was adopted and therefore not able to bring suit in federal court. According to the Court, the drafters of the Constitution had viewed all African-Americans as "beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect."
And they compare this to the finding in Roe:
The appellee and certain amici argue that the fetus is a "person" within the language and meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. In support of this, they outline at length and in detail the well-known facts of fetal development. If this suggestion of personhood is established, the appellant's case, of course, collapses, [410 U.S. 113, 157] for the fetus' right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the Amendment. The appellant conceded as much on reargument. On the other hand, the appellee conceded on reargument that no case could be cited that holds that a fetus is a person within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment.
In short, the decision that a fetus is not a person will eventually be viewed in the same way that we view the decision that a Negro is not a person. If you think I'm making this interpretation up, a quick scan of some Google search results will show otherwise.
So this is what happened Friday night: George Bush promised to appoint Supreme Court justices who will seek to overturn Roe v. Wade.
That's his right, of course, although you may or may not agree with it. But what I find deeply offensive is his speaking in code. Come out and say it in plain English so that everyone can understand what you mean, Mr. President, instead of cloaking your intent.
I'd love to see Bob Scheiffer ask Bush to explain this at the third and final debate this Wednesday.
Update: If I had waited a day, I could have simply pointed you to this Slate article, which elaborates further on how the Christian Right views Dred Scott.
'Dr. Strangelove' as documentary.
"Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (1964) is widely regarded as one of the best films ever made. For example, it ranked 26th in the American Film Institute's 1998 list [PDF]; 5th in a 2002 poll of directors by the British Film Institute's Sight and Sound magazine; and is currently ranked 16th by users of the Internet Movie Database.
Yet it can be hard to explain to someone who has never seen "Strangelove" why it's so good, or even to describe it. As perhaps the blackest comedy ever made, do you emphasize the humor or the drama?
I've settled on describing it this way: "It's a comedy about nuclear war."
Here's why I bring this up. On the occasion of its 40th anniversary and new DVD release, today's New York Times has an article by Slate's Fred Kaplan about how eerily accurate the movie was (warning, the full article contains spoilers):
What few people knew, at the time and since, was just how accurate this film was. Its premise, plotline, some of the dialogue, even its wildest characters eerily resembled the policies, debates and military leaders of the day. The audience had almost no way of detecting these similiarities: Nearly everything about the bomb was shrouded in secrecy back then. There was no Freedom of Information Act and little investigative reporting on the subject. It was easy to laugh off "Dr. Strangelove" as a comic book.
Kaplan proceeds to describe how the film actually parallels reality and concludes:
Those in the know watched "Dr. Strangelove" amused, like everyone else, but also stunned. Daniel Ellsberg, who later leaked the Pentagon Papers, was a RAND analyst and a consultant at the Defense Department when he and a mid-level official took off work one afternoon in 1964 to see the film. Mr. Ellsberg recently recalled that as they left the theater, he turned to his colleague and said, "That was a documentary!"
Thursday, October 07, 2004
Best VP debate gag.
Tuesday, October 05, 2004
Just what the world needs. Anheuser-Busch is bringing out caffinated beer.
Reminds me of a guy I briefly lived with in college, who favored a drink he called "Volts"; it was composed of vodka and Jolt Cola ("All the sugar and twice the caffiene!"). You get very drunk and very awake, he claimed, and I had no reason to doubt him. (via Slashdot, naturally)
I'm from Microsoft, and I'm here to help you. So Microsoft's Steve Ballmer declares that iPod users are music thieves -- but Digital Rights Management from Microsoft will save the day from those dastardly pirates, of course.
Well I don't have an iPod, but I have an Archos Jukebox ... and
a) He's wrong, and
b) He can pry my DRM-free music device from my cold, dead hands.
Update: A lot of other people feel the same way.
To Lasik or not? Today's Washington Post has a first-person account by a health reporter who, after years of considering it, decided to get custom Lasik (aka Wavefront) surgery on her eyes. As someone who has worn glasses since age 7 or 8 (if I remember correctly), I find the idea interesting ... but find the potential downside to unnerving. I'll live with the devil I know, so to speak. Still, it's an interesting article.
Lifelines. I never competed in quiz bowl at the college level, but I did some my senior year of high school. And based on that experience plus what I've heard elsewhere, this article about former quiz bowl contestants succeeding at game shows is pretty accurate.
Unexpected candor on Iraq. Now even Paul Bremer is saying that there were two mistakes made in Iraq -- going in without enough troops, and not clamping down immediately on violence and looting. (He did not intend for these remarks to be made public, which explains the candor.)
We can thank Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld:
Prior to the war, the Army chief of staff, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, said publicly that he thought the invasion plan lacked sufficient manpower, and he was slapped down by the Pentagon's civilian leadership for saying so. During the war, concerns about troop strength expressed by retired generals also provoked angry denunciations by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Monday, October 04, 2004
I'll take 'Intimidation' for $200, Alex. Aaron Barnhart, who runs the TVBarn site where I'm a contributor of sorts, thinks "Jeopardy!" is going to get a lot more interesting starting today, as Ken Jennings encounters better-prepared competition:
Until now, the challengers coming into to face KenJen were completely unaware that they were being thrown into the lion’s den against a 30-day, 40-day, 50-day champ. That’s because until two weeks ago, the games you saw were taped back in the spring, before the cult of KenJen had started....
Tune in tonight to see if he's right.
It's worse than you think. Inflation, that is. That's what Bill Gross says. Gross is the manager of the largest and most successful bond mutual funds in the country, and in his October Investment Outlook to his investors, he argues that two adjustments to the Consumer Product Index (CPI) made by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) are significantly understating inflation and therefore, overstating economic growth. This makes the economy look healthier than it really is, costs Americans who receive wage/pension/Social Security increases tied to inflation, and mislead investors:
The CPI as calculated may not be a conspiracy but it’s definitely a con job foisted on an unwitting public by government officials who choose to look the other way or who convince themselves that they are fostering some logical adjustment in a New Age Economy dependent on the markets and not the marketplace for its survival. If the CPI is so low and therefore real wages in the black, tell me why U.S. consumers are resorting to hundreds of billions in home equity takeouts to keep consumption above the line. If real GDP growth is so high, tell me why this economy hasn’t created any jobs over the past four years. High productivity? Nonsense, in part – statistical, hedonically created nonsense. My sense is that the CPI is really 1% higher than official figures and that real GDP is 1% less. (emphasis added)
I encourage you to read the entire column to understand his argument. Don't worry, there's not a lot of economic gobbledygook. And it will help you understand how and why the official inflation rate can be so low even though the prices you're actually paying keep going up. (via MSN Money)
Debate 1. As you would imagine, I watched the Bush-Kerry debate last Thursday, and was heartened at how things went -- not a knockout by any means, but Kerry clearly came out the winner.
In 2000, Bush's campaign was able to successfully spin that he had won the first debate with Gore. This time, the spin went entirely against him.
Here's a 5-minute summary of why (QuickTime or Windows Media). Of course it's possible to make anyone look stupid with editing ... but the amount of raw material to work with is staggering. Watch it and cringe at our nation's highest elected official. (via Metafilter)