Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Intelligent psychiatry

While getting caught up recently on my readings at The Last Psychiatrist, I came across this excellent piece on autism treatment:

What Should Really Be Done For Autistic Children?
That perfectly exemplifies why I've been reading that blog, off and on, for....well, it's been several years now. I've actually lost track.

Earlier in my life, I spent a good deal of time immersed in the bullshit known as "psychology", and even declared a psych major at one point. It's nice to read an article like that and be reminded that yes, there are still some thoughtful practitioners and/or researchers out there, and that the entire field hasn't devolved into one massive exercise in self-perpetuating, totally-off-the-rails groupthink.

Psychology feels like one of the great disappointments of my life, and appears to be one of the great failures of the human species, by my way of thinking. What was supposed to be a pure, scientific effort to gain some real, truthful insight into the human mind has, instead, devolved into a parasitic, sociological compliance mechanism, totally enslaved to capitalism and whichever socio-political fad happens to be in fashion at the time. I'm actually tempted to say we should have just stuck with religion for that.

At least, that's the thought. Someone like the Last Psychiatrist tends to put me into a more optimistic mood, at least for a few minutes. Many of the commenters there are quite intelligent as well.


Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Got a problem? Pass a law! :P

Pet peeve of mine: People who seem to believe that the best way to address any problem is by passing a law.

Example: In the area of Green Bay, with escalating gas prices, there has recently been a problem with people pumping gas and then driving off without paying for it. At roughly $4/gallon, even small cars are typically paying more than $30 for a fill up, so this is not an insignificant problem.

When someone steals gas, the gas station owner calls the cops, who track down the thief. With the ubiquity of cameras these days, I can't imagine it's all that difficult to figure out who the thief is [footnote]. The problem is that, once caught, the thief offers to pay for the gas, and, now that he's got his money, the gas station owner declines to prosecute.

The police are understandably irritated by this, as it basically puts them in the position of acting as collection agents for the gas stations. The proposed remedy is to require gas stations to collect payment before turning on the pump. Article here.

It's a dumb idea. Here's a better one: If the cops go through the trouble of chasing down the thief and the gas station owner then declines to prosecute, how about the police politely explain that they don't have infinite resources to be chasing these people down all the time, so if the gas station owner isn't willing to press charges, the police aren't going to bother the next time someone swipes some gas from that station?

That would solve this problem real fast, and, most importantly, it would have no impact whatsoever on law abiding citizens, unlike the "must pay in advance" idea.

Seriously, I fail to understand why it isn't just done that way already.

Generally, I am strongly opposed to "solutions" to problems that affect people who weren't part of the problem in the first place. Sure, sometimes it's unavoidable, but not in this case.


Footnote: Actually, cameras are so ubiquitous now that it makes me wonder how anyone can be so stupid as to think they can get away with anything.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Food: "stealth downsizing" is nothing new

Food Inflation Kept Hidden in Tinier Bags

This has been going on for years. Probably forever. Ever wonder why cans and packages of food come in such oddball sizes? When the product was new, it came in a nice, even size, but over the years, companies need to increase profits, and they know people watch prices. It's especially easy to watch prices considering the irritating way so much merchandise is priced, i.e. $3.99, $2.95, $1.99---in any of these cases, a very slight increase will be very noticeable because it will carry over all the way to the whole dollar amount. Instead, they'll sneak in a one ounce reduction in the size of the package, but keep the price the same. And so, eventually that bag of potato chips that used to be an even "one pound" size, ends up weighing 14 ounces, then 12.5; or that can of tomato sauce that used to be exactly one quart (32 fl. oz.) is now 29.5 fl. oz. And so on.

The difference today must be that more companies are doing it, in larger and more obvious increments. The example of the saltines in the article is particularly egregious, and therefore obvious. I've noticed that my toilet paper rolls are narrower than they used to be. This one was easy to spot because they don't fit in the dispenser the way older rolls used to fit. I buy a good deal of food sold by weight, and I watch prices like a hawk. I recently noticed that the chicken I usually buy now costs exactly double per pound compared to what I was paying for it a year ago.

[Of course, we're not supposed to care about any of this. We're just supposed to charge it all on our credit cards and keep our attention on some stupid revolution in Libya, or on sensationalistic, fact-sparse nuclear disaster reports from Japan, or on abortion, or gay marriage, or "crime", or some 13 year old girl who made a fucking video that people apparently hate, or on some bullshit healthcare plan that doesn't do anything substantive, or (most of all) on terrorisim (OMG!) and (gasp) PREDATORS! :-O Never on something mundane and tedious like whether we're going to have enough money to buy food six months from now. Frankly, the media these days is in such a reality-impaired rabbit hole it almost makes that guy in Dr. Strangelove sound rational when he rants about the corruption of our precious bodily fluids.]

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A Gold standard would not be a cure-all

Some interesting comments on the idea of reverting the US to a gold standard instead of fiat currency:

Another Case Of Severe Recto-Cranial Inversion

The title is a bit inflammatory, I admit. :) Basically, though, the article makes sense. To summarize, proponents of the gold standard posit that it would alleviate inflation due to replacing fictitious fiat money with "real" money, i.e. gold. Inflation would supposedly be alleviated due to the naturally limited supply of gold.

The linked article uses history to prove that this is not what would necessarily happen. Part of the problem is that the supply of gold and the value of gold are two different things. In other words, it is incorrect to assume that something, anything, has some inherent and stable value, when the reality is that virtually nothing does. (Even food and water, which clearly have inherent value, do not have inherent stable value. They also wouldn't be very useful as currencies.) The other part of the problem relates to who controls the supply of gold. Cartels tend to form, and cartels inevitably function for their own benefit, not the general good. They can, and will, manipulate the supply for their own profit.

Consequently, when when gold has been used as a currency in the past, inflation and deflation ran rampant in wildly erratic variation, causing a lot of suffering for a great number of people.

Of course, this doesn't necessarily mean that a gold standard would be a bad idea, it just means that people aren't being realistic about it. It would certainly not be a magical cure-all for our economic woes, most of which are simply the result of human corruption, greed and stupidity.

The article goes on to address what the author believes to be the real problem, namely inadvisable lending. He's probably right.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

You Want Small Business to Start Hiring? Here's What To Do

I like the way this guy thinks. Sign me up.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Is "cold fusion" back?

Italian scientists claim to have demonstrated cold fusion (w/ Video)

Interesting, if true. Which it probably is not.

This, in particular, rings an alarm bell:
Further, the scientists say that the reactor is well beyond the research phase; they plan to start shipping commercial devices within the next three months and start mass production by the end of 2011.
It sounds like an elaborate investment hoax to me. Earthshattering discoveries like this just don't come out of nowhere in investment-ready state. It could also turn out that it's not actually fusion which is occurring. The authors of the study admit that they don't know what is happening, so this seems likely. A third-party research team needs to get their hands on one of these devices, study it thoroughly and see what is really going on.

Of course, in the unlikely event that this is the real deal, it may well save our collective asses. For now.


Monday, January 17, 2011

Random Tidbit...

While surfing today I came across a blog named IQ & PC, which contained the following quote in the sidebar:
Socialism makes the individual the slave of the state – capitalism frees them.
It occurred to me that it would be more accurate to say,
Socialism makes the individual the slave of the state, capitalism makes the individual the slave of the corporation. In either case, the solution is obvious: Either become the state, or become the corporation. Which is more realistic?
What bothers me about this is that, while I have no interest in being a slave, I also have no interest in being a master. I'd rather just get away from it all, entirely.


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Stoopid America

Yes, I am in a bit of a derogatory mood today. But can you blame me?


I Fought The DMV To Keep The World's Greatest License Plate
He lost.

In question was a Virginia "Kids First" license plate belonging to the automobile of Garth Yeaman, and cleverly adorned with the words "Eat the". (Or, more accurately, "EATTHE".) Very amusing, and a lot of people felt that way too. He claims to have experienced only one substantially negative response from anyone, in the years he displayed the plate.

In the end, though, there was a second negative response, and that one came from the Virginia DMV. Some hypersensitive, overly-concerned busybody felt that the plate was a veiled reference to pedophilia. The idea is ridiculous, of course, but Yeaman had to give it up anyway. As often happens, as soon as pedophilia enters the discussion, reason exits.

To be specific, what's "stoopid" about this isn't the fact that one person raised such a ridiculous concern in the first place. There will always be idiots in the world, that's just a fact of life. What's genuinely stoopid about this is that, in this case, the ridiculous concern was taken seriously by an official government body, rather than being immediately thrown on the trash heap where it belonged.

(It's also kind of stoopid that we have "kids first!" license plates at all, but that's kind of a side issue.)

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Show me the magic of your crystal ball, oh great prognosticator of the future! I swoon before your omniscience! I gibber in amazement before your...

Whoops--turns out Blogger actually does have a limit on the length of subject lines. How lame.

Anyway, getting to the point at hand:

It amazes me that people get paid to write stuff like this. Behold:
Things Babies Born in 2011 Will Never Know

Video tape: Starting this year, the news stories we produce here at Money Talks have all been shot, edited, and distributed to TV stations without ever being on any kind of tape. Not only that, the tape-less broadcast camera we use today offers much higher quality than anything that could have been imagined 10 years ago -- and cost less than the lens on the camera we were using previously.
One of the few "good riddance" items on the list. I can't see videotape being missed by very many, especially considering how poorly the tapes held up over time.
Travel agents: While not dead today, this profession is one of many that's been decimated by the Internet. When it's time for their honeymoon, will those born in 2011 be able to find one?
Amazingly, there are still travel agents in business today. I don't know why. Maybe they're a luxury item, for people who prefer not to spend hours poring over listings on Orbitz.com or wherever. My own guess is that this is how it will stay: The few travel agents still in business will be a luxury service, offering convenience and what-have-you above and beyond what can be found online with automated services. Saving money won't necessarily be the primary goal anymore.
The separation of work and home: When you're carrying an email-equipped computer in your pocket, it's not just your friends who can find you -- so can your boss. For kids born this year, the wall between office and home will be blurry indeed.
Now we start venturing into more dystopian territory. It's entirely possible that the sheeplike masses will submit to this bullshit, but I sincerely hope not.
Books, magazines, and newspapers: Like video tape, words written on dead trees are on their way out. Sure, there may be books -- but for those born today, stores that exist solely to sell them will be as numerous as record stores are now.
There was a time when this would have bothered me, but then the internet killed my attention span, so I am no longer particularly concerned about the demise of books. As for magazines, I've realized that they are perhaps the most worthless form of printed literature ever. They're worse than useless, actually, since the sole reason for their existence is to convince you that you absolutely need whatever it was that their advertisers are selling. Like, for instance, a brand new, $10,000 home theater system, to replace the $9,000 home theater system you already have.
Movie rental stores: You actually got in your car and drove someplace just to rent a movie?
This one is in the "already dead" category. I am aware of one brick-and-mortar video store left in my community, and, oddly enough, they are the one that was erected most recently (in the late 1990's). The last mom-and-pop video store went out of business about five years ago, and I only think they stayed in business so long because they were a tax write-off for mom-and-pop, who also owned a profitable marina or something like that. Netflix finally killed them, though. That left the chain stores. Hollywood Video's two outlets are now gone, and I'm pretty sure the last remaining Blockbuster is now gone, too. For the one store that's left, I'd be surprised if they're still in business at the end of 2011.
Watches: Maybe as quaint jewelry, but the correct time is on your smartphone, which is pretty much always in your hand.
Another one I'm not looking forward to. Not just because I don't own a "smart"phone, but because I honestly think a watch is just a better way of telling what time it is.
Paper maps: At one time these were available free at every gas station. They're practically obsolete today, and the next generation will probably have to visit a museum to find one.
This one is really going to suck. Paper maps are just superior to this GPS crap. Why? Because with paper maps, it's easier for morons to get lost, and that's something I'm in favor of. ;) Seriously, there is no way that all of this GPS shit will ever compare to the sheer beauty of a well-made paper map. The demise of paper maps, if it happens, and I damn well hope it doesn't, will be a great loss for mankind.
Wired phones: Why would you pay $35 every month to have a phone that plugs into a wall? For those born today, this will be a silly concept.
Yeah, this is increasingly getting to be a useless ripoff. The amount of snailmail spam I get from AT&T is ridiculous, too--they must really be getting desperate. I actually got one envelope from them with the words, "Please don't discard!" printed on the outside. It almost worked. For one thing, I respond much better to an honest, human entreaty like that than to typical corporate advertising hype. And, for a moment, I actually felt kind of sorry for them. But ultimately it boiled down to the fact that I already have pretty much what I want, and although I would consider changing things up if I thought it would save me some money, there's nothing out there that is likely to do that. Which is part of the problem.
Long distance: Thanks to the Internet, the days of paying more to talk to somebody in the next city, state, or even country are limited.
Good riddance. ;)
Newspaper classifieds: The days are gone when you have to buy a bunch of newsprint just to see what's for sale.
Craigslist baby! Craigslist! (Only problem is, you can't find listings for hookers anymore because those chickenshits caved in to a bunch of grandstanding whores attorneys-general.)
Dial-up Internet: While not everyone is on broadband, it won't be long before dial-up Internet goes the way of the plug-in phone.
I find it hard to understand how anyone can even function on dialup these days, with everything online being as bloated as it is. How do they manage their software updates, for example? What happens when they need to download a 50 megabyte update? That would take forever on dialup.
Encyclopedias: Imagine a time when you had to buy expensive books that were outdated before the ink was dry. This will be a nonsense term for babies born today.
This one is kind of sad, really. One of my favorite things as a kid, when visiting Grandma's house, was poring over her World Book encyclopedia set. I especially loved the transparent pages devoted to human anatomy, those were just plain cool. I've seen a lot of cool stuff online, but computers really do fail in one particular area, and that is the lack of "realness" that you get with real stuff. My parents didn't buy encyclopedias, but they did have a lot of other cool books. Several different Time Life series, for instance. I loved those.
Forgotten friends: Remember when an old friend would bring up someone you went to high school with, and you'd say, "Oh yeah, I forgot about them!" The next generation will automatically be in touch with everyone they've ever known even slightly via Facebook.
Sounds a bit nightmarish, to me.
Forgotten anything else: Kids born this year will never know what it was like to stand in a bar and incessantly argue the unknowable. Today the world's collective knowledge is on the computer in your pocket or purse. And since you have it with you at all times, why bother remembering anything?
Hmmm. What was I going to say? Unfortunately, I am unable to Google my short-term memory, although I'm sure the Google tech crew is working on that even as we speak...
The evening news: The news is on 24/7. And if you're not home to watch it, that's OK -- it's on the smartphone in your pocket.
Good riddance. "TV journalism" is an oxymoron anyway--worse than useless.
CDs: First records, then 8-track, then cassette, then CDs -- replacing your music collection used to be an expensive pastime. Now it's cheap(er) and as close as the nearest Internet connection.
I'm sincerely looking forward to getting rid of all optical media, which have proven to be a grossly unreliable pain in the ass. Compact discs, the original, non-burnable kind, were the only optical media that I ever thought was really decent, but even they haven't proven to be as durable as everyone originally thought. I have one disc, for instance, which has somehow developed a tendency to emit loud bursts of static, in time with and over the top of the music, as it plays. Since the music in question is classical piano, this represents a serious problem! (I suspect what's happening is the high-order bits have somehow become destroyed and/or obscured, and the noise is due to clipping resulting from the normally-16-bit signal getting unceremoniously truncated to 13 or 14 bits. Weird, and I would really be interested to know how something like that could happen. The disc exhibits no visible scratches or pinholes. It's a mystery.) Luckily, I was able to buy a duplicate copy of the CD, which is now ripped into my iTunes library. ;)
Film cameras: For the purist, perhaps, but for kids born today, the word "film" will mean nothing. In fact, even digital cameras -- both video and still -- are in danger of extinction as our pocket computers take over that function too.
Film cameras are now an "artist" item, much sought after by aspiring young photographers, many of whom are curious about this older way of doing things. As for digital cameras, I can certainly see a reduction in the avalanche of point-and-shoot models thanks to "smart"phones, although I don't think they'll ever completely go away. There are also DSLR cameras and mirrorless large-sensor cameras, which may yet experience some kind of major transformation, but haven't so far (the recent addition of video capability to DSLRs hasn't proven to be particularly transformative, although many do find it to be a useful feature addition). One advantage of a DSLR over a "smart"phone is the way it feels to operate. I own a Nikon DSLR, and I admit, sometimes there's a certain amount of pleasure to be had just from fondling the damn thing. :D
Yellow and White Pages: Why in the world would you need a 10-pound book just to find someone?
I've heard white pages are already on the way out. Yellow pages? Not sure, I have very little info on that one. I know that my brother, who is a portrait/wedding photographer, is not going to renew his AT&T yellow pages ad because it's just too expensive relative to the amount of business it brings him. The other thing about the yellow pages is that they are often a serious bother to use. You want to find something, so you look it up, but it turns out that whatever-it-is is not under the heading that you expect. You can easily waste five minutes struggling to find where whatever-it-is is. This is a pretty common problem, and the answer turns out to be fairly easy: Just Google It. ;)
Catalogs: There's no need to send me a book in the mail when I can see everything you have for sale anywhere, anytime. If you want to remind me to look at it, send me an email.
No complaints on this one. Just today, in fact, my stupid health insurance carrier clogged up my snailmail box with their phonebook-sized hardcopy edition of their preferred provider catalog. Most of these doctors aren't even local to here, so why the hell do I want this, exactly? I suppose this does depend on one other thing, though: How well their website works. Show me a shitty website interface, and I'll take the hard copy version, any day.
Fax machines: Can you say "scan," ".pdf" and "email?"
Yup. Dead. In fact it was just the other day that we got rid of our fax machine at work. It was in perfect working order, never had a problem with it, but when our old copier died and we replaced it with one that faxes and does everything else short of oral sex, our trusty little fax machine was instantly converted into a doorstop. :(
One picture to a frame: Such a waste of wall/counter/desk space to have a separate frame around each picture. Eight gigabytes of pictures and/or video in a digital frame encompassing every person you've ever met and everything you've ever done -- now, that's efficient. Especially compared to what we used to do: put our friends and relatives together in a room and force them to watch what we called a "slide show" or "home movies."
Whatever. All I know is that when I was a kid, I loved the slideshows whenever the relatives got together. They were fun! I never understood how other people thought slideshows were cheesy or boring. (Maybe other people just took more boring pictures than we did.) The other nice thing about them was that the quality was simply far superior to anything that has come since, including digital. Yes, the sheer resolution of modern DSLR and medium-format digital cameras will outstrip that of Kodachrome, but how many of us have computer monitors that are eight feet wide for viewing? Don't assume you know what I'm talking about just because you have a 100 inch hi-def TV, either. A Kodachrome 25 slide blown up to that size absolutely blows away any form of hi-definition TV currently available to consumers. The only thing comparable is what you see in movie theaters. (And, actually, a 35mm slide has double the resolution of a normal 35mm film frame anyway, plus there is a slight additional loss of resolution created by movie cameras that use anamorphic lenses to achieve a "wide screen" effect. So the real comparison might be to super-35 or 70mm film. IMAX would be superior, but nothing else that I am aware of.)
Wires: Wires connecting phones to walls? Wires connecting computers, TVs, stereos, and other electronics to each other? Wires connecting computers to the Internet? To kids born in 2011, that will make as much sense as an electric car trailing an extension cord.
Wires make it harder for the government to corrupt my precious bodily fluids. ;)

Seriously, I was looking for a replacement mouse the other day and was surprised by how few of them are corded now. That is unfortunate, because 1) a corded mouse is never going to get lost, 2) it's highly unlikely it will ever get broken from being dropped, and 3) it will never have to have batteries replaced. I can't see us running everything on batteries, can you? At the very least, we'll need somewhere to plug in the battery chargers.
Hand-written letters: For that matter, hand-written anything. When was the last time you wrote cursive? In fact, do you even know what the word "cursive" means? Kids born in 2011 won't -- but they'll put you to shame on a tiny keyboard.
What I want to know is, is it now possible to get through college without having to be able to write on paper? I'd love to go back to school, but my hands have changed so much since the first time around thanks to all the time spent on the computer. I get writer's cramp in less than a minute now. I have no idea how I would get through a 60 minute essay exam, for instance.

Talking to one person at a time: Remember when it was rude to be with one person while talking to another on the phone? Kids born today will just assume that you're supposed to use texting to maintain contact with five or six other people while pretending to pay attention to the person you happen to be physically next to.
[puke puke puke]


Seriously, I fail to see the point of talking to someone if they're not even going to pay attention.
Retirement plans: Yes, Johnny, there was a time when all you had to do was work at the same place for 20 years and they'd send you a check every month for as long as you lived. In fact, some companies would even pay your medical bills, too!
One mistake here was giving out pensions too easily. My dad retired at 55 for example. Admittedly, he had already put in almost 30 years by then, but still, 55 is pretty young to be retired, for anyone who's been employed in a normal type of job. However, it's not entirely that simple, because retiring at that age probably saved his life, too, which suggests that maybe more people should retire early...except that would clearly not work from an economic standpoint. I guess this one is too complex and far-reaching to make one quick little comment about, so I'm just going to blow it off.
Mail: What's left when you take the mail you receive today, then subtract the bills you could be paying online, the checks you could be having direct-deposited, and the junk mail you could be receiving as junk email? Answer: A bloated bureaucracy that loses billions of taxpayer dollars annually.
Netflix has turned me into a die-hard Postal Service supporter, since I have so far been uninterested in their streaming service. (That, incidentally, is almost certainly not going to be able to continue going the way it's going for too much longer--it's sucking up too much bandwidth and somebody is going to have to pay. I also heard that Netflix streaming movies aren't as good as a Blu-Ray disc to begin with, except for the fact that they're streaming, rather than being stuck on a scratch-prone, breakable optical disc...this one is no-win, I guess. Whatever happens is going to have some serious drawbacks.)

There seems to be less junk mail now than there used to be, too. I've noticed in the past couple of months that the amount of it I get every week has gone down. A lot. Enough to have an impact on the amount of garbage/recycling I have to do. The main snailmail spammers for me now are my phone company and my ISP, both of whom are totally desperate to upsell me to one of their ridiculous all-in-one plans. Purely random advertisements seem to have virtually disappeared.

One final thing on this: In my work, I often deal with postal service staff and I have to say, they have really improved in the past 15 years. That means I have to object to calling the Post Office a "bloated bureaucracy". It's true, the Domestic Mail Manual (aka "postal regulations") are probably just as bad as any other federal regulations, but the difference is that with the Post Office, you have easily accessible postal staff who are able to help you understand all of it. Just in the last few months I've had postal employees bend over backwards to help me out, saving me a lot of time, money and embarrassment. So please, spare me the "government bureaucrat" criticism. It's just not accurate for all too many of them.
Commercials on TV: They're terrifically expensive, easily avoided with DVRs, and inefficiently target mass audiences. Unless somebody comes up with a way to force you to watch them -- as with video on the Internet -- who's going to pay for them?
More to the point, how is entertainment going to be paid for in the absence of advertising support? Will it just be HBO and Showtime, the last two standing? Somehow, I doubt it, because, from what I understand, a lot of the production money for a channel like HBO doesn't just come from HBO subscriptions, but from subscription fees for basic cable as well. So how does that work if basic cable goes away?

Alternatively, if TV ends up staying with the "free" model, will it begin to rely more and more on product placements? Some of these have been getting pretty obnoxious. If you watch "Chuck" for instance, you have surely seen how sometimes they will interrupt the story for what is little more than a Subway commercial, starring the characters of the show. Yes, it was necessary to do that in order to save the show, and I don't mean to pick on Subway (or "Chuck") in particular, but if this is the wave of the future, I'll have to find something else to do with my time.

What they really ought to do is figure out a way to make automatic commercial skipping not work. But the problem there is that there are now enough alternatives to regular TV shows that making commercials harder to skip could easily backfire and drive a critical mass of people away. How many people will realize that their lives are simply too short to spend 20 minutes of every hour watching advertisements? It's not a tough concept to grasp.
Commercial music radio: Smartphones with music-streaming programs like Pandora are a better solution that doesn't include ads screaming between every song.
I stopped listening to commercial radio a long time ago. I don't even remember when it was anymore. There were just too many endlessly annoying ads, so I turned it off, forever. Student radio and public radio filled in the void for quite a while, but eventually Wisconsin Public Radio became Disney-fied, thanks to the never-ending necessity to pander to potential donors, so I decided to give up on that too. Student radio was simply too inconsistent to rely upon as my sole listening medium. So that was the end of that. My next car will have an iPod hookup. Or something.
Hiding: Not long ago, if you didn't answer your home phone, that was that -- nobody knew if you were alive or dead, much less where you might be. Now your phone is not only in your pocket, it can potentially tell everyone -- including advertisers -- exactly where you are.
Here's another one that can be filed under "Hell on Earth." Pop culture already seems to be catching on to this problem, though, at least a little. :P

I did want to add one item to the list, which children born in 2011 will hopefully be ignorant of: "Journalists" who have nothing better to write than utterly depressing articles about how much the world is going to suck 20 years from now, written in a tone suggesting that it's already a foregone conclusion, because, you know, "progress" is inexorable, and nobody has any control over any of this.

Of course, we will probably still have know-it-all bloggers. ;)

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Monday, January 10, 2011

How deep are we in debt, really?

I had a crazy idea this morning. I wondered how deeply we'd be buried if the United States national debt was converted into one dollar bills and spread evenly across the entire area of the United States. I fully expected the answer would be that we would be several inches deep in dollar bills.

Boy, was I wrong.

To start with, the national debt as of this writing stands at $14,027,641,085,848.11. The area of a one dollar bill is 16.242187 square inches (measuring 6 3/16 inches wide and 2 5/8 inches high--I did get some slight variation on height, but 2 5/8 seemed to be the typical width of less worn bills). The area of the United States stands at 3,794,101 square miles. Note that there is some disagreement as to how exactly to determine "the area of the United States", so I just took the number listed on Wikipedia.

From there, it's just a matter of converting square inches into square miles and doing a little division. Nothing Excel can't handle.

The problem comes when one realizes there are actually over 4 billion square inches in one square mile. I found this so amazing that I double-checked my math, and I still have a hard time believing it. But, assuming that's right, that gives the total area of the US, in square inches, at 15.2 quadrillion, meaning it would take 937 trillion one dollar bills to completely paper over the entire United States. In other words, our entire current national debt would only fill about 1.5% of the land area of the United States.

How disappointing. ;)

Taking another tack, I decided to see what happened if I used an individual state. I started with Rhode Island, the smallest state, whose area is 1214 square miles. That comes to roughly 4.8 trillion square inches, meaning we could paper the state of Rhode Island with the national debt, in one dollar bills, and have enough for close to 2.9 layers.

I guess that just goes to show how big this country really is.

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Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Regulatory Stupidity - an update

A while ago, I commented on the idiocy of spending $3.2 billion a year to save the lives of 103 people. At the end, though, I noted a problem:

Yes, I know my math ignores the injured people. I thought about this for a while and couldn't figure a reasonable way to allow for it. "Injuries" is extremely vague, and could include anything from a cut requiring stitches to full-on, almost-fatal intensive care treatment.

Well, after further thought, I figured it was reasonable to divide the total $3.2 billion cost evenly in half, assigning half of it to the deaths, and the other half of it to the injuries. That would mean deaths would rather arbitrarily be assigned about 70 times the value of injuries. It's impossible to avoid a level of arbitrariness in this, but a 70-fold difference seems fairly reasonable to me.

Put that way, then, you divide the original $3.2 billion in two and then calculate as before for each half. Under that model, cost per injury comes to about $207,000, and cost per death comes to roughly $15 million. The $15 million figure isn't the $31 million of the original estimate, but it's still a huge amount of money to spend on saving the life of one person, especially when having people buy these cameras voluntarily would probably accomplish a significant fraction of the same goal.

More interesting is the $207,000 figure for each injury. Obviously if there was some data available on the number and types of injuries, it might be possible to say that X amount was being spent to prevent (for example) cuts and bumps requiring stitches, Y amount to prevent broken bones and concussions, and Z amount to prevent more serious injuries, perhaps requiring intensive care. But since that data isn't available, I've settled for the blanket amount. It is actually quite large, if you make the very reasonable assumption that most of the injuries would be less severe, that is, cuts and bumps requiring stitches, rather than intensive care type injuries.

I also remembered one other thing since writing the original article: A lot of car models in recent years are designed in a way that results in very poor rear visibility. There is the stylistic tendency to make side windows swoop upwards toward the rear of the car in 5-door models, for instance. Big SUVs shaped similarly to pickup trucks are inevitably going to have poor rear visibility. Even current sedan designs seem to feature trunks in back which stick up quite high compared to older models, which certainly would not help. There are also a lot of models where the rear window is actually pretty small, enough so I can't imagine rear visibility would be all that great.

In other words, better design could alleviate a lot of this problem, with no necessity for cameras.



"The Senate will be a much poorer place without Russ Feingold in it ... Feingold every day and in every way had the courage of his convictions. I think he is one of the most admirable people I have ever met in my entire life." - Sen. John McCain, Arizona

via WisOpinion.com


Energy saving lightbulbs--they'll save energy, but will they save you money?

Kiss your 100-watt lightbulb goodbye

Starting in 2012, new nationwide efficiency standards for incandescent light bulbs go into effect. However, in California and Nevada, they're already going ahead, a year early. Energy savings are expected to be about 25 to 30 percent, with the bulbs supposedly costing about the same amount. No mention was made of whether the bulbs will last a comparable amount of time to the old ones, or will mysteriously burn out quicker. Frankly, I would not be at all surprised if they burn out quicker. However, the primary point I wanted to make relates to this:

California's energy commission said the state's move will avoid the sale of 10.5 million inefficient 100-watt bulbs this year and save consumers $35.6 million in higher electricity bills. [emphasis added]

That may be true in California. I don't actually know. However, where I live, if overall electricity usage by the general public declines, which would result in reduced revenue for electric utilities, the utility companies are allowed to increase their rates to compensate. I've already seen this happen once in the past year.

I can understand the need for that, actually. Maintenance costs on the electrical grid are going to stay the same or increase, regardless of usage. I can't imagine how that wouldn't be true for California as well. It may not be feasible to require electric utilities to keep their rates the same if usage goes down. However, if that is the case, then politicians and the press need to stop lying about this sort of regulation.

Personally, I've already mostly switched to compact fluorescents (which are a whole other can of worms).


Friday, December 31, 2010

Regulatory Stupidity (or, "Is it any wonder this country is going bankrupt?")

U.S. to Require Rear-View Video on Cars

WASHINGTON—The Obama administration moved Friday to effectively require all passenger cars and buses to be equipped with rear-view video cameras to help prevent fatalities caused when drivers back over a child hidden in the blind spot behind a vehicle.

The technology, already offered in some models in the U.S., involves a small camera attached to the back of a car that sends a live video feed to a display mounted in the dashboard or rear-view mirror. It is designed to give drivers a broader view as they back out of a parking spot or driveway.


Such technology currently boosts the price of a car by as much as $200. But administration officials said the added cost is justified because the technology could potentially halve the number of deaths and injuries each year attributed to "back over" crashes, currently at about 207 and 15,446, respectively. Such crashes disproportionately affect children and elderly people.


The rule could cost the auto industry between $1.9 billion and $2.7 billion a year, according to regulators' estimates, unless auto makers can pass along the expense to consumers. But the industry is reluctant to vigorously oppose a proposal to prevent deadly accidents involving children...

I really have to laugh at that last part. First of all, why on earth would automakers not pass the cost along? Secondly, who are they kidding with this bit about the industry being "reluctant" to oppose the proposal? Obviously no one, including the auto industry, is in favor of children dying. But what should also be obvious is that the auto industry has no need to object to this regulation at all, because they know full well it will simply be one more profit-enhancing techie gizmo tacked onto each car.

That, however, is a side issue. The real issue is that nobody involved in this has had the guts to ask if the cost involved is actually worth it. No, I am not kidding.

You have to actually do the math to see what I mean. Let's start with the cost figure quoted above, of $200 per vehicle. Multiply that by 16 million, which is a conservative estimate of how many new cars are sold in America each year. That will give you the total cost of the regulation, for all cars produced in one year. The number of deaths per year was most recently 207, as quoted above. However, the Obama administration also points out that these cameras are only expected to reduce the number of deaths by half. That means to get the cost per person saved, we have to divide by 103.5, not 207. What does all of that come to? Rounding to the nearest million, it comes to $31 million for each person whose life may be saved by this regulation. Thirty-one million dollars per person, and it's not even expected to save them all. Furthermore, looking at the total cost for all lives saved, we see that it's roughly $3.2 billion. Should the nation be expected to pay $3.2 billion to save the lives of 103 people?

Is it any wonder this nation is going bankrupt?

Of course we all want to object that no cost can be assigned to a human life, but allow me to point out that this belief, as much as we need it, is precisely the problem. Just because human life has incalculable value in human terms doesn't change the reality that when something happens in the real world, and we elect to do something about it, it's going to cost real money. That money is not just going to appear magically, out of nowhere. Somebody has to come up with it, which means something else comes up short. And when the cost is mandated by law, as it is here, people are going to be paying for it whether they want to or not, and whether it's of any benefit to them or not.

It is therefore necessary to stop and ask ourselves, how much money are we actually willing to spend to save the life of a person? How much money are we willing to spend to save the lives of 103 people? Another way of looking at it might be to consider what other things might be accomplished with that money, in the absence of this regulation. What productive things can be done with 3.2 billion dollars? Yes, saving 103 lives is a productive use, but the ugly truth is that it's not very productive, is it?

The unwillingness of politicians and the electorate to wrestle with these admittedly painful questions may represent a fundamental weakness of republican government. I don't know. Offhand, I can't envision any realistic scenario whereby politicians would suddenly become willing to confront this sort of issue. But that doesn't mean issues like this are going to go away. They're going to keep coming, and we are going to keep paying for them until when, exactly?

What makes this question particularly difficult in this case is that a majority of those injured or killed in these accidents are children. Anyone who dares to challenge the regulation risks having the opposition stand up and say, "This person is in favor of children dying." That, of course, is bullshit. Nobody is in favor of children dying. However, acknowledging the fact that the death of children is a horrible thing, are we willing to spend $31 million per child to prevent it? That is an awful lot of money--enough to justify asking, for instance, where are the parents of these kids who get run over? Aren't parents supposed to watch out for stuff like that? I understand it's impossible to keep one eyeball on a kid at all times, but Jesus H. Baldheaded Christ, why should the rest of us pony up thirty-one million dollars just to help you out?

Note: I am all in favor of automakers offering these cameras as an option on their vehicles. That way people who are clearly at higher risk of this sort of accident (i.e. parents) can incur the appropriate cost, if they choose, to lessen the chance of it happening. Hell, I'd even be in favor of making the things tax deductible, if they're not already. What I have a problem with, obviously, is requiring them on every single car, which is just plain stupid, is a clear example of legislative overstepping, and is precisely the sort of pathetic, ultimately worse-than-useless political grandstanding that leads most of us to despise politics. (And that, in turn, makes it all the more likely that this sort of crap will never end.)

Note 2: Yes, I know my math ignores the injured people. I thought about this for a while and couldn't figure a reasonable way to allow for it. "Injuries" is extremely vague, and could include anything from a cut requiring stitches to full-on, almost-fatal intensive care treatment. Furthermore, I realized that even if I did figure out the math, it was probably irrelevant anyway. The total cost would still be $3.2 billion per year, forcibly taken out of the pockets of Americans, the vast majority of whom have no need for this feature at all.

[1/5/2011] Decided to address the issue described in the second note. Update located here.


Thursday, December 23, 2010

Craigslist censorship now effective worldwide

In September, bowing to pressure from multiple state attorneys general, Craigslist.org agreed to remove all advertisements for "adult services" from its United States listings. It was big news at the time.

More recently, to virtually no fanfare whatsoever, and with no explanation, all adult services listings were removed from Craigslist, worldwide:

The ouster of the controversial section was confirmed by Craigslist to the office of Connecticut Attorney General General Richard Blumenthal yesterday, according to the Associated Press. The removal of the section from dozens of countries follows a similar action that saw it taken down in the U.S. four months ago.

Responding to the global takedown, Blumenthal called it "another another important step in the ongoing fight to more effectively screen and stop pernicious prostitution ads," the AP reported.

[emphasis added]

A couple of points need to be made in response to that. If the aim was really to "effectively screen" prostitution ads, banning them from Craigslist was absolutely the wrong move to make. As for stopping them completely...well, that is completely ridiculous. In either case, there are other, less well-known sites where ads for prostitutes can be found, and, short of absolute dictatorial control of the entire internet, there always will be. There are even real-life newspapers where "escort" ads can be found, and hypocritical attorneys general make no effort to quash them in the name of "effective screening," presumably because, unlike Craigslist, print newspapers have some political influence.

It's clear that, if there was any point at all to removing the ads from U.S. listings, it certainly was not to "effectively screen" them, nor was it to reduce them in any meaningful way. More likely, the purpose was twofold: To make the attorneys general look good on election day, especially since most of them will someday be running for more meaningful political offices, and to drive prostitution back underground, where law enforcement prefers it to be. That is, when prostitutes get away with advertising openly, in reputable locations, it becomes harder for law enforcement officials to disguise the fact that their real aim is to accomplish nothing, which in turn creates a risk that people might actually realize that nothing is being accomplished, which would presumably lead to people questioning why so many tax dollars are being spent on vice cops. (Of course, this latter reason doesn't apply in locations where prostitution is legal, which is part of why this new development is so puzzling.)

As for Craigslist reporting its action to Blumenthal's office, that seems somewhat suspicious to me. It suggests that perhaps some pressure was being applied, or at least that there was some sort of involvement on the part of that office. I am only speculating, obviously, but it is rather curious that they would do that.

Getting back to the report:

No date was specified as to when the section was removed globally, but Wired Magazine apparently broke the story this past Saturday, saying that Craigslist "quietly" took down the section from all of its international sites, including those in Canada, Asia, Europe, South America, and Africa.

I have been unable to locate any reason for why they did this on all of their international sites, nor do I have any idea, other than the idle speculation about involvement of the attorney general's office which I mentioned above. While their capitulation on the U.S. listings was fairly easy to comprehend, their action this month is not.


Attorneys general and human rights groups alike complained that the section was a storefront for ads promoting prostitution and the trafficking of human beings.

I would like to see some evidence that these "storefronts for the trafficking of human beings" actually existed on Craigslist. A screenshot would be nice, preferably one which has not been photoshopped. I would also like to see some hard evidence that "human trafficking" actually occurs anywhere to the degree that is often quoted in these sorts of articles (e.g., "40,000 prostitutes were shipped into Berlin this week in preparation for the Venus Faire", etc.). Unsubstantiated and/or vague quotes by concerned sounding officials or representatives of non-profit anti-trafficking organizations aren't going to cut it. I would like to see something specific and real, preferably coming from someone whose livelihood doesn't depend on the issue.

"Human trafficking" is a hot-button issue, one which is designed to get us to reflexively turn our brains off. That almost always means there is some other agenda afoot, one which "they" don't want us to know about. I doubt it's something overtly sinister in this case. More likely, it's just an attention diverter, sympathy grabber and/or budget inflator. (That's the beauty of hot-button issues: They're multi-purpose! If, that is, you are someone who wants to utilize propaganda to achieve a political aim.)

Let's tally up the "victors" in this ridiculous sideshow:
  • Political whores (aka attorneys general and various posturing morons).

  • Vice cops in jurisdictions where prostitution is illegal (this will improve their job security because it appears that they are actually accomplishing something, even though they are really making no substantive progress at all on the very issue which justifies their existence).

  • Interpol agents and other international "cops" (that is, the ones working on the mysterious "human trafficking" problem, now that the mythical human trafficking ads have been removed from such an obvious spot--again, they appear to be making progress on "solving" the problem, while at the same time nothing real is happening).

  • Anti-prostitution crusaders, especially in jurisdictions where prostitution is already legal.

  • Psychotherapists, pharmacists and drug dealers. Go ahead and laugh, but what happens to lonely, gameless men who can't manage to find a good hooker to spend some time with? They get depressed. This is obviously good for people who sell drugs or who earn their livings listening to people yap about how much their lives suck. It's also good for the guys in white coats, who hold the keys to the padded rooms and straitjackets.

  • Self-righteous idiots of all stripes who think this was actually a good idea. There are, quite frankly, too many to list, or to even waste my time thinking about.
And, who are the losers?
  • Anyone who might actually be a trafficked human being. Not that I am willing to accept that there is a real problem with this, but if there is, and (even more absurdly) if Craigslist was unwittingly providing a platform for these traffickers, then shutting down these ads is not going to benefit the victims. It's going to make it even harder to deal with the problem, which is clearly bad for the victims.

  • Prostitutes, who have to look elsewhere for cheap advertising. This is especially ridiculous in countries where prostitution is legal. Any push to drive it underground causes exactly what benefit, may I ask? Is there any sensible point to this move at all?

  • Lonely men. This one is obvious. They'll have to look elsewhere, rather than patronizing a reputable site like Craigslist. It's also worth noting that if, as the attorneys general claim, any of these men are actually deterred, they are going to be losing an extremely valuable emotional coping tool, which could have a significantly negative impact on their lives.

  • People who actually give a shit about freedom. This should be everyone, but alas, all too many people just don't seem to care much at all.
In conclusion, this is a large step backwards, an inexplicable and apparently nonsensical act on the part of Craigslist, and one which basically helps all the people other than those who it's ostensibly supposed to.

(Props to the Antifeminist for catching this story. It's getting so little play that I don't know if I would have noticed it if I hadn't seen it covered there.)

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Presumption of guilt in rape cases?

Feminist blogger Jessica Valenti, in an op-ed piece for the Washington Post, has broadly hinted that the presumption of innocence for defendants in rape cases should be reversed--to a presumption of guilt:

Swedish rape laws don't ban "sex by surprise"...but they do go much further than U.S. laws do, and we should look to them as a potential model for our own legislation.

In fact, some activists and legal experts in Sweden want to change the law there so that the burden of proof is on the accused;
the alleged rapist would have to show that he got consent, instead of the victim having to prove that she didn't give it. [emphasis added]

Got that? She's stopping short of actually saying, "we should do that in America," but it's pretty obvious she's bringing it up is because she thinks it's a good idea.

This is really, really amazing. Presumption of innocence is one of the basic foundations of law in the western world. It's one of the things which makes us civilized. Reversing this presumption would ensure that innocent people are imprisoned.

This is one of the few issues in the world which really is black-and-white: there is no crime whatsoever so serious as to merit a reversal of the presumption of innocence.

This idea is every bit as offensive, if not more so, than the worst shit that Dubya and his cronies ever managed to come up with in their eight years in the White House.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Gawker case - is the FBI really needed?

More interesting news relating to the Gawker hack:

FBI Investigating Gawker.com Hack

NEW YORK – Investigators from the FBI were expected to meet with Gawker Media CEO Nick Denton Monday following the massive weekend hack by a group called Gnosis that paralyzed the media company’s website and temporarily forced it to stop publishing.

Unfortunately that's kind of vague, and there's no further indication of what the FBI is up to in this case. Maybe they're going to actually try to catch somebody. Or maybe they're just meeting with Denton as part of standard procedure and have little interest in protecting a site which so obviously failed to secure itself properly. Who knows.

What's interesting about this case is that, while I certainly am not going to advocate the sort of hacker break-in that happened here, there is also a definite element of "they had it coming" in this case. In other words, if the FBI decided to not take this case very seriously, it would hardly be a tragedy.


Monday, December 13, 2010

A somewhat flawed password-generation scheme

As suggested by this article, it is possible to dream up a way to have a unique password for every site you use, and not have it be a total nightmare.

How it works is that you come up with a base password, then devise a way to modify it based on which site you're using. So, for instance, if your base password is "34cheese!", and you are logging in to Gawker, you would add a letter "g" to the beginning, giving you "g34cheese!". The article suggests using three different base passwords, and separating them based on what sort of site they pertain to.

There are a couple of problems with the idea, though.

One is that it's going to eliminate quick logins, due to the need to think through the modification each time you log in. However, if you're really concerned about this, most sites have "keep me logged on" or "remember my password" options. In most cases they actually work, too. (Personally, I rarely use "remember my password" because if I do, it's much easier for me to forget it, which leads to a significant headache on the day when I find myself at a strange computer needing to access the site.)

More troublesome is that the idea isn't going to work in cases where your account is spread over a variety of sites. Gravatar accounts (anyone who uses Wordpress.com, for instance), OpenID, and others where you have the same username and login for a bunch of different, unrelated sites (such as Blogger and Google), are going to mess this idea up.


The troublesome implications of the Gawker hack

Some details from the group who pulled it off (article here)--they aren't willing to disclose exactly how they were able to hack the site, only that they have access to lots of passwords. They also commented at length on the poor security of the site. For instance:

We have had access to all of their emails for a long time as well as most of their infrastructure powering the site. Gawkmedia has possibly the worst security I have ever seen. It is scary how poor it is. Their servers run horribly outdated kernel versions, their site is filled with numerous exploitable code and their database is publicly accessible.

We will be releasing the full source code to their site as well as the full database dump later today or tomorrow, when we get enough press to stir up the release. We will also be releasing a text file describing Gawkers numerous security failings.

The reason this is troubling isn't so much that the Gawker commenter database, with passwords, was compromised. The problem is this: Everywhere you go online, you have to create a new account (with some exceptions, like OpenID or Gravatar-enabled sites). There are so many of these that people naturally tend to reuse passwords at multiple sites. The assumption when doing this is that none of these sites will be compromised. But if one of them is, and you have a password in there which you use multiple times, then you're in trouble, aren't you?

Furthermore, there is no way to know in advance whether a site is going to have problems or not. Gawker apparently was very lax in terms of security, but how was anyone supposed to know that? Furthermore, what other sites have similar problems? There is simply no way to know. (I hope, for example, that Blogger is secure. So far, I've had accounts here for six years and have never had a problem, not even when Google took over. But you never know.)

This fundamental insecurity means better password management is needed, and that is fundamentally a pain in the ass. Avoiding password repetition is virtually impossible.

Theoretically, there should be a point where a reasonable level of safety is reached just by using a manageable number of passwords for all purposes. However, there is still the possibility of making mistakes such as using a password for your Gmail account, then using your Gmail address and the same password as username and password for another site. If someone cracks that other site, they're able to immediately break into your Gmail account. You can have the best password in the world and still be vulnerable to this sort of mistake.

What a pain.

In any case, I just decided to change my Blogger password. ;)


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Named blizzards? WTF?

Digging out after Aiden

With Blizzard Aiden officially on its way out, it is now clean-up time across Northeast Wisconsin....

One question...SINCE WHEN have blizzards received official names?

Another--wouldn't that massive windstorm that blew across the entire eastern half of North America a couple months ago qualify for a name?

Just wondering.

For myself, this has proved to be a waste of a day. I attempted to go somewhere around 2:00 p.m. this afternoon, but the roads were still in such poor condition (where was the road salt, exactly? WTF?!?) that I realized it was pointless. Even if I had gotten where I was going, the main highway at that location would have been a deathtrap due to blowing/drifting snow.

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Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Why the "Dream Act" needs to fail

From earlier today:

Democrats fight to save DREAM Act immigration bill

Background: The dream act would allow any illegal alien who was brought to the United States while under the age of 16 to obtain legal status (i.e., a legitimate green card, meaning they could later apply for full citizenship) if they have been in the country at least five years, are under age 30, pass a criminal background check, and graduate from high school (or equivalent). They would then have to promise to attend college, or to join the military for two years. They would receive no government assistance. Whether or not that exclusion extends to student loans is unclear, but my guess is that it does.

It sounds perfectly reasonable, doesn't it? For one thing, it isn't a kid's fault if he's brought into the United States illegally. And it's not like a lot of people are going to be able to take advantage of this, given how prohibitively expensive college has become.

Furthermore, I don't really care about Republican concerns that some who have committed misdemeanor offenses would be eligible for legalization under this bill. That's just silly flag-waving. Criminal law is so inflated now that any significant crime is a felony, not a misdemeanor, and no mention is being made of allowing felons to stay.

Nevertheless, I don't feel that passage of this bill would be a good idea. When viewed within the broader context of illegal immigration in the United States, it would be a step in the wrong direction. Illegal immigration should never be incentivized, and that is precisely what this bill would do. In the long run, or even the not-so-long run, people would be more encouraged to go ahead and sneak into the country with their already-born kids, knowing that, even if they themselves are someday deported, at least their kids will have a fighting chance at staying. We already have a significant problem of this sort stemming from newborn children of illegals being entitled to citizenship by Constitutional right if they are born here. This would compound that problem.

What's really happening here is that the Democrats are trying to jigger a way to encourage more people to sneak into the country illegally. They do that a lot. So do Republicans--in fact, it's amusing to see the two parties haggling on these issues when they are actually far more in agreement than dissent. Republican objections in this case appear to be little more than opposition for opposition's sake, while at the same time signaling a willingness to go along with it if 1) they get the credit, and 2) the background check provision of the bill is made a bit more rigorous. The only wildcard are rank-and-file Republicans who have recently been fairly heated up about these issues as a result of the controversy in Arizona. The reality, though, is that both parties are very interested in fostering a continuing stream of incoming illegal immigrants, albeit for differing reasons. Democrats are thinking in terms of long term voter loyalty from the descendants of Hispanic illegals, while Republicans want a continuation of the rights-free exploitation-ready labor underclass which their supporters so dearly love. Obviously there are going to be some exceptions, such as Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who seems to truly care about the individual people that this bill may benefit, but exceptions don't disprove the rule, and the rule is the two parties love illegal immigrants, and have no interest in stopping illegal immigration, now or ever. It's just good politics, nothing more.

The reason I myself am opposed to the "Dream Act" is that, while these illegal children really are being treated unfairly when they are deported, the overall problems with illegal immigration are such that there is no possibility of arriving at a solution that is fair to everyone. I would rather see a greater long-term level of fairness for a larger number of people, even if it means some raised-in-America kids getting deported. Towards that end, I am also opposed to the granting of automatic citizenship for any child born in the United States. That right should contain one sole exception: in cases where a child is born to illegal aliens on American soil, those children should also be considered illegal aliens. I also support recent efforts by the State of Arizona to address their illegal immigrant problems. Nobody's suggesting firing up the ovens. However, the unfortunate reality is that if people want to address the problem adequately, some legal immigrants, as well as some full-blown citizens, are going to be inconvenienced by it. Something substantive needs to be done, and we have reached the point where more reasonable measures aren't going to do the job.

Am I mean spirited? Am I a racist?

Addressing the second question first, I am certainly not suggesting that any changes to the law should specify any particular race or ethnic group. It so happens that the bulk of illegal immigrants are Hispanic, but this is only true because we happen to share a long, difficult-to-guard border with a large Hispanic nation, namely Mexico. If things ever started getting really bad in Canada, you can bet we'd have a similar problem with illegal immigration from the north, and I wouldn't change my opinion on these matters one bit. It's a matter of geography, not race.

For the first question, the reason it seems "mean spirited" is because we are all taught to look at this problem solely from the standpoint of someone trying to get into the country. Other viewpoints are intentionally soft-pedaled, or ignored outright. The fact that illegal immigration is a humiliating slap in the face to people who painstakingly jump through the bureaucratic hoops necessary to immigrate legally, for instance, is almost never mentioned. Another common complaint, that illegal immigration puts American workers in jeopardy, is invariably characterized as an extremist conservative position, one that right-thinking progressives shouldn't even consider, as if there's nothing at all wrong with a "conservative" American losing his job to someone getting paid substantially less than minimum wage. This, of course, brings up the next point, namely the working conditions that illegal immigrants can expect once they get here. They are here to be exploited. The nice, happy sugarcoating we slather all over this issue is pure horseshit. There is no "American Dream" for these people, they are here to work until they die. They possess no legal protections, are paid inadequately, and will typically endure harsh or dangerous working conditions, along with excessive hours of work. You can claim that they would also face these problems in their home countries, but, first of all, do you know for a fact that this is true? Mexico, for instance, isn't as uncivilized a nation as a lot of Americans seem to believe. But even if that claim is true, how is it that we Americans are somehow responsible for providing relief from conditions in other nations? Shouldn't they themselves be doing that? In fact, wouldn't it be better for these nations if their own people took care of solving their problems, rather than fleeing to other countries? And, even if we could justify being the emergency rescue team for oppressed third-world peoples, why do we insist on lying about it? We are not actually helping people, except to the very limited degree provided for by legal immigration and refugee programs. No, it's all crap, it's all about politics and money, there is no higher mission or purpose here. We need to stop kidding ourselves.

I am going to succumb to the temptation to illustrate the problem with an analogy. Would we consider someone "mean spirited" if he threw an intruder out of his home? How about if the intruder is a child brought in by his parents? Sure, we'd feel sorry for the kid, but that's a far cry from allowing him to stay there, isn't it? Why are we expected to only consider the viewpoint of the intruder in illegal immigration debates? More basically, why are we so carefully manipulated into not recognizing them as intruders at all?

It's time for some truth on this issue. The "Dream Act" is not it.

I will probably have more to say on immigration issues because, surprisingly, a total border lockdown is about the exact opposite of what I would ideally prefer. However, explaining how that position is consistent with what I just wrote is going to be challenging.

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Attention whoring?

I have to hand it to Zero Hedge, they do have a way with words over there:

Sarah Palin Claims Site Hacked, Credit Card Details Stolen, But Doubts Surface This Is Merely Attempt At Attention Whoring

I am primarily amused by seeing "Sarah Palin" and "whore" in the same headline. Yes, I am a nasty, nasty person. ;)

I suppose I should be nicer to the next President of the United States of America, eh?

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The Assange "rape" issue

I had been planning on writing up a quick summary of this issue, providing some links to other pieces which I felt covered it in better detail than I was inclined to, and offer some comment.

I've decided not to do that.


Because, I realized yesterday, the entire Assange rape hoopla is distracting everyone from the real issues, namely the leaked information itself, and the attempted suppression of the Wikileaks site. The fact that Assange is in trouble in Sweden is irrelevant, it's an obvious case of media misdirection, and we're falling for it. Yesterday, the number of stories covering the suppression of the Wikileaks site was substantially reduced from the previous day, and coverage of the content of the leaks themselves had dropped to nothing. Virtually everything was devoted to Assange's arrest in the UK, and people's response to it.

If you think that's a coincidence, you are kidding yourself. Every minute we spend worrying about the Assange sex charges, we are doing exactly what we are expected to do, namely, pay attention to something other than what embarrasses the United States government.

I, for one, am not interested in playing along.

It is also true, however, that the Assange sex charges would be a worthwhile story in and of themselves, so here are the links I was going to post. I offer them without explanation or comment:

Taki's Magazine: Julian Assange’s Honey Trap: That’s Rape in Sweden

Counterpunch: Making a Mockery of the Real Crime of Rape: Assange Besieged

In Mala Fide: Neocon cowardice, girls who cry rape, and why we must stand behind Julian Assange, Julian Assange was accused of rape by Anna Ardin, a radical feminist who was out for revenge, and UPDATE II – The name of Julian Assange’s other false rape accuser is Sofia Wilén


Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Stoneleigh on Diet and Nutrition

A really, really, really excellent piece by Stoneleigh of the Automatic Earth, on diet and nutrition:

December 6 2010: Our Daily Bread, or Not, As the Case May Be...

If you value your life, read it.


One person who understands what is at stake with the Wikileaks persecution

CNBC senior editor John Carney:

The War Against WikiLeaks Is Worse Than WikiLeaks

The entire editorial is well worth reading, but I want to draw particular attention to one paragraph:

But it's a mistake to ignore the effect of this. It makes it appear as if the Free World is rapidly becoming a Closed World, in which dissenters are hounded out of public life. It only makes matters worse that it is possible that this is all happening without actual government pressure—that private actors are lining up to do the bidding of the government.


I am tempted to argue that it is the purpose of the corporate world to restrict people, but that would be crossing the line into overt (and silly) paranoia. More realistically, it is simply in the nature of highly regimented organizations (which all corporations are) to attract people who flourish in that environment. These people, in turn, prefer to see that portion of the world within their realm of influence brought into compliance with their preference for order--which to them implies proper submission to legitimate authority. Little or no central control is required in order to induce action on a particular issue. Broad suggestions or hints from some higher authority are often more than adequate. It's in the nature of authoritarians not just to comply with authority, but to further the cause of authoritarianism.

As for the quote, things have long been past the point of simply "appearing" that dissenters are hounded out of public life. What's unusual about the Wikileaks case isn't that the site and its editor Julian Assange are being hounded, it's that so much attention is being paid to it. He managed to capture the public eye before the powers that be had fully decided he was a significant threat (except for the question of him being wanted in Sweden on "sex crimes" charges, a side issue which is turning out to be fairly complex, but it certainly seems possible at this point that some type of behind-the-scenes government pressure is at work--more to come on this later).


More on the attempt to squelch Wikileaks

Just noticed something in the tail end of the article I linked in the previous post:

MasterCard Worldwide is also choking payments to the site.

I had mentioned depeering as an effective method of control, well, here's another method. The fact that there is no practical way to pay cash online is a significant advantage for authoritarians, possibly even more significant than depeering. Not being able to utilize cash online means you can only pay for something with the aid of a third party. There are only a few third parties with enough market presence to actually be useful, and those have proven many times that they are perfectly willing to bend over when the government asks them to.

Years and years ago, I read at least one article (possibly in Wired magazine) pertaining to the possibility of "e-cash", that is, a method of making payments online that could allow the same degree of anonymity as a real-life cash payment. Presumably it would involve a third-party intermediary, but both sides of the transaction would be anonymized, meaning the intermediary wouldn't know who was paying who. I forget how it worked, but I recall that strong encryption was involved somehow in the anonymization process (I really ought to look this up sometime, because it was a very cool idea). The idea never caught on, mainly because nobody cared, but I suppose also because there were vested interests who didn't want it to happen. It didn't occur to anyone that, someday, the de facto cartel that controls credit card payments would also be able to control the online world, simply by virtue of controlling the flow of money.

That, really, is the center of the problem: the flow of money is subject to centralized control. That should not be the case. It should not be possible to financially choke someone just because the government is pissed off.

The article also says,

In all cases, the companies have insisted their decisions are not politically motivated.

That is bullshit. "The companies" would be Amazon.com, Paypal, Mastercard, EveryDNS, and PostFinance. There isn't a single one of them who would have done what they did without government pressure, and we all know it.

There is one exception, so far--one company with enough balls to say "no", and that is Wikileaks' French ISP, OVH:

French internet service provider OVH said it had no plans to end the service it provides to Wikileaks.

"OVH is neither for nor against this site. We neither asked to host this site nor not to host it. Now it's with us, we will fulfil the contract," said OVH managing director Octave Klaba.

"It's neither for the political world nor for OVH to call for or to decide on a site's closure," he added.

This, in spite of pressure from the French government to shut the site down. Bravo to them.

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Anon rules.. or do they?

Anon takes up the Wikileaks battle:

Wikileaks defended by Anonymous hacktivists

A group called Anonymous has hit sites that have refused to do business with the controversial whistle-blowing site with a series of distributed denial-of-service attacks.

It mirrors similar attacks aimed at the Wikileaks site.

Targets include the Swiss bank that froze founder Julian Assange's assets and PayPal which has stopped processing donations to Wikileaks.

Yay for anon, but in the long run, I fear the authoritarians will not only win this battle, but will win the war as well. People have been saying shit like "the internet perceives censorship as damage and routes around it" since the early 1990's (that I know of), and you know what? With the possible exception of the chaos of the late 1990's, when you could literally order videos of people having sex with animals on popular auction sites, each year that has gone by has resulted in more and more restrictions on what people can put online.

I am not sure why this is the case. In fact, theoretically, it shouldn't be. Authoritarianism is inherently an organized, orderly thing, which means it requires effort to maintain. Without that effort, entropy will wear it away--or at least, that seems like the way things ought to work. Anon is actually working on the same side as entropy in this battle, so how is it that they can be losing ground each year?

Just some food for thought.

I suppose the ultimate problem is that "the internet" is really just a bunch of computers, and if someone gets too pissed off at the contents of a particular computer, it's not that hard to pull the plug. Especially when you can do it remotely, simply by depeering it. So I suppose the problem isn't the inherent vulnerability of the internet, but the seemingly inherent tendency of people to march in lock-step when the jack-booted thugs come around.

(Also, for the record, I think the term "hacktivist" is really, really stupid. ;)

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Monday, December 06, 2010

The end of stupid government ethanol policy?

Found this morning, a ray of hope on the corn-ethanol stupidity:

Ethanol on the Run

It's been well known for a long time that utilizing corn to produce ethanol for usage as an automobile fuel is basically a stupid idea, because it results in a net energy loss. Massive government subsidies aren't even enough to keep it going, the government actually has to mandate a particular level of consumption:

...also last week, the Environmental Protection Agency ruled that under the 2007 energy bill Americans must use at least 13.95 billion gallons of ethanol next year, or about 8% of total U.S. fuel consumption.

This is a colossal waste of money, and, while it does tend to reduce harmful emissions where it's used, a better method would be to reduce the amount of gas being burned. No doubt we could use the money saved from eliminating stupid ethanol subsidies towards that end.

In any case, a few Senators are now speaking out about a need for change:

Last week, no fewer than 17 Senators signed a letter calling ethanol "fiscally indefensible" and "environmentally unwise." Led by Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Republican Jon Kyl, the group said Congress shouldn't extend certain subsidies that expire at the end of the year, including the 45-cent-per-gallon tax credit for blending ethanol into gasoline and tariffs on cheaper imports. Conservatives like Tom Coburn dislike this costly industrial policy, while liberals like Barbara Boxer and Sheldon Whitehouse are turning against the hefty carbon emissions that come with corn fuels.

The Secretary of Energy is also getting on the bandwagon, which is surprising to me. As far as I can recall, the Obama administration has always been very pro-ethanol, so perhaps this is a switch on their part?

Speaking at the National Press Club last Monday, [Energy Secretary Steven] Chu said that "ethanol is not an ideal transportation fuel" and that the government's focus should be "on ways that we can actually go beyond ethanol." Like most greens, he still supports so-called advanced fuels that aren't made from corn and also aren't commercially viable, but we'll take his partial conversion.

I also consider myself a supporter of "advanced fuels", although on the whole I am extremely pessimistic about how much actual utility we'll ever be able to derive from them. Certainly they will not lead to the sort of free ride that we've been getting from fossil fuels for over a century.

In any case, 17 Senators, while significant, is only a start. There is undoubtedly massive support for maintaining the status quo, as evidenced by the reaction of the ethanol lobby:

The ethanol industry is responding by predicting disaster if it loses its taxpayer feeding tubes, with the Renewable Fuels Association evoking massive job losses and another Dust Bowl. But what kind of business can't survive without subsidies when government also mandates that consumers buy its products? As the Senators dryly noted, "Historically our government has helped a product compete in one of three ways: subsidize it, protect it from competition, or require its use. We understand that ethanol may be the only product receiving all three forms of support from the U.S. government at this time."

Now, I wonder what kind of support for this can be drummed up in the House? The ideal thing, of course, would be to have the President come out against ethanol, but that doesn't seem very likely, unless he feels like throwing away the Iowa caucus and a lot of other rural-state primaries in the 2012 campaign.

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Friday, December 03, 2010

"Don't Track Me!" & Concern over new web tracking methods

Some interesting details are coming out on the "Do Not Track" idea:

Q: How would the proposed "Do Not Track" feature work?

A: As envisioned by the FTC, it would be a universal setting. Instead of having to seek out the websites or individual marketing companies to ask them not to track you, you would be able to turn on a setting in your browser that would broadcast that message to any and all marketers you encounter in your Web travels.


Unlike the Do Not Call Registry, in which the government maintains a list of phone numbers, the "Do Not Track" information would be stored as something akin to a cookie in each individual browser. [emphasis added]

So, a person could essentially flip a switch on their computer that says, "Do not track me!" and, presumably, merchants would be required to comply.

This is vastly preferable, and substantially different to a central database that would identify every surfer as they moved around various websites, which I expressed serious concern about two days ago. In fact, news reports characterizing the idea as a "Do Not Track List" were incorrect, since there would apparently be no list at all.

Of course, even if a browser cookie method would be used, there would still be a risk of non-compliant merchants, as well as foreign sites who would not be subject to the rule. However, this is a much smaller problem than the potential of having someone keep track of people's identities as they surf the web.

I am undecided about whether, given this development, I now support the idea or not, although I admit I am now leaning towards support. A big question that still needs to be answered is whether it is actually necessary for the government to mandate such technology.

It occurs to me, however, that while they are dealing with this question, they should also deal with the question of what methods are used to track people. It is already known, for instance, that Flash cookies can be used to track people, including those who intentionally clear their regular cookies after each browser session. You need a special Firefox plugin to void the Flash cookies. Furthermore, when HTML 5 is finally implemented, one "feature" of it will be the ability to utilize more and "better" ways of collecting information from web surfers. There is also the problem of device fingerprinting, which is already here. Will a "do not track" list put a damper on this sort of horseshit? Because, if it doesn't, then it is obviously useless.

There is also the question of whether the upcoming Republican Congress will even be willing to consider any of this.

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Julian Assange interview transcript

The Guardian has been kind enough to post a transcript of Julian Assange's recent chat/interview with Guardian readers:

Julian Assange answers your questions: The founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, answers readers' questions about the release of more than 250,000 US diplomatic cables

Definitely worth a look. Of particular interest:

Annoying as it may be, the DDoS seems to be good publicity (if anything, it adds to your credibility). So is getting kicked out of AWS. Do you agree with this statement? Were you planning for it?
Thank you for doing what you are doing.

Julian Assange:
Since 2007 we have been deliberately placing some of our servers in jurisdictions that we suspected suffered a free speech deficit in order to separate rhetoric from reality. Amazon was one of these cases.

In other words, they picked Amazon.com as a server precisely because they felt it's public position on free speech issues was more posturing and PR than reality. And yesterday, this proved to be correct. Ouch.


I'll start the ball rolling with a question. You're an Australian passport holder - would you want return to your own country or is this now out of the question due to potentially being arrested on arrival for releasing cables relating to Australian diplomats and polices?

Julian Assange:
I am an Australian citizen and I miss my country a great deal. However, during the last weeks the Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, and the attorney general, Robert McClelland, have made it clear that not only is my return is impossible but that they are actively working to assist the United States government in its attacks on myself and our people. This brings into question what does it mean to be an Australian citizen - does that mean anything at all?

On the less sunny side, however, when pressed on the question of whether the recent leak will be responsible for essentially messing up diplomatic relations between nations, Assange responds:

If you trim the vast editorial letter to the singular question actually asked, I would be happy to give it my attention.

Granted, the question was rather lengthy--in fact, I decided not to post it here because of that. However, it would have been quite interesting to read an on-point response from Assange, rather than what amounts to an evasion, as evidenced by the fact that at least one other question was roughly the same length, and he answered that one just fine.

The question of him being wanted in Sweden for "sex crimes" is also neglected, although apparently because no one bothered to ask about it. Overall, though, the transcript is well worth reading.


Thursday, December 02, 2010

Stupidity in the Senate

Republicans threaten to shut down Senate until deal reached to extend tax cuts

Renewed partisan fury engulfed the Senate on Wednesday, as Republicans threatened to block all legislation until a deal is reached to extend expiring Bush-era tax cuts, potentially derailing the Democrats' busy, end-of-year agenda.

You know what? Just setting aside for the moment the question of whether these tax cut extensions are a good idea or not, why is it that the Democrats will almost certainly allow the Republicans to get away with walking all over them like this? Not that I ever expect the Democratic party to ever have any balls anymore, but really, what ought to happen in a situation like this is very simple: Republicans threaten to shut down the Senate, Democrats reply with, "Go ahead. Make my day."

Seriously. Especially at a time like this, when, by allowing a Senate shutdown, they will actually win the dispute. How? If no action is taken on this issue by the end of the year, the tax cuts expire, which is exactly the opposite of what the Republicans want. In any other legislative body in the world, delivering an ultimatum like this at a time like this would be sheer stupidity. But when Democrats are your opponents? Nope. Poke 'em in the right spot, and they'll bend over, every time.

So we can expect, in the near future, to read about a compromise deal being reached on the tax cut extensions. It will be almost indistinguishable from what Republicans are asking for, and Democrats will declare it a victory for "bipartisanship."


Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Netflix, Wikileaks

Netflix is a bandwidth hog. Who will pay? (Hint: You.)

The traffic that Netflix is creating at this point is only the beginning--as a Netflix member myself, I can confidently state that they are doing everything they can to push their membership away from DVD-only usage and towards the "view instantly" option, which means their overall bandwidth usage is likely to continue to increase above and beyond its current astronomical level. That's going to require some infrastructure adjustment going forward, and that is going to cost money.

Who should pay for it? Accepting the truth that any company is going to pass along whatever costs it can to end users (meaning us), there are basically two options. 1) Netflix users themselves, or 2) Internet users in general. Which is more fair? Right now, "watch instantly" carries no limitation at all, so a person can conceivably spend every waking minute downloading movies if they want to...up until their ISP complains to them about the endless gigabytes of downloads and tells them to back off. I'm thinking the best approach here would be to force Netflix to back off on their unlimited usage idea, putting a limit on how much individual subscribers can access. Those who want more could pay for it, and Netflix could pass that money along to other companies. The alternative would be for Netflix to just keep on doing what it's doing, which would force the costs onto other companies, who would pass it along to their customers. The problem with this approach is that they don't know who uses Netflix and who doesn't, so they would probably just increase rates for everyone, or, worse, start implementing metered billing structures. I'd rather avoid any of that crap, myself. So, this whole question puts me in the surprising position of taking the side of Comcast. I guess Hell must be freezing over today, as well. ;)

Did Amazon Just Pull the Plug on the WikiLeaks Website?

Yes they did. Not much to say on this one, other than that they will no doubt find another place to host the site. I suggest Russia. Apparently, some of the leaked material was quite flattering to Vladimir Putin, so the Wikileaks people are not likely to run into any problem finding a new home there, right? Except Russia may not want to annoy the United States government, which is seriously pissed off about recent Wikileaks leaks. :P

In fact, as I typed the last couple of paragraphs, there is already a new development on this: "WikiLeaks moves URL to Swedish hosting firm after Amazon 'ousted' the controversial site." Bravo Sweden. I wonder how long that is going to last?

Of peripheral interest to the Wikileaks story:

WikiLeaks Founder's Mom: 'Don't Hunt My Son'

My general feeling on Julian Assange is that someone should give the guy a medal. Problem is, all the people who would be likely to do that are exactly the people he insists on pissing off. Coming soon, damaging information on a large bank. Which one? Who knows. He's going to end up wishing he was Salman Rushdie, at this rate.

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