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

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Tuesday, December 28, 2004
Bye-bye, time.
Another signpost along the march of technology: After 75 years, SBC is eliminating its time service in Michigan. You know: "At the tone the time will be ..."

Wisdom for the ages.
You know, Claire Booth Luce really was right.

Monday, December 27, 2004
Grasping the terror.
It's hard to grasp the magnitude of the earthquake-caused tsunamis that struck Southern Asia and Africa. As I write this, news reports are estimating 14,000+ deaths. But I found this first-hand account by a Washington Post reporter helps to conceptualize it.

A380 vs. 7E7.
There's an interesting discussion at Metafilter about the Airbus plans to build the world's largest passenger plane, a double-decker behemoth that won't fit in most airports. Some interesting links and arguments there, especially if you keep reading down the page; I'm as skeptical as "eriko" (though nowhere near as knowledgeable).

Sunday, December 26, 2004
Two ... one ... two.
Today's newspapers are full of "best of" stories looking back at arts and culture in 2004. None of them has struck me as particularly noteworthy, until this entry at the very end of a Washington Post article on classical music:
The comeback of the year belonged to 76-year-old Leon Fleisher, who lost the use of his right hand back in the early 1960s to dystonia, a neurological movement disorder, and recovered it only now, through (of all things!) experimental Botox therapy at the National Institutes of Health. He produced a radiant new album -- entitled, appropriately, "Two Hands" -- on Vanguard Classics, with miniatures by Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, Chopin and Debussy, followed by the massive Sonata in B-flat by Franz Schubert. Fleisher described his return to playing with two hands as "a state of grace." "It's a state of ecstasy," he said. "It's wonderful." His listeners will surely agree.

It turns out that the opening sentence is overly simplified -- Fleischer successfully started regaining use of his right hand in the mid-1990s, and a massage technique called "Rolfing" also played a role -- but it's nevertheless an interesting story. This Newsweek Web interview explains much more, and here's an audio interview (Real format) from Minnesota Public Radio.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004
What we may not know about gravity.
The Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11 spacecraft, launched in 1972 and 1973, were the first man-made objects to cross the asteroid belt, and held the distance record for years until surpassed by Voyager 1 in 1998. (They also held a famous plaque co-designed by Carl Sagan that attempted to communicate with any life forms that might find it. Voyager took this idea a step further by including audio recordings.)

The two Pioneers slowed over a period of roughly 25-30 years and billions of miles, and no one can explain why:
In October, a European Space Agency panel recommended a space mission to determine whether Anderson had found something that could rewrite physics textbooks. Some cosmologists even speculate the Pioneer Anomaly might help unravel some of the thorniest problems in theoretical physics, such as the existence of "dark matter" or mysterious extra-dimensional forces predicted by string theory.

For public consumption at least, Anderson and his close-knit group of researchers will not permit themselves the luxury of such grandiose speculation.

"I'm trying to stay away from" that kind of talk, said Slava G. Turyshev, a former Russian scientist who has been working on the anomaly for the last decade. "Even though I'm being dragged into it."

It's a great story about a quietly determined physicist who noticed a minor anomaly and wants to know the explanation. More about the Pioneer anamoly.

And they can kiss my ...
Another business wants its hand in your wallet every month: downloadable music. Rather than sell you a recording, they want to rent it to you for a monthly fee:
After the presentation, [Apple's] rivals weren't appeased. They argued that in the long run, for-sale downloads were doomed.

"Selling 99-cent singles isn't working as a business model for us or for consumers," says Dave Goldberg, who runs Yahoo's music division. It includes Musicmatch, which offers both downloads and subscriptions.

"We sell hundreds of downloads," Goldberg says. "But we don't make money on them. Subscriptions is a much better business for us."

Music labels charge a wholesale rate of about 65 cents a song, and most services offer them for 99 cents each, leaving a razor-thin profit that also has to factor in credit card fees, marketing and overhead. The services favor subscriptions because they generate more profit and bring in steady revenue each month. Resnikoff says services profit about $4 per subscriber on the $9.95 subscriptions.

It's nice to see that the new players in the music business show the same respect for customers that the traditional players have.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004
The Accidental Guru.
I have previously linked (1, 2) to articles written by Malcolm Gladwell, and mentioned that I'd like to read more of his stuff. Now he's the cover story of the January issue of Fast Company:
Gladwell's real gift is packaging these ideas in a way that makes them palatable. "[He] acts almost like a translator between the scholarly world and the practical world," says Frank Flynn, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Columbia Business School, who uses many of Gladwell's articles in his MBA classes. Gladwell deflects the charge that he's just a savvy marketer of ideas, standing by his earnest intentions to help frame people's thinking. "When I was writing The Tipping Point , I realized that in order for people to talk about something . . . they need some way to describe and name things," he says. "So I always like to try to come up with simple, sort of catchy ways of capturing complex ideas."

A Festivus for the rest of us.
NYT reports on the true origins and increasing popularity of Festivus.

Monday, December 20, 2004
It was the night before Christmas.
For your holiday reading pleasure, "A Visit from Saint Nicholas (In the Ernest Hemingway Manner)", written by James Thurber in 1927. (via Metafilter)

Thursday, December 16, 2004
What you don't know about "Beyond the Sea."
The song, that is. Bobby Darin had a big hit with it in 1960, but its origins date back more than 20 years earlier. The public radio program "The World" explains. You can read the story, but given the subject matter it's much better to listen to it; it's in Windows Media Audio format.

When I heard the clip of the original version contained within the story, I thought, "I know this. I've heard this before." And I was right. It only took me a couple of minutes to figure out where.

Government as sucker.
The deal to move the Montreal Expos to Washington, D.C., and rechristen them the Nationals appears to be falling apart. The city council is declining to pay for the entire stadium, but it's willing to split the cost. Naturally, MLB says that's not good enough.

It amazes me that metropolitan areas are so desperate to attract professional sports teams that they will build facilities for them ... despite repeated studies suggesting that there is no economic benefit:
In stark contrast to the results claimed by most prospective economic impact studies commissioned by teams or stadium advocates, the consensus in the academic literature has been that the overall sports environment has no measurable effect on the level of real income in metropolitan areas. Our own research suggests that professional sports may be a drain on local economies rather than an engine of economic growth. ("The Stadium Gambit and Local Economic Development" - PDF)


To the extent that a new stadium is a central element of an urban redevelopment plan and its location and attributes are carefully set out to maximize synergies with local business, and to the extent that the terms of its lease are not negotiated under duress and are relatively fair to the city, the local community may derive some modest economic benefit from a sports team. The problem is that these two conditions rarely apply to monopoly sports leagues. Cities are forced to act hastily under pressure and to bargain without any leverage. Properly reckoned, the value of a sports team to a city should not be measured in dollars of new income but should be appreciated as a potential source of entertainment and civic pride that comes with a substantial net cost. ("Sports, Jobs, and Taxes: The Economic Impact of Sports Teams and Stadiums" - entire text)


Sports economist Robert Baade at Lake Forest College studied (abstract) 48 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) over a 30-year period, and found "of the 32 MSAs where there was a change in the number of sports teams, 30 MSAs showed no significant relationship between the presence of the teams and real, trend-adjusted, per-capita personal income growth. In the remaining two cases, the presence of sports teams was significantly positive once (in Indianapolis) and significantly negative once (in Baltimore)." ("Sports Stadium Madness: Why It Started, How to Stop It" - summary, complete PDF)


Rosentraub's central argument is that pro sports teams are small businesses that don't deserve the subsidies they get. The industry never accounts for more than 0.5% of jobs or salaries in any region. (By contrast, in the average metropolitan area, restaurants provide nearly 7% of jobs.) Its most successful teams, such as the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys, bring in only around $100 million in annual revenue. The business does not provide local economies with any noticeable growth, Rosentraub writes. Yet Cleveland, for example, is spending about $1 billion over a 25-year period for three pro sports franchises. (Business Week review of "Major League Losers - The Real Cost of Sports and Who's Paying for It")

Talk about corporate welfare. Of course, our current president -- who thinks tax cuts are the solution to every problem -- didn't think that way in the 1980s when he convinced Arlington, Texas to build a new baseball stadium.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004
Makes me want to revisit Washington, D.C.
The Smithsonian's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center needed a better draw to attract more visitors to its location near Dulles Airport. The IMAX film 'Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag' sounds like it. I so want to see it.

Tight deadlines = death.
Or the risk of it, at least:
Staff working hard to get a task completed on time were six times more likely to have an attack in the next 24 hours than co-workers, a study said.

Short bursts of high-pressure work were worse for the heart than stressful events in the preceding year, the Swedish study of 3,500 people said.

The study appears in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

Say it ain't so, Tom.
I've previously noted winners of the London-based Literary Review's "Bad Sex in Fiction" Award. (2001, 2002, 2003 results via BBC) Most of the winners and entrants are unknown to me. But this year (alternate source) ... oh my, it's Tom Wolfe for his new novel "Charlotte Simmons."

I can't bring myself to include any excerpts here, but you'll find them, along with some from his competition, in the linked Reuters article (here's a BBC account as well). I can't help but think that Wolfe won in part for dropping a word like "otorhinolaryngological" into the scene. This from the man who wrote "The Bonfire of the Vanities"?

Monday, December 13, 2004
Insert fashion statement joke here.
This just in from CNET News: "tight pants break more phones than dogs, children, rain, snow, acts of forgetfulness and throwing phones to the ground in a rage, according to a report on the survey by cell-phone news Web site Cellular News."

Friday, December 10, 2004
Targeting bombs and mammography.
As disparate as they may seem, Malcolm Gladwell finds parallels in his New Yorker article The Picture Problem.

Gladwell is an interesting writer. I really need to check out his books.

A new movie version of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" comes out later this month. I see that the trailer wisely includes all the characters and dialogue that people are vaguely familiar with:

  • "Shylock is my name" (the one character everyone knows)
  • "The pound of flesh 'tis mine"
  • "Love is blind"
  • "If you prick us, do we not bleed?"
  • "The quality of mercy is not strained"

It looks interesting...

Thursday, December 09, 2004
Heh, heh.
A few days ago my boss forwarded me a picture from a 1954 issue of Popular Mechanics predicting what a home computer might look like. Except that it really wasn't; it was an entry in a Photoshop contest. I knew that because it was posted at Metafilter back in September, and the people there figured it out. (Snopes added the picture to their collection of urban legends in late November.) I e-mailed my boss back that it was a hoax. So many forwarded things are wrong that I try to correct people about them when I can.

It turns out now that he's in good company. Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy used it in a speech yesterday. Lotus founder Mitch Kapor also fell for it a few days earlier. And Popular Mechanics has been getting requests for copies of the original article.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004
Lazy link hunting.
Yesterday was December 7, and apparently a number of people went looking for Pearl Harbor information to post to their blogs. Here are a few interesting links I stumbled across today:

  • U.S. Navy's Naval Historical Foundation selection of Pearl Harbor photos, including many I've never seen before and some corrections (the famous footage of the U.S.S. Arizona explosion is almost always shown reversed L-to-R). Also, a FAQ list.

  • This site may just provide the same pictures with easier navigation; I didn't do a detailed comparison.

  • National Geographic site from 2001 (requires Flash), plus Dr. Robert Ballard's 2000 expedition

  • The 2000 Slate article Who Lost Pearl Harbor?, which examines the origins and sources of the Pearl Harbor conspiracy believers ("the question ... is the Kennedy assassination for the GI Generation, a favorite of amateurs, conspiracy theorists, and military buffs.").

  • As is typical, Wikipedia has a good detailed overview.

  • The Library of Congress has a page linking to a number of its holdings.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004
Who do you trust?
Talk about timing! It was only yesterday that I was venting about groups hiding behind other organizations. And now the Washington Post documents how they're hiding behind media organizations.
The Madison County Record, an Illinois weekly newspaper launched in September that bills itself as the county's legal journal, reports on one subject: the state courts in southern Illinois. A recent front page carried an assortment of stories about lawsuits against businesses. In one, a woman sought $15,000 in damages for breaking her nose at a haunted house. In another, a woman sued a restaurant for $50,000 after she hurt her teeth on a chicken breast.

Nowhere was it reported that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce created the Record as a weapon in its multimillion-dollar campaign against lawyers who file those kinds of suits...

Neither Anderson nor Timpone see any need for the paper to disclose in its pages that the chamber is an owner. Timpone said the chamber doesn't dictate the paper's news content and he defends the stories he runs as genuine news. He said he chose not to divulge the Record's connection to the chamber in print because "I was afraid we'd be prejudged. I thought, 'Let people judge us by our actions.' "...

Timpone admitted: "I'm a biased guy. I'm a Republican."

How will we know which media organizations we can trust? It's bad enough already, but from the sounds of it, things will only get worse.

Monday, December 06, 2004
The surprise witness.
Following yesterday's Steve Martin op/ed, here's Woody Allen in the New Yorker, wiring about a surprise witness in the Disney shareholder trial.

Sunday, December 05, 2004
And now for some levity.
Every now and then the New York Times publishes an op/ed piece with entertainment as its only goal. This piece by Steve Martin -- yes, that Steve Martin -- is an excellent example.

I distinctly remember watching the Saturday Night Live where he first performed this (script, video that may or may not work). It was hilarious, largely due to the absurdly large production that Lorne Michaels had arranged for it.

When "reform" isn't.
An organization called Common Good says it's about "restoring common sense to American law."

Teresa Nielsen Hayden begs to differ:
Common Good is a corporate-funded organization whose entire purpose is deception and the spread of disinformation.

Cute, huh? Large corporations can do stuff like that. They have lots of money. The same kind of resources that can buy them airtime and slick ads for their products can also buy them the entire appearance of whole grassroots groups, organizations, and popular movements...

In the case of Common Good, the agenda being pursued can be loosely grouped under tort reform, which isnít a reform movement at all. Itís a massive lobbying and PR campaign surreptitiously financed by business interests. It works to (1.) bring the law into disrepute; (2.) turn public opinion against small plaintiffs by portraying them as greedheads who file groundless or frivolous lawsuits; (3.) spread the idea that American firms are being driven out of business by runaway jury verdicts (which they arenít)(and by the way, juries tend to make smaller awards than judges do); (4.) likewise spread the idea that American doctors are being ruined by skyrocketing malpractice premiums caused by an epidemic of outlandish malpractice awards (premiums are up, but malpractice awards arenít, and the greedheads in this instance are actually the insurance companies); and (5.) create a climate of public opinion that will enable them to get laws and regulations permanently changed in their favor.

There's also a good explanation about the infamous McDonald's hot coffee award, which makes a lot more sense than most people believe. (via Daypop)

Note for future use: How to research front groups.

But what a cast!
This is a pretty entertaining read: The 10 Least Successful Holiday Specials of All Time.

(What, no Star Wars Holiday Special?) (via Metafilter)

Thursday, December 02, 2004
Someone to watch.
Jay Greenberg has composed five symphonies. His teacher at Juilliard compares him to Mozart, Mendelssohn and Saint-Saens.

Jay Greenberg is 12 years old.

Based upon this 60 Minutes story that aired Sunday, it will be interesting to see how he turns out.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004
Up in the air.
That's the fate of the Chrysler PT Cruiser, according to AutoWeek:
The Chrysler group is debating whether there will be a next-generation PT Cruiser, and, if so, how strong the retro styling will be.

Part of the debate is fueled by the 2006 Chevrolet HHR, a tall, retro-looking wagon that is a little larger than the PT Cruiser. The HHR, which is influenced by the design of the 1949 Suburban, may woo the same group of buyers as the PT Cruiser. The HHR goes on sale next year.

Chrysler group design chief Trevor Creed says the PT Cruiser's future is "much hotly debated."

Asked whether the PT Cruiser is a one-of-a-kind vehicle and whether the market is strong enough to support two retro-styled vehicles, Creed said, "There is much discussion on that right now, and I don't know the answer."

Creed says a restyling is planned for the PT Cruiser, but beyond that "we are not sure what our next move will be." Industry sources expect the restyling to occur for the 2006 model year.

I will be quite disappointed if Chrysler ultimately kills off the PT. I absolutely love mine.