Wednesday, December 24, 2008

On "The Christmas Shoes"

I had managed to go my entire life until last week never having heard that odious crapfest of a song. Despite my best efforts to avoid its creepy, manipulative, heart-cloggingly schmaltzy lyrics, I've had to hear it twice in the last week. I can only say this:

Take away the lyrics and the Christianity, and this is still an unbelievably shitty piece of late-90s MOR crap, missing only the obligatory gratuitous saxophone stings. If there were no words, this piece of shit song would still make me want to pound crucifixion nails into my ears just listening to the instrumental. It is a perfect shitstorm of crap and should be pulled from the airwaves and every copy microwaved to a sparkly polycarbonate cinder.

For brain bleach (albeit weak), an interesting mediocrity and the bizarre treatment of a well-established alt-music artist: a dance diva who is smoking hot despite having pronounced thighs and no waist to speak of. Also, from a few weeks ago, Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon comments on the shafting of Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls by her label for having a supposedly less-than-perfect body. A tale of two record labels it seems.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Where Matt Nisbet fails

I've been a regular reader of ScienceBlogs for about two years and I've always found Matt Nisbet's Framing Science blog to be something of an oddity on that site. Nisbet and Chris Mooney (of The Republican War On Science fame) have been pushing a concept of science framing that has rubbed a lot of people in the science and skeptical community the wrong way, since it seems to be unrelentingly accommodationist, and tends to prefer subtle ways of undermining people's prejudices. Overall, Mooney (and his blog partner Sheril Kirshenbaum) is actually quite an enjoyable writer, and although I may disagree with his concept of framing he's mostly fairly reasonable. Nisbet, however, is another story.

Nisbet has made quite a few enemies on ScienceBlogs (including PZ Myers, Mike the Mad Biologist, and PalMD), and has even alienated people like Orac who sympathize with his aims but don't like his approach. But now I think he's worn out his welcome, at least in this lurker's eyes; he has tried to make the case that the term "denialist" is a Godwin. Wait, what?

He's completely serious about this -- claims that we shouldn't use it because it lumps in creationists, anthrogenic global warming deniers, germ theory deniers, etc, etc, etc with Holocaust deniers. And he actually quotes people who fall into one or another category of denialism to support this. Mark Hoofnagle at ScienceBlogs' awesome Denialism Blog responds. Hoofnagle's response, as well as his analysis of Nisbet's unrelenting obtuseness and evident incompetence as an expert in communications, is pretty much as you'd expect, and I more or less agree. I posted the following on Nisbet's response to attacks on his position, which seems to be little more than the old conservative canard that amounts to "I may be wrong, but at least I'm more civil than you":
Matt, if there's one thing I've noticed about your work it seems to involve bending and accommodating, defending and (attempted) desensitizing, but it constantly and consistently shies away from going on the attack and trying to reclaim the high ground from the anti-intellectuals and shills who have stolen it. We've seen from the last three US Presidential elections that your strategy tends to fail miserably in politics; the main reason Obama succeeded where Kerry failed had at least as much to do with promoting his message in states where no one expected it to take hold as it did any of the candidate's personal charisma (even though Obama has way more of it than Kerry).

It's as if you're teaching an MBA course and telling your students the importance of turning a profit without explaining how to create income. There are no tools for success in your concept of framing, only those to keep the skeptical side from being marginalized too quickly. (And not only that; you've shown yourself to be terrible at the very communication skills you're trying to convince people to have.)

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

What was so great about esr, anyway?

Seriously. I look back on it and realize that my first post here about him aside, really I've only ever lined up with him on one issue, the value of open source software. On that he's pretty sensible, but the man has completely lost his fucking mind, stuck somewhere between libertarian and neocon.

He opposes net neutrality and he's bought into a lot of the right-wing talking points about Obama. The latter is pretty ridiculous; though he doesn't go so far as to buy into the hysteria of Obama's "associations" with terrorism or his alleged religious preferences, he is completely sold on the whole ACORN lie. But the net neutrality thing -- that's a headscratcher from a practical standpoint. To him it makes sense -- he proposes working around the current internet situation with things such as white space and mesh networking. Uh...

Well, there's more to it than those two, but think about just those items. White space networking does not even exist yet in any meaningful sense; IEEE 802.22 has existed for four years and I had never heard of it until just now looking up the Wikipedia article above. As for mesh networking, well... it's a nice thing overall, and an important part of the OLPC initiative, but when you get right down to it, mesh networking is little more than a hardware-level elaboration on UUCP. Store-and-forward (even if it's almost realtime) is, by its very nature, ad hoc, and -- here's the kicker -- it still has to go out to the public network somehow. You can't route around it, simply because that's where all the content is. White space is fine as well -- I can think of at least a few good uses -- but the very agency that is making the white space initiative possible, the FCC, is one of the agencies that libertarians like Raymond want to get rid of.

I don't know what kind of world libertarians think they're out to create, but Raymond's idea of dealing with a lack of net neutrality regulations really seems to eventually lead to the same sort of corporatist, quasi-feudalistic society that every other libertarian plan seems to. (For that matter, I'm not sure which is worse -- if most libertarians don't realize this, or if they do.) I do know that there is one hell of a lot of rank dishonesty in the anti-net neutrality crowd (comparing it with the fairness doctrine? what the hell?!), but I'm inclined to think that people who take a stand like Raymond's -- principled, but completely and absolutely bonkers (not to mention breathtakingly ignorant for someone who has for years sought but never quite attained the status of alpha hacker except as a historian of the field) -- do more good for the pro-neutrality side by coming to conclusions that make no sense except in light of their fringe politics.

White space networking will be great. (And I'm hoping for some 4m amateur radio as well.) Mesh networking isn't too shabby either. But let's not kid ourselves -- a future of tiered public net service and a cluster of second-class users skulking around on darknets isn't the connectivity DARPA was hoping for when they opened the net to all comers.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Eight years redux

In the world of the blogosphere, there's usually someone better-spoken and more popular who probably said what you intended to say better than you did.

The Rude Pundit, in this case, is that person.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The day after

A few things:

  • The John McCain we all thought we knew returned for the concession speech last night. Unfortunately, his thuggish supporters showed up too. Was that disgust on McCain's face as he tried to quiet the boos from a crowd it had been obvious for weeks that he didn't like? I honestly can't say -- I'm a terrible judge of expressions. But let's hope this is a rebirth of the post-Keating McCain of 2000, where even Democrats were impressed with him. He was a better man then, and he can be again.
  • I'm done with Caribou Barbie. If we're lucky she'll go back to sportscasting. Unfortunately, I fear she'll replace Ann Coulter as the figurehead of the anti-feminist female Right. Fortunately, with the generational shift away from religious fanaticism, it may be a few years until we have to take the extreme Right seriously again.
  • President Obama will have a long, long laundry list of things to deal with. Let's hope community issues like effective affordable health care (preferably to both the people and the government, nothing like that enormous hematoma that is Medicaid), veteran's benefits, labor rights, and discrimination issues get a chance to take center stage. (If he can do all this and do it on the post-Wall Street bailout shoestring he'll be stuck with, he will be the greatest president ever. That might be aiming a little high.) After that, there's a massive amount of other things that need to be done. But that's where he ought to start.
  • Obama is one skinny bastard under that suit. Just sayin'.
  • I mentioned community issues above. In practice, community often means urban, and we've placed far too much focus on a nonexistent ideal of small town America. That needs to go away -- our cities are in dire need of help, and I'm tired of people from the sticks saying that the cities aren't worth saving. But that goes both ways -- methamphetamine, for example, is the public health scourge of small town America, so while we're putting money into the cities, we can't forget how much poverty, violence, and drug use our countrysides see as well.
  • President Medvedev delivered a scorching address attacking US foreign policy today. While some of the decay of US-Russian relations has to do with Vladimir Putin's rolling back of the clock on Russian democracy, the bulk of it is George Bush's fault. That's a relationship that both Obama and Medvedev are going to have to work hard on repairing.

Well, time to get this show on the road. It's not over; it's just beginning.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Eight years in the making

To the hatemongering wingnuts who have spent the last fourteen years polluting the media with hate and bullshit economics...

To the sniveling rat bastards who forwarded every nasty email you got about liberals you've ever heard...

To every last goddamned one of you who try to force religion down our throats in the voting booth, in the classroom, in the courtroom, and every other public space you've been constitutionally barred from since the passage of the First Amendment...

To those willfully ignorant people who can't comprehend the value of science done for its own sake, science done for no reason other than to see where it leads...

To the rich scumsuckers who funded the Clinton witchhunt while finding ways to kick unions when they're down and screw your workers ever more and more while your allies in Washington cleared out all the barriers...

To the neocons who somehow thought Pinky and the Brain were valid models for foreign policy...


It's our turn. We're watching your violent psychos and zealots to make sure they crawl back into the caves where they belong. We're putting the US back on the map.

We're done with you. Time to bring the US into the 21st century.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

If I trusted the voting machines, I'd have the popcorn out

So it seems McCain staffers think Sarah Palin has gone rogue. if the rumors coming from places like CNN are true, Palin's straying embarrassingly far off message; she's certainly enabled any number of obnoxious racists and religious zealots (personal to F.B.I. in Quantico: you really need to keep a close eye on these people in case of an Obama win -- they're angry, stupid, and heavily armed), and the Republican party seems to be on the verge of tearing itself apart. (For whatever it's worth, I predicted -- well, call it an edjucated guess, "predict" is such a pretentious term -- a number of years ago that when the shit hit the fan, the neocons, the palaeocons, and the religious Right would claw each other's eyes out and tear the GOP to shreds, probably around 2010. They certainly seem on track to make that time frame.)

In a reasonably rational world, the fact that the entire structure of conservative free market economics has come crashing down and that US social policy threatens to make us look like savages in the eyes of the rest of the Westernized world would be putting an end to current Republican policies. The fact that the US has just been quite abruptly switched over to a duct-tape-and-chewing-gum version of a socialist economy tells us that we've got an awful lot of rebuilding and remodeling to do, and an Obama presidency with a Democratic congress might just put us on that route. I can only say we can hope, but we shouldn't hold our breath; after all, November 4th is still a week and a half away.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Say it

A few years ago, the nostalgia site RetroCRUSH published a list of the 50 Coolest Song Parts. I'd like to add one.

I've found myself weirdly fascinated with the Ben Folds/Regina Spektor song "You Don't Know Me". In some ways it seems to go back over and mine the territory Neil Diamond and Barbara Streisand marked out thirty years ago with "You Don't Bring Me Flowers"; it is, as any Folds production is, impeccably produced, with a bouncy tune juxtaposed with harsh dump-song lyrics. It doesn't live up to its potential though -- while "Flowers" almost seamlessly converted from a solo to a duet, with really only a few rough spots that Diamond should have rewritten, Folds uses Spektor mostly as a backup singer, which, though I'm not too familiar with Spektor's work, seems to be a huge waste. It's a big whack of points off of what should be an awesome song.

Anyway, Spektor steps into character as the jilted lover precisely once in the song, for two lines at the end. Having sat through an unrelenting tirade from her soon-to-be-ex, the woman finally steps up, first with an impatient "What?", then with a cracking, devastated, but utterly defiant "Say it!"

Bam. Kick to the fucking nuts.

There is no place left to go. The man ends with a noncommittal justification for refusing to proceed further, and the song fades. Good stuff.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Thoughts I wish I wasn't having

-Obama does not yet have this one in the bag. The ACORN thing will be beaten to death over the next two and a half weeks, and I'd bet money that despite what I've read to the contrary about ACORN being a pretty good watchdog when it comes to vote fraud, absolutely no one to the right of Obama himself will believe it.

-Given the sheer white-hot hatred coming from The Base (TM), the Democratic Congress better do way better in the next session than it did in this one or there will be a frivolous impeachment in President Obama's future.

-McCain likely has absolutely no political capital left. After that debate performance, only The Base (TM) can possibly take him seriously. That doesn't mean, however, that a massive, completely spurious, devastatingly effective propaganda blitz can't still happen. It really depends on whether McCain finds a white knight in the former "VRWC" crowd. One can only hope that whoever's coming up in Richard Mellon Scaife's disgraced shoes has as little faith in McCain as the broader fundraising base seems to.

-I don't care if Joe the Plumber is an actual plumber, or if he's really related to Charles Keating, or what. He's a dimwit who can't think past the end of his own paycheck, and is likely up for a massive IRS audit this year after what's come out about his tax bill. And if I had to guess, he's probably a Paultard.

-I hope at least a few of President Clinton's personal Secret Service detail are still on the job. Obama's going to need them. I swear, Slick Willie must have handpicked his detail from the special forces considering someone actually tried to drop a plane on him.

-I have heard people saying that they hope the government means it that they'll eventually cash out of the banks they're buying into. Fuck that. Socialism = Sweden as far as I'm concerned, and I want the Fed to be able to whack financial misconduct right where it hurts the most -- in the boardroom.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Down the stretch or down in flames?

Well, we'll see. I have to be brutally honest -- I'm not completely on the Obama train (I originally wanted Edwards), but when I look at the alternatives -- irrelvance or John McCain... well, he can't be any worse, right? After all, McCain at least came off as coherent, but to those who watched the debate on TV, he seemed dismissive and disrespectful, and evidently at times about ready to jump podiums and rip Obama's throat out. In addition, his responses on abortion rights (what "extreme" wing of the "pro-abortion" movement? Most pro-choicers actually like kids...) and public schooling (vouchers, aka the Great Private School Money Siphon; HeadStart is a great program, but we need to reform it (?!)) either ran against the grain of American life or just plain made no sense at all.

Truthfully, I like the way Obama came off in the debate tonight -- deliberative, a bit of a policy wonk in the Clinton mode, even-handed and unwilling to allow himself to be baited; compare to McCain, who was polished but stuck too close to his talking points. If this is the sort of president Obama might be, this might work out pretty well. And I would love to see racist assholes lose their shit when "I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear..." goes out over the airwaves. But there's still two weeks left. No chicken counting just yet.

What's clear is that McCain has self-destructed -- picking the ridiculous and pathetic Sarah Palin as a running mate, pushing conservative policies at a time when many Americans are starting to become suspicious of Bush's holes in the church-state wall, grandstanding on economic issues in the midst of a meltdown that's utterly devastated the intellectual case for conservative/libertarian fiscal policy. He's surrounded himself with the Republican base and discovered he doesn't really like them, especially since a large contingent of them are hoping he'll kick the bucket and leave Palin in charge. (Bad news, holy rollers: barring a melanoma recurrence, McCain has longevity in his genes.) He could come back. But someone could also find the Skinner constant in Kip Thorne's FTL travel equations when the Large Hadron Collider starts up and we could have a manned mission to Gliese 581 by 2020. (Okay, that's slightly less likely. But you get the idea.)

What's clear: there is a damn good chance the US will have its first president of African-American descent. (BTW, anyone find his recent commercial showing his family on his mother's side a little overcompensatory? Admittedly it's probably necessary in all the states where people think he's a Muslim, but it just looks strange in Massachusetts, which is pretty much a safe Obama state either way.) If it doesn't... well, I'll put this diplomatically. No one outside the US wants McCain to win, because they associate him with Bush 43. Despite McCain's protestations tonight in the debate that he isn't Bush 43, he's done a piss poor job of distinguishing himself.

Friday, October 3, 2008

America gonef

Okay, so Biden didn't shred Palin the way everyone was expecting, and she somehow managed to avoid sounding like the gibbering idiot she came across as with Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson. But has George W. Bush really lowered the bar for GOP candidates so low that this debate could possibly be called a draw?

I'll start by saying both candidates had a problem with evasiveness. But there was one key difference between the two of them -- Biden was cogent and quick on the draw with information that could be easily verified with a quick Google search. Palin, on the other hand, fought like mad to stay on message whether it was relevant or not and showed little obvious ability to think on her feet, resorting to trite sloganeering so often that it was unclear whether she had any original thought at all. Biden actually came across as somewhat flummoxed, like someone who'd just realized that the person he'd been attempting to have a discussion about basic particle physics was actually a cat. I'll give the punditocracy the idea that Palin in some sense "held her own" -- that is, she didn't make herself look like a bigger ditz than she has already. But she didn't exactly raise the bar either -- her responses were bordering on content-free, and she seems to have no feel at all for appropriate speech registers. I mean, that was all George W. Bush had to do in his debates, and look where we are now.

Only the most dishonest or desperate of party hacks could consider this a win for Palin. But what amazes me is that this could be considered even a draw -- I mean, how does that work? This isn't bowling or horse racing where you can spot a less experienced opponent some handicap points. Somewhere on the Senate floor, Hillary Clinton is glad she endorsed Obama.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

McCain is a coward

So McCain, being revealed at long last as a coward, has attempted to back out of this week's presidential debate, and he's getting hammered in the opinion polls for it. An evident attempt to take the moral high ground on the current financial meltdown has instead made McCain look like a coward, and he's even threatening to pull Palin out of the VP debate. On top of all that, he blew off David Letterman, pissing him off mightily; considering that ever since the 1992 elections, pissing off the late night talk show hosts has been a very bad idea, it certainly makes McCain look like a coward.

I think I want to googlebomb this. McCain is a coward.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Palin's true colors

Well, Sarah Palin's true nature has become quite clear with almost embarrassing speed. Despite coming off as window dressing from the beginning, she's proven one thing -- she's a skilled propagandist, and a rather obnoxiously autocratic one at that. Trying to get the Wasilla head librarian fired for not bending on a censorship issue? Trying to get someone fired because he wouldn't fire her sister's ex-husband? This is a woman who has little concept of separation of powers. In that regard, she actually reminds me a lot of ex-gov Mitt Romney, who also had a nasty habit of trying to do things that he wasn't constitutionally allowed to do. So I already don't like her. (The fact that I happen to personally know someone who is a Wasilla resident who outright hates her doesn't really have much bearing on that.) You don't have to be a sexist pig to find things to criticize her for.

And now, the "community organizer" smear. Mike the Mad Biologist over at points out that her sneering use of the term "community organizers" is really a pitch-perfect example of dogwhistle politics -- to a liberal, a part of the political spectrum where community activism is integral to the process of policymaking, this is a somewhat incomprehensible sneer -- after all, community activists are the people on the ground in poor neighborhoods, making sure people can show up to vote, can afford the high costs of energy and housing, have a venue to tell their stories, and even just put food on the table. Community activists are like the neighborhood equivalent of trade unions, providing bargaining power to the disenfranchised at city hall and the state capitol the same way that unions are supposed to with corporate management.

But that's not the image Palin is trying to invoke in the minds of prospective GOP voters. The Right has long been enamored of the narrative of rugged individualism, and has cultivated the model of a class society where if you're not on top, you probably don't deserve to be; after all, we can all achieve any station in life we want, right? In addition -- a point that underlies Mike's post -- the ugly fact is that the GOP was known early on to be trying to find ways to sneak veiled racism past voters in case of an Obama primary victory. They've already done it at least once by accusing Obama of racism by making a preemptive strike a few weeks ago against that very tactic ("You know, he doesn't look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills.") and Mike makes a pretty good case that this, likewise, is a racist swipe at a class of people that the Right generally associates with such exemplars of self-parody as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

Now it may not be inherently racist (though I doubt it), but it is definitely classist. This speaks straight to American Right's mantra of self-reliance and, racist or not, plays off the image of lower-class communities as crime-ridden cesspools of stupidity and laziness and of community activists as willing enablers of such squalor. Palin's "community organizers" aren't building houses, negotiating cheaper oil, or subsidizing rent checks; they're enabling freeloaders and retards to get something for nothing. To the very richest Republicans, this message goes even deeper: it says that rather than trying to bring the downtrodden up out of need, they're trying to tear down the successful out of jealousy.

I have to be honest. I'm not too optimistic about Obama's chances this fall; though Andy Tanenbaum at currently has Obama leading in the tracking polls with just over 300 electoral votes, we live in a time where, thanks to the shamelessness and propaganda expertise of people such as Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, and Grover Norquist, our national political conversation has combined the fear-mongering of early 20th century politics with Richard Hofstadter's Paranoid Style to create a situation where, for the time being, progressive politics can make only minor gains and has to fight on a daily basis to keep what it has gained in the last 40 years. But I'm still voting Obama, because I have no other viable choice. With any luck, the swipe against "community organizers" will backfire the way Bob Dole's attacks on teachers' unions in 1996 did. Maybe it will too.

Friday, August 1, 2008

I hope Bill Amend is okay with this. I couldn't care less about Bil Keane.

I know the webcomic PvP and its author Scott Kurtz are the subjects of many heated debates and passionate feelings. He's certainly a talented comic artist, but there seems to be little neutral ground when it comes to Kurtz and his work -- some think he's an iconoclast as well as an icon for mainstreaming webcomics, some (this would be me) simply enjoy his work and try to stay above the fray, and some find Kurtz to be an insatiable attention whore and his comic to be garbage. I don't think there's a whole lot of middle ground.

I personally enjoy it -- it's a regular on my webcomic reading list. It isn't the greatest ever -- Kurtz has a rather ad hoc attitude towards character development (for example, I've never really understood his reversion of Marcie to a younger character design, and welcome the return of a more realistic-looking Marcie in the wake of the Brent/Jade wedding arc). But it's certainly held my attention far longer than User Friendly, which is still modestly enjoyable but painfully anachronistic and repetitive (honestly, story and character development came to a halt after Pitr and Pearl met). But Kurtz does love to throw a bomb from time to time, and this one went off like a MOAB in an LP tank farm. (Let's just say the denouement is simultaneously one of the funniest and most vicious uses of media parody I've ever seen, even compared to the end of the first Scooby-Doo movie.)

I'm probably reading far too much into what is really just a slash-and-burn attack on a very monotonous and overly sweet family comic (Family Circus has nothing on For Better or for Worse, which is hardly an exemplar of greatness itself), but it seems to me to be an interesting comment on decorum. We move through life and often cover the more unpleasant sides of ourselves with polite fictions. This is fine; it keeps the wheels greased. But the darker side is when "decorum" becomes a mask covering serious dysfunction, abuse, or outright insanity; this sort of decorum is what made comics like George Carlin and Richard Pryor so controversial, because they saw through it for the bullshit that it was. Even if Keane is nothing like Kurtz makes him out to be, there is still the point to be made that trying to maintain these fictions so that the maintainer doesn't have to face reality is precisely the point of insipid garbage like this.

I leave you with a paraphrase from the 1990s MTV cartoon Daria -- when a classmate of Jane and Daria's dies, it is pointed out (I don't remember by who) that the phrase "it really makes you think" implies that thinking is uncomfortable and an impedance to our daily lives. That observation, in a nutshell, is the biggest problem of dogmatism, and explains why I've thrown in my lot with the skeptics of the world. Maybe none of this was Kurtz' intent, but it does make me think, and frankly, I don't mind that.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

It is finished

PZ Myers went and did it, and in exactly the ignominious and anticlimactic fashion it deserved to be done. Not that it will make any impact at all on the Catholic Church, but it gets the message across: nothing is sacred in any meaningful way.

I want a banana now. Unfortunately, I don't have any, so I may settle for a cup of coffee.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A line in the sand on altmed

Resistance is not futile, but it certainly feels like pissing up a flagpole sometimes.

I'm disgusted by the concept of health freedom (disclaimer: I wrote most of that article). It really is an epic disaster -- quacks and self-deluded people insisting on unfettered access, free of criticism, to patients and doctors, and invoking happyfuzzy words like "freedom" to justify it. I once tried to warn a fellow customer at a bookstore away from a Kevin Trudeau book, only to receive a response that she believed in "alternative healing". Fluoridation was voted down by a landslide in my home town because the fluoride fearmongers got more hearts and minds than the dentists (you know, the people who are actually experts on the subject). And vaccination rates world wide are dropping as the paranoid claim links with autism, infertility, genocide, and other spurious accusations.

I'm going to put a few links at the bottom of this post that have a lot to do with the stupidity that seems to be eating us alive. It causes the rationalists of the world great despair, and this is all I can offer to help change things:

  • -- Stephen Barrett's uber-site of anti-quackery, and the hub of a growing network of skeptical sites, most of which revolve around medicine. One of the oldest, and best, and an absolute must-read -- the of altmed.
  • Respectful Insolence, Aetiology, ERV, and Denialism Blog -- some of my favorite anti-altie sites on Orac is a surgical oncologist, Tara Smith is a professor of epidemiology, Abbie Smith is an HIV researcher, and the authors of Denialism Blog are a med student, a lawyer, and a practicing medical doctor who all fight the good fight against teh st00pid.
  • In The Pipeline -- In the same vein as the ScienceBlogs crew, pharma chemist Derek Lowe (not the ex-Red Sox pitcher) writes about the real world of pharma chem, in which things are not quite as evil as the alties make out (though Pfizer in particular takes a beating in Lowe's estimation, he still takes great pride in his work and other scientists in the industry).
  • -- originally created as a response to the dysfunctional propaganda factory at Conservapedia, I've been involved on RationalWiki for quite some time and am one of a great many users (including PalMD from the above-mentioned Denialism Blog) who have been trying to make a humorous but authoritative reference for woo fighters.
  • The Millenium Project -- Created by Peter Bowditch from Australia, this site focuses heavily on anti-vaxers and faith healers, as well as attempts to profit from peoples' gullibility.
  • Don't forget more general skeptical websites such as the James Randi Educational Foundation, Robert Todd Carroll's Skeptic's Dictionary,, and many, many others.

I'm hoping to make some PSAs in the near future to put on YouTube so people can put them on local public access cable channels. In the meantime, consider these essential reading.

Monday, June 30, 2008

What's TI got in the calculator pipeline?

The TI-30Xa and TI-36X Solar appear to be in clearance mode at many of the retailers that are carrying them. Allow me to make baseless speculations about why.
  1. The TI-30 eco RS could be coming stateside, perhaps in a package to match the TI-30XS MultiView. I've never really understood why they phased out the solar panel on the Xa in the States to begin with.
  2. TI-36 eco RS? It'd be a logical next step. Maybe with a somewhat less flashy packaging?
  3. TI-36 MultiView. I doubt they'd do much to promote it though -- they've only sporadically pushed the TI-30 version, and the TI-34 version is too new. It might wind up being a TI-only purchase like the current TI-36XII.

I have a better idea, TI: try making your designs just a wee bit less expensive? You're getting your ass kicked on the low end by anklebiters like Karce. And please please please don't bring anything that looks like the TI-30XB stateside. That thing is fugly.

McCain, you've got to be kidding me

Let's pretend for a moment that John McCain hasn't frittered away all the goodwill he built up on the opposite side of the aisle from the 2000 election. Let me get this straight: oil is over $140 a barrel, and airlines are using the outrageous price of jet fuel as an excuse to nickel and dime customers to death, and McCain is chartering a plane called the Straight Talk Express?

$140 a barrel. Green is big. Nobody believes McCain is a straight talker anymore. AND HE'S CHARTERING A PRIVATE CAMPAIGN PLANE.

Has he completely lost his mind?

Obama in '08. He's the least worst.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Musings on redistricting, part 1

In a recent article in the Boston Phoenix, writer David Bernstein pointed out that Massachusetts faces three possible political upheavals in the very near future -- the likely loss of Ted Kennedy because of his recent cancer diagnosis, the distinct possibility of John Kerry receiving a post in an Obama cabinet, and the likelihood of Massachusetts losing yet another congressional district after the 2010 census. It's worth noting that Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry, way back in the colonial days, was the man responsible for creating the infamous "Gerrymander" district in Essex County. In the next few posts I'm going to offer a few thoughts on removing the politics from congressional representation. I'm going to start with a rough breakdown on some of the major areas in Massachusetts, and a few choice comments on the relevance of the current county divisions.

The reason I'm making this list is as background. Massachusetts, like its capital Boston, is divided into a number of "neighborhoods" that have their own cohesive regional identities, many of which carve up towns so that someone living in one part of, say, Boston will have a different congressman than another part. I live in Bill Delahunt's district, which stretches from Quincy to Provincetown. The logic of this district somewhat escapes me, as frankly the South Shore and the Cape have very little in common. The South Shore is relatively affluent and mostly serves as bedroom communities for Boston and Cambridge; the Cape is geographically isolated, with a wildly variable seasonal population and an economy almost solely based on service industries. While Bourne, Plymouth, and Wareham tend to be rather transitional between the two regions, they have a somewhat different identity to themselves. How these two areas relate when the only thing they have in common is lots of beach land escapes me. So let's begin.

  • Metro Boston and the inner suburbs. Major communities: Boston, Newton, Cambridge, Somerville, Waltham. The capital of the state, and one of the few urban areas in the state that doesn't suffer from chronic and pervasive economic depression. Out of the last five governors, three of them have been from this area (Weld, Cambridge; Romney, Belmont, Patrick, Milton). The area is particularly known for its educational opportunities, as well as the high-tech industries along the Route 128 corridor and the biotech companies based in Boston and Cambridge.
  • Cape Cod and the Islands. Formerly very rural, over the 20th century the Cape and Islands became a fairly populous exurban area with a huge seasonal population change and a very strong dependence on tourism and medical-oriented service jobs. The Cape is one of the more conservative areas of the state (I've often called it "Blue Massachusetts' Magenta Tail") and as such is politically very unlike Massachusetts as a whole; the entire area suffers from widespread income disparities and, lacking even a four-year college or significant industry outside service sectors, few opportunities for young adults entering or leaving college and setting out into the world.
  • South Coast. Major communities: Fall River, New Bedford, and arguably Attleboro, Middleboro, and Taunton. During the whaling era, this was the richest part of the state, but this area is now mostly known as a somewhat depressed, blue collar/industrial area. The Massachusetts cranberry industry is centered here, mostly in Plymouth, Carver, and Wareham, with significant numbers of growers on Cape Cod as well.
  • South Shore. Major communities: Plymouth, Quincy, Marshfield, Weymouth, Braintree. A relatively affluent area that is mostly a mix of suburban and rural.
  • North Shore. Major communities: Saugus, Chelsea, Newburyport, Salem, Peabody, Gloucester. Generally thought of as working class, though the areas from Cape Ann north to the New Hampshire border are often quite affluent.
  • Merrimack Valley. Major communities: Lowell, Lawrence, Methuen, Haverhill. Once a major industrial area, the Merrimack Valley has struggled to reinvent itself after all the mills closed, and Lawrence in particular is notoriously poor and rough. A very large immigrant population, mostly Caribbean Hispanic and southeast Asian.
  • Metro West. Major communities: Depends on who you talk to, but Natick and Framingham are pretty universally agreed to be among the most important, along with places like Wellesley and Weston. Essentially defined as "somewhere between Newton and Worcester", Metro West is a mix of poor and wealthy with a lot of commercial activity concentrated around Route 9, with a large Brazilian immigrant population. The Hudson/Franklin/Hopkinton area is the fastest-growing area in the state in terms of population.
  • Worcester and surrounding area: Worcester is far from the wealthiest place in the state, but it vies with Providence for the second largest city in New England, and has quite a lot of civic pride as Eastern Massachusetts' second city. Like Boston, Worcester is very much a college town.
  • Central and Northern Worcester county: Worcester county is the largest county in Massachusetts in terms of land area, and the central and northern areas are largely rural, with the largest population center in the area being Fitchburg.
  • Pioneer Valley: This part of Central Massachusetts includes the Connecticut River and the college towns of Amherst and Northampton as well as the Metro Springfield area. Much of it is rural in character, but the Metro Springfield area is heavily urbanized and in fact blends into the Hartford and New Haven metro areas to the south. Springfield itself is considered something of a synonym (along with Lawrence) for urban decay in Massachusetts.
  • The Berkshires: Like the Cape and Islands, Berkshire County has its own regional identity somewhat separate from the state (indeed, many of the television and radio stations in this area are considered part of the Albany, NY market). The Berkshires are also a rather touristy area, strongly associated with the arts (most notably Norman Rockwell and, on Thanksgiving, Arlo Guthrie), and often have very little to do with Boston at all.
In the next post, I'll try to sift through some of this information and see how it meshes with the current congressional districts in the state.

Friday, May 2, 2008

New Chick Tract... "oy vey" doesn't begin to cover it

Moving On Up

Jack Chick has, apparently, enthusiastically endorsed the "Evolution->Hitler" meme that the cdesign proponentsists have been using since Expelled came out. I'm not really that surprised, but what's amusing is that as laughable as Chick's tracts have already been, this thing is as insulting to the choir as the people it's trying to convert.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Sic semper... something

And so HD-DVD has passed on, ceased to be, it is an ex-format, yada yada. Toshiba threw in the towel after fighting a losing battle against Blu-Ray, a battle for a very small slice of the market. Because let's face it -- the HD market is not that big. An awful lot of people can't afford HDTVs yet, and resent the impression that they're having it forced on them by the analog shutdown next year. (It isn't, but the FCC has done a piss-poor job of getting the word out, and the converter boxes currently on the market are outrageously priced even with the subsidized discount.)

It's not that I'm terribly comfortable with Blu-Ray -- the DRM on the format is particularly nasty and paranoid, and though nobody has actually put it into use just yet, the possibility that you could have your player bricked because of a firmware update you didn't know about is really inexcusable. But Blu-Ray has some big upsides. The disc format, for one thing, is more robust than DVD, with mandatory scratchproofing to protect the recording surface. The capacity of the disc is 10GB greater for a single-sided disc, and the recording equipment is more readily available (BD-R burners are not easily found, but HD-DVD burners are damn near impossible). More companies have been shipping Blu-Ray -- in Best Buy a couple of weeks ago, I saw Blu-Ray from five companies (Sony, Panasonic, Sharp, Samsung (first to market around here) and LG) and HD-DVD from just two (Toshiba and LG (who was hedging their bets with a two-way player anyway)). Not to mention the way the video game market handled it -- Microsoft offers HD-DVD for the Xbox360, but only as an add-on, while Sony went all-in with the PS3. (Nintendo won by bypassing HD entirely for the Wii and focusing on gameplay -- smart move there.) And most Blu-Ray players seem to be able to handle AVCHD, a godsend to anyone wanting to distribute homemade HD content, since BD-R blanks are still outrageously expensive and DVDs are filthy cheap.

I have heard a great many people saying that it's all moot as we'll all be downloading our video in a few years anyway. Well, maybe those people will -- I've no doubt it's a workable business model. But I don't like being at the mercy of someone else's DRM server to watch a movie whenever I want. As videotape did not kill the movie industry, as the World Wide Web and ebooks have not killed paper books, so downloading will not kill the disc. They play to different market segments, and it's really foolish to pretend otherwise. (It reminds me of Microsoft's house concept that I saw on some newsmagazine (probably Dateline NBC) a few years back -- it was full of interesting gadgets that nobody but a hardcore wirehead could really appreciate. I'm not saying there aren't people who will appreciate it, but at the same time there's a whole hell of a lot of people who just don't see the point.)

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Apple: why I am still a fan but no longer a fanboy

There are times when I wonder whether Steve Jobs' leadership is really a good thing, long-term, for Apple. The MacBook Air happens to be my latest cause for bafflement.

Hey, it's not a bad computer, per se. It's very light and elegant, and certainly will look good when you whip it out in a cafe or on an airplane. And the idea of focusing almost exclusively on wireless networking is not a bad one, though I don't really want to be forced onto wireless (attention TJ Maxx shoppers). But I have never seen Apple ship something like this -- a total slap to 24 years worth of Apple power users. It's the underpowered junkheap in a nice case that the Mac development team went behind Steve's back to avoid shipping back in 1984.

Why am I paying $100 extra for the privilege of a DVD drive? Where is my FireWire connector so I can edit video? (And don't tell me to switch to AVCHD -- iMovie 8 is awful, group-of-pictures codecs are evil, and I don't have a venue for HD productions anyway.) And please, do not tell me that maybe the MacBook Air just isn't for me. Apple may have a tremendous amount of cachet, but they're still a niche player, and they don't have room in their product grid to create something that delivers new features but caters only to a certain section of their market.

Apple produces great hardware and great software. I've always thought that, even as the quality has slipped some in recent years. But that only gets you so far with those who actually know what they want -- I don't like being told that what I get is enough for me. (After all, there's a reason Macs ship with development tools -- as MacOS X is a Unix system, it would have a big credibility problem without them.) Unlike Windows, which is layer upon layer of designed-by-committee cruft, MacOS retains a fair amount of elegance. And I do want a MacBook -- a regular one, not the Air -- for my next computer. But after that, all bets are off -- I'm not averse to getting a PC laptop and installing Linux on it. The tools I need may be more baroque and less consistent on Linux, but they are there, and they do work for what I need. Don't drive your power users away, Apple. You need us as much as or more than you need the Brookstone crowd. (After all, who else was out there touting Applescript as a vast improvement over batch files a decade ago, or laughing at people because plug-and-play Nubus, PCI, and ADB peripherals meant that the control DOS users bragged about having was nothing more than the ability to repair grave defects inherent in the system?)

Saturday, January 12, 2008

You're a sellout, man!

I got the '08 catalog from Ramsey Electronics, and I must say, I'm a little disappointed.

Ramsey has always had the reputation for selling interesting and slightly sketchy electronics kits, and among other things has long been one of the suppliers of choice for American radio pirates (even earning themselves a raid from the FCC a number of years back). That stuff is still in there (though an old joke about one of their products, a robotic bug, is no longer in the catalog), and the catalog is actually quite a bit thicker than last year's. But, interestingly, not with more kits.

No, the big addition has been in the pro audio section. Lots of cool stuff -- high-end, rackmount CD and MP3 players, advanced recording equipment, even a full-on 24-track digital audio workstation for $800. It's all very impressive... and seems to have little or nothing to do with their traditional business.

I'm not sure what to make of this. I'm of a mixed mind regarding pirate radio to begin with; while I do support the need for low-power community radio, there are technical and political issues involved (FM Capture effect, inadequate sideband filtering on home-built gear, religious broadcasting spectrum grabs crowding out other broadcasters) that make an unregulated radio spectrum impossible. And anyone who's ever driven down the street while running an FM transmitter from an MP3 player or satellite radio knows what it's like when a transmitter from a nearby car scrambles your signal. And it's not as if that market is getting slighted -- they don't seem to have actually removed anything from the catalog.

But I do wonder if this is a symptom of the same problem as amateur chemists have -- in the interest of avoiding trouble with the DEA and the DHS, science supply companies have moved over the years to restrict the sale of chemicals and even glassware to those who don't work in scientific fields. Maybe Ramsey is doing something of the same thing -- as the government and hypersensitive litigators continue to try to chip away at freedom of speech, and as the FCC continues to allow large broadcasters such as Clear Channel, Salem, and Infinity to gulp up larger and larger quantities of broadcast spectrum, maybe Ramsey is paving the way for a shift in focus so they don't get raided again. It's pretty sad, especially as most of the new gear, impressive though it may be, is generally out of the cost range of the hobbyists they've catered to over the years.

It's pretty sad when corporate influence and scaremongering raise the barrier to entry on a mere hobby.