paulmurray.net
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."
- Art Buchwald

I bet you don't have a friend who's an acupuncturist

E-mail me: pmurray [at] despammed.com

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Monday, November 29, 2004
Money and happiness.
Some time ago I read that happiness doesn't really grow very much with incomes beyond $50,000. I didn't save the article, but I've done some searching and I believe it came from Money Magazine's Jean Chatsky, as research for her book "You Don't Have to Be Rich." I probably read it in their October 2003 issue, which does not seem to be available online. However, she also discusses it in this USA Today article:
It seemed to me that if something was sabotaging the happiness of Americans, it wasn't a lack of money, but the way in which money was being managed. I figured that if I was able to pinpoint the money-management habits of people who say they are happy with their financial lives, then I could begin to write a new prescription that, if adopted, could make a significant difference in the financial happiness -- and perhaps the overall happiness -- of Americans.

So I created an eight-page questionnaire, with the help of some "Money" magazine colleagues and the polling agency RoperASW, which was taken by 1,500 randomly selected Americans. The results were even more intriguing than I had hoped. Sure, money plays a part in happiness; you need a certain amount to live comfortably today (and my research puts that at about $50,000 a year -- good news, because many people are already there, or close). But beyond that, more money doesn't buy more happiness. At least not the sort of money that's in any realm of possibility.

My brother recalled this and pointed me to an article in yesterday's Washington Post about the rise of materialism and its costs, written by a clinical psychologist:
If there were evidence that increasing affluence made people happier, there might be occasion to rejoice. Even though GDP per capita has tripled since World II, and houses have grown bigger, cars more luxurious, clothing and food easier to afford, we seem to be working mindlessly to acquire more. In fact, there is ample evidence, both anecdotal and scientific, that once people attain a reasonably good standard of living, making more money and buying more has no appreciable positive effect and in some cases has negative effects.

The biggest cost I see is intergenerational. Materialism is taking a drastic toll at home. There is considerable strain involved in generating the money needed to acquire so much. Many of the parents who come to my office describe living on the earn-and-spend, earn-and-spend treadmill that Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild describes. Parents are exhausted. Children are neglected. Marriages get put on hold. One professional woman reported to me that she felt so overwhelmed that she came home one evening and started breaking plates on the floor in front of her three little kids. Stories like this make me realize we are allowing ourselves to be robbed of what is most precious and counts the most: free time...

The scientific literature supports my office observations. A comprehensive review of more than 150 studies on happiness and wealth by psychologists Ed Diener and Martin Seligman showed that there has been no appreciable rise in life satisfaction over the past decades, despite our increased material wealth.

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation issued a report that is sure to give ambitious and acquisitive parents pause. It found an inverse relationship between self-reported child happiness and parental income. Blue-collar and middle-class kids identified themselves as happier than wealthy ones. Kids need their parents on site -- in the foreground when they are young, and in the background as they get older. That's simply not possible in many of today's go-getter households.

Of course, researchers have identified another way that you can feel like you just got a $50,000 raise. (PDF of full report)



Sunday, November 28, 2004
Don't think about it.
Brace yourself: Brain images show thinking about learning makes it more difficult.



Weird stuff happens all the time.
And more often than you might think.



Everything you (may) want to know about air cleaners.
Those who know me personally also know that I have allergies -- nothing particularly exotic, but I get pretty miserable for extended periods at least twice a year. I only bring this up to explain the rest of this post.

I stumbled across two pages on the web that have taught me more about air cleaners than I have learned anywhere else.

This EPA document
provides a great basis in the theory of how different types work.

This Consumer Search page provides a practical overview by comparing reviews and explaining what to look for. It's also very current, with an update noting a court decision made earlier this month (which threw out The Sharper Image's lawsuit against Consumer Reports over that publication's review of their popular Ionic Breeze series). I want to explore the Consumer Search site more.

(via Ask Metafilter)



It's not that bad.
From a Newsday columnist. the truth about Social Security. It's not as bad as some people, including the Bush Administration, would have you think. A few tweaks is all we need, not a wholesale redesign. (via Devoter)



Friday, November 26, 2004
Let the re-education begin.
ABC News reports on religious conservatives demand ing changes at national parks. (via Devoter)



"I was pretty good at the game, but I didn't feel like I'd won anything."
"As a physics simulation, it's remarkable. But as an experience? It's nauseating." Slate reviews JFK Reloaded.



Childish and/or funny.
I think that's a fair way to describe RoboDump 1.0.

Hard to believe that someone spent the time to a) create it and b) document it for the Web. But there you are.



Thursday, November 25, 2004
Unknowledge.
You know the famous Voltaire quote "I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it"? It turns out that he never actually said that.

On the other hand, he did observe that "Common sense is not so common," which seems like one of those self-evident things that were just always out there, not something that dates back to the 18th century.



Wednesday, November 24, 2004
How would he know?
Stephen Holden's NYT review of the movie "Christmas With the Kranks" contains what may be the most gratuitously vicious sentence I've ever read in a movie review, about Jamie Lee Curtis: "Ms. Curtis, wearing one of the ugliest haircuts I have ever seen, her upper lip weirdly curled-in, resembles a transvestite chimpanzee."

This helps the moviegoing audience how, exactly?



Tuesday, November 16, 2004
"It's time for Americans to unite..."
Is the content of this cartoon really so controversial? It didn't appear in today's Detroit Free Press.



Monday, November 15, 2004
Wal-Mart's hunger for data.
Buried in this NYT article about Wal-Mart and the data it tracks is this tidbit:
By its own count, Wal-Mart has 460 terabytes of data stored on Teradata mainframes, made by NCR, at its Bentonville headquarters. To put that in perspective, the Internet has less than half as much data, according to experts.

And for those of you who care about privacy:
"People don't know that Wal-Mart is capturing information about who they are and what they bought, but they are also capable of capturing a huge amount of outside information about them that has nothing to do with their grocery purchases," said Katherine Albright, the founder and director of Caspian, a consumer advocacy group concerned with privacy issues. "They can find out your mortgage amounts, your court dates, your driving record, your creditworthiness."

One source of information can be a credit card or a debit card, Ms. Albright said. Wal-Mart shoppers increasingly use the cards to pay for purchases, particularly in the better-heeled neighborhoods where the company has been building stores recently.



More on the CIA.
Josh Marshall on the significance of what's going on at the CIA:
On every significant point of conflict between the Bush administration and the country's cadre of intelligence professionals, the Bush political appointees turned out to be wrong. Often very wrong, and with disastrous consequences. Sometimes the intel folks were wrong too; but when that was so, the appointees were always more wrong.

This is not argumentative or hyperbole or even up for much serious dispute.

And the upshot of all that we've seen, the result of all those struggles over the last three years is that the 'appointees' are purging the 'professionals'. Another way to put it is that the folks who were always wrong and often catastrophically wrong are rooting out the folks who were often right and sometimes somewhat wrong. The answer to politicized intelligence, it turns out, is a more thorough politicization of intelligence and the elimination of those who resisted political pressure.

If you think this is just a Washington squabble or political debating point you'd be mistaken. Because your lives, and those of your families and friends, may very well be on the line.



"Until we respect [Osama bin Laden], we are going to die in numbers that are probably unnecessary."
In a story that's related to the one immediately below, the CIA analyst who anonymously published two books criticizing the government's handling of Osama bin Laden has left the agency. Michael Scheuer was interviewed by Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes:
"You've written no one should be surprised when Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda detonate a weapon of mass destruction in the United States," says Kroft. "You believe that's going to happen?"

"I don't believe in inevitability. But I think it's pretty close to being inevitable," says Scheuer.

A nuclear weapon? "A nuclear weapon of some dimension, whether it's actually a nuclear weapon, or a dirty bomb, or some kind of radiological device," says Scheuer. "Yes, I think it's probably a near thing."

What evidence is there that bin Laden's actually working to do this? "He's told us it. Bin Laden is remarkably eager for Americans to know why he doesn't like us, what he intends to do about it and then following up and doing something about it in terms of military actions," says Scheuer. "He's told us that, 'We are going to acquire a weapon of mass destruction, and if we acquire it, we will use it.'" After Sept. 11, Scheuer says bin Laden was criticized by Muslim clerics for launching such a serious attack without sufficient warning. That has now been given. And he says bin Laden has even obtained a fatwa, or Islamic decree, justifying a nuclear attack against the United States on religious grounds.

"He secured from a Saudi sheik named Hamid bin Fahd a rather long treatise on the possibility of using nuclear weapons against the Americans. Specifically, nuclear weapons," says Scheuer. "And the treatise found that he was perfectly within his rights to use them. Muslims argue that the United States is responsible for millions of dead Muslims around the world, so reciprocity would mean you could kill millions of Americans."

Scheuer says the fatwa was issued in May 2003, "and that's another thing that doesn't come to the attention of the American people."



Purging the disloyal.
I stumbled across this Newsday report that demonstrates how importantly George Bush regards both secrecy and loyalty:
The White House has ordered the new CIA director, Porter Goss, to purge the agency of officers believed to have been disloyal to President George W. Bush or of leaking damaging information to the media about the conduct of the Iraq war and the hunt for Osama bin Laden, according to knowledgeable sources.

"The agency is being purged on instructions from the White House," said a former senior CIA official who maintains close ties to both the agency and to the White House. "Goss was given instructions ... to get rid of those soft leakers and liberal Democrats. The CIA is looked on by the White House as a hotbed of liberals and people who have been obstructing the president's agenda."

You'd think a president would be interested in having the best and brightest, regardless of their political philosophies, at the CIA. But no.

So why haven't I seen this reported anywhere else? (via Daily Kos)



Friday, November 12, 2004
Look past the hype.
I was dismayed -- but not surprised -- at the reaction reported in the media to President Bush nominating Alberto Gonzalez to replace John Ashcroft as Attorney General. Inspiring achievement for Latin-Americans, from humble migrant parents to this, blah blah blah. All of which is beside the point.

Gonzalez has given Bush some poor advice for a decade. I mentioned a few lowlights when the news was announced, and Slate has a good article that goes into more depth.

Bush is appointing Gonzalez for two reasons: Gonzalez is loyal, and nothing counts more to the Bush family than loyalty; and by appointing a Hispanic, Bush can simultanously suck up to that demographic and make it more difficult for Democrats to oppose his nominee.



Thursday, November 11, 2004
Thanks, Winamp.
The last original member of the team that produced Winamp has left, and the consensus is that the only updates from here on out will be minor tweaks and bug fixes, etc. The whole story is here.

It's a shame. Winamp is far and away my favorite MP3 player, and I use it all the time to listen to my two favorite classical net radio stations, which I found at Shoutcast. I'll stick with Winamp for the foreseeable future.

Here's some Winamp tips.

11/16 Update: Slate's Paul Boutin provides a good overview in Nullsoft, 1997-2004.



Wednesday, November 10, 2004
How screwed up is Best Buy?
Monday's WSJ includes a story about Best Buy wanting to get rid of up to 20% of its customers.

This 20% includes customers who allegedly (among other things) buy items, send for the rebate, and then return the item to Best Buy. I find this hard to believe; if it's happening, it's because either the store doesn't have a good return policy or Best Buy employees aren't doing their job. My brother just attempted to exchange a cordless phone two days late (but with all the packaging and the receipt, etc.) and they wouldn't let him. But they're taking returns on packages where the UPC code is missing? Something's wrong here!

I worked in retail for three years, and I know that some customers play dirty -- buying a camera and returning it after using it, etc. -- but they'd better be careful with this strategy.

P.S. Read the article and you'll see that the "helpful" Best Buy employees are profiling you, to find out if it's worth spending time on you.



Word origin.
Ever wonder where the term "cover song" comes from? Its origin is more specific and interesting than you might think.



Be careful what you wish for.
Now that John Ashcroft is leaving his post as Attorney General, I feel so much better knowing that our next Attorney General will be the man who advised George Bush that he could legally:
  • hold suspects without allowing them access to the courts or even a lawyer
  • ignore the Geneva Convention
  • torture prisoners to obtain information

It's better than putting him on the Supreme Court, I suppose ... although that could still happen, too.



Thursday, November 04, 2004
Something to feel good about -- and not.
If, like me, you are looking for something positive in this election, you might want to look at the state level. Here in Michigan, for instance:
Amazingly, Democrats also gained five seats in the Michigan House, more than anyone expected. The new House has 58 Republicans and 52 Democrats, giving [Governor Jennifer] Granholm a little more clout.

Democrats gained four seats on the Oakland County Board of Commissioners; they have 10 of 25 seats. They gained three seats on the Macomb County Board of Commissioners to take a 17-9 advantage over Republicans.

Democrat Eric Smith was elected Macomb County's new prosecutor.

I've heard that similar things happened in Minnesota.

Political change comes from the bottom, and takes work. Congressional districts are drawn by state legislatures; controlling them is an essential building block for long-term success.

On the other hand, if you're up for a challenge, read this:
In the struggle for political power, Democrats now face a stark threat: Under George W. Bush, Republicans are consolidating their control over the culturally conservative regions of the country.

The 2004 elections underscored that the nation's so-called red territories areas that support the president are becoming redder. And that threatens to leave Democrats at a long-term disadvantage in future races for the White House and battles for Congress.



More views of Red vs. Blue America.
Looking for subtleties than the "Red vs. Blue America" paradigm allows, Jeff Culver created this "shades of purple" map.

USA Today has a county-by-county map of the vote. It's not for faint-hearted critics of Bush. But it definitely illustrates the argument I read some time back that the real divide is not so much Left vs. Right as Urban vs. Rural. (via BoingBoing)

Update: Here's yet another map that's a hybrid of the previous two: it takes the purple map down to the county level of the USA Today map. (via Kottke)



Wednesday, November 03, 2004
What lies ahead.
William Bennett on the election results:
Having restored decency to the White House, President Bush now has a mandate to affect policy that will promote a more decent society, through both politics and law. His supporters want that, and have given him a mandate in their popular and electoral votes to see to it. Now is the time to begin our long, national cultural renewal ("The Great Relearning," as novelist Tom Wolfe calls it) no less in legislation than in federal court appointments. It is, after all, the main reason George W. Bush was reelected.

I wonder if Bill had any bets down on this one. (via Andrew Sullivan thru Josh Marshall)



This is so not good.
The fat lady is warming up, but she may not sing for awhile yet.

The GOP is picking up seats in Congress.

Things will only get worse in the next four years.

I'm going to bed.



Tuesday, November 02, 2004
My prediction is now off track.
Bush took Florida. Kerry must win Ohio -- where he's behind -- or it will be over.



Watch OH & FL.
Whoever takes both wins.



Exit polls.
Take these for what they're worth -- which may be nothing. (That Pennsylvania one seems pretty dubious to me. +16?) After all, when even Drudge is warning you about their accuracy, that's saying something.



My prediction.


Create your own here .



Following the election.
I'm collecting here sites that are useful for tracking polls and results during the election. Suggestions are welcome.

Today's Washington Post has a column with a number of suggestions.



Opportunity lost.
E.J. Dionne nails it today with his column What Bush Threw Away:
[After 9/11] I thought Bush had an enormous political opportunity that matched the nation's interest: to build a wide, sustainable, Eisenhower-like Republican majority. The country was waiting for a call to service, sacrifice and solidarity. It didn't want the old ideological politics.

But Bush interpreted his prodigious approval ratings not as an opportunity for something new but as a chance to push the same ideological agenda he was pursuing before Sept. 11. It was a chance to create a Republican majority in Congress in the 2002 elections. It was a chance to push through even more tax cuts, and never mind the deficits created by all that new spending. If the Senate, facing the 2002 elections, could be badgered into giving the president broad authority to wage war against Saddam Hussein, why not short-circuit a more searching debate and just grab the power? And if forcing an early Iraq vote put his potential 2004 opponents -- John Kerry, John Edwards, Dick Gephardt -- in a bind, why not seize that advantage, too?

It worked for a while. And should Bush squeeze out a narrow win, his supporters will no doubt claim a victory for the president's audacious style.

But the cost of such a victory will be paid off for many years -- perhaps for as long as we're paying off the debt. Consider the reaction to bin Laden. Right there on Fox News, the Bush Channel, a Republican operative named David Johnson thought bin Laden's strange disquisition could be interpreted only one way. "This almost looks," he said, "like an endorsement by Osama bin Laden of John Kerry."

And thus were the last vestiges of the unity achieved on Sept. 11 wiped off the face of our politics.



Voting.

It took me 50 minutes to vote this morning (9:15-10:05). Long lines -- roughly 30 people ahead of me at my precinct. UAW people in orange vests helping out; thank goodness, because it was confusing to figure out which line to be in. And yes, Republican observers. At least, I assume they were. A blonde in a pant suit and a guy in white shirt and tie, both with American flag pins, hovering in the background behind the election workers. They might not have been out of place elsewhere, but they sure were in my Detroit neighborhood.



Monday, November 01, 2004
Bin Laden out to bankrupt us?
So today Al Jazeera gives us the complete transcript of the latest Osama bin Laden video, and it contains an interesting twist:
Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden said he is trying to bankrupt the U.S. through its war on terror, a strategy he says felled the Soviet Union two decades ago in Afghanistan, according to a translation by al-Jazeera television of his full, videotaped statement.

"The mujahedeen recently forced Bush to resort to emergency funds to continue the fight in Afghanistan and Iraq, which is evidence of the success of the bleed-until-bankruptcy plan -- with Allah's permission," bin Laden said in the video that aired on the Qatar-based satellite network, according to the translation, posted today to al-Jazeera's Web site. The channel aired portions of the statement on Oct. 29.



I've been push-polled!
We got one of these phone calls yesterday.
In the phone calls, a young woman tells those answering the phone: "When you vote this Tuesday remember to legalize gay marriage by supporting John Kerry. We need John Kerry in order to make gay marriage legal for our city. Gay marriage is a right we all want. It's a basic Democrat principle. It's time to move forward and be progressive. Without John Kerry, George Bush will stop gay marriage. That's why we need Kerry. So Tuesday, stand up for gay marriage by supporting John Kerry."

It was on my phone upstairs, and I didn't hear all of it, but I distinctly recall hearing the end as it's quoted in the article. Gosh, which party could possibly be behind these calls?




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