Friday, December 16, 2005

Squidoo's success and failure

Seth Godin has come up with an interesting idea with Squidoo.

The company, whose slogan is "Everyone's an expert on something," allows users to view and create 'lenses', each a single page devoted to a single topic. For example, Seth created What you need (okay, want) to know about Seth Godin. The second concept behind Squidoo, is chunking. "The best lenses divide the world into tiny bite-sized chunks. A long long list of links (which is what most web pages that fashion themselves as lenses contain) is completely useless to the average human. The goal here, remember, is not completeness, it’s to give me a toehold."

As much as I wanted to like Squidoo, I think it has some fundamental design flaws.

One of the argued advantages of Squidoo over a topical blog is that blogs put the most recent posts front and center. This is great if you are a recurring reader (though in that case you are probably getting the blog on RSS anyway), but may not be such a hot thing for readers who are new to the site. First because you may be expanding on a previously introduced idea, and secondly because your most recent post may not be your best post. To solve this problem, Squidoo offers a design which is fundamentally static; there is no expectation of new material except perhaps as information changes or becomes out of date. This solution creates a new problem, however; there is no new information, and therefore less tendency for readers to return!

A better solution is to offer links to featured posts either at the top of the page or in a sidebar. This offers a combination of the newness of blogs with the introduction of a static page like Squidoo.

If Blogger ever improves their service, you may be certain to find "featured posts" here.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Not so flippin' sweet

Following on the footsteps of the "Vote For Pedro" t-shirts, the Napoleon Dynamite Quote Book, and the Napoleon Dynamite Talking Doll...
With the Napoleon Dynamite flip book, fans of the hit film can watch Napoleon bust a move anytime, anywhere.

This is the kind of crap you expect three months before a Disney movie is released, not a movie that's been out on DVD for nearly a year.

Napoleon Dynamite: It's a movie, get over it.

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Saturday, December 03, 2005


  • Toy Story
  • Toy Story 2
  • A Bug's Life
  • Monsters, Inc.
  • Finding Nemo
  • The Incredibles

    This is a list of every feature film produced by Pixar. Six movies in ten years - a film every two years. By comparison, DreamWorks Animation has produced twelve feature films in just seven years - a film every seven months.

    But consider the movies. While every Pixar film has been an enourmous success (both commercial and critical), DreamWorks Animation has struggled, producing such flops as: Antz, The Prince of Egypt, Joseph: King of Dreams, The Road to El Dorado, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimmaron, Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas, Shark Tale, and Madagascar. Even Shrek 2 sold far worse than expected.

    Both companies have computer animation roots going back decades. The quality of animation between their films is very comparable. The difference is the stories. Pixar's expertise is in telling engaging stories through the medium of computer animated films, and they are willing to take time to ensure that the story is good. DreamWorks Animation, on the other hand, is committed to releasing at least two films every year. It's a lot harder to craft a good story when you're working on a short deadline.

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  • Friday, December 02, 2005

    Most dangerous building in the world?

    Taipei 101
    A Taiwanese geologist, Lin Cheng-horng, has said the huge weight of Taipei 101, the world's tallest building, could be responsible for triggering a rise in seismic activity. According to Mr Lin it weighs 700,000 metric tons and exerts a stress on the ground below of 4.7 bars - some of which would be transferred to the earth's upper crust due to extremely soft sedimentary rocks beneath the Taipei basin.

    Ironically, the building has been noted for its innovative construction. A 660-ton tuned mass damper is held at the 88th floor, stabilizing the tower against earthquakes, typhoons, and wind. The damper can reduce up to 40% of the tower's movements.

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    "The aisles will be running with blood."

    That's what Corey Caldwell, spokesperson for the Association of Flight Attendants, had to say about the Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) announcement that small scissors, screwdrivers, wrenches, and pliers will be allowed in carry-on luggage. The change takes effect December 22, just in time for holiday travel.

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    Putting partisanship aside

    In just the past fortnight, we have seen the realization of a 'Grand Coalition' in Germany, a majority government controlling 78% of the parliamentary seats.

    We have seen Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon leave Likud (of which he was a founding member) to create a new party, called Kadima. He was joined by former Labor Party Prime Minister Shimon Peres. The last event in US politics that even comes close to this was Theodore Roosevelt running as a Bull Moose.

    We can only hope that this tendancy to put partisan interests aside will find its way to the US. For the last five years the Democrats have done their best to put Republicans in charge, nominating candidates who, despite refusing to take a controversial stand, allowed themselves to be painted as extremists. Now the Republicans are trying to toss the hot potato back, as a president who ran to 'return dignity to the White House' faces indictments against Scooter Libby, and Tom DeLay, and criminal investigations ongoing against many others.

    What if we had Colin Powell and Wesley Clark running together? John McCain and John Edwards? Hillary Clinton and Condoleeza Rice? I know that none of these are going to happen, but its still fun to dream.

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    Friday, November 18, 2005

    Special effects

    When each of The Matrix movies was released the special effects were considered cutting-edge. In the second movie, The Matrix Reloaded, for example, much was made of 'The Pile' (aka the 'Burly Brawl'), a scene in which hundreds of Agent Smiths (Hugo Weaving) attack Neo (Keanu Reeves).

    Watching that scene today, it looked like a poorly rendered computer game scene, not a climactic scene from the most-anticipated movie of the year.

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    How do you measure freedom?

    A leading research and advisory firm, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) recently ranked 20 middle-eastern countries on 15 indicators of political and civil liberty to measure the freedom of each country.

    While most of the rankings fall as expected - Israel ranked as the most free, Libya and Syria as the least - a few items on the ranking might seem surprising to casual observers. The five most free countries on the list include three of the most volatile countries in the world: Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq. These high rankings reflect recent developments such as Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon and elections in Palestine and Iraq.

    At the bottom of the rankings, Saudi Arabia, a key US ally, tied with Syria as the second least free country. Saudi Arabia held municipal elections in February of 2005 - its first elections ever - but the country remains an absolute monarchy. If nothing else, this survey should put to rest the lie that US intervention in the Middle East is about promoting democracy

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    War on Drugs

    John Walters, head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said recently that the rising street price of cocaine in the US shows that the Bush Administration's policies in Latin America are working. Walters said the price of a gram of cocaine had risen 19% in seven months, and its purity had fallen.

    The fact is that over the long term, cocaine prices have been relatively stable, and the recent increase is probably just temporary. For more details on why this increase will be temporary, take a look at Freakonomics, or at Beyond Politics and Reason. Or just take Macroeconomics 101.

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    Thursday, November 17, 2005

    Progress against malaria

    In another major advance in the fight against infectious diseases, recently concluded tests have shown an anti-malaria vaccine, GlaxoSmithKline's RTS S/AS02A, to be far more effective than previously believed. Malaria kills over a million people world-wide each year.

    The initial six month follow-up showed that the vaccine reduced the risk of clinical malaria by 30%, and the risk of serious disease by 58%. It had been thought that the vaccine would only be effective for about six months, creating a significant logistical challenge to vaccinate African childern twice a year. In a recent report published in The Lancet, researchers working in Mozambique found the jab cut the risk of clinical malaria by 35% and nearly halved the risk of serious malaria even after 18 months.

    Melinda Moree, of the Malaria Vaccine Initiative, said: "We are very excited because there is a malaria vaccine that protects children from malaria and it actually lasts long enough to make it a real public health intervention that can have an impact on malaria in Africa."

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    Thought for the day

    Native groups across South Africa share a common commitment to ubuntu, a Zulu word roughly meaning compassion or respect for others. Traced back to the Zulu maxim "a person is a person through other persons," Archbishop Desmond Tutu explained this as meaning that I am not complete until you are complete, nor happy until you are happy.

    - From Moral Courage: Taking action when your values are put to the test by Rushworth M Kidder

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    Friday, November 11, 2005

    Another one bites the dust!

    The global eradication of smallpox is one of the greatest public health successes ever.

    Within two years we may see another such success. The BBC reported late yesterday that only six nations (Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Niger, Afghanistan, and Egypt) have had recent polio cases, and that the disease could be completely eradicated within 18 months.

    The World Health Organization was making major headway against polio, until 2003, when Islamic clerics in Nigeria organised a boycott of the polio vaccine, claiming it was part a western plot against Muslims. The disease subsequently spread to 15 African countries and was also detected in Yemen and Indonesia.

    "This is the light at the end of the tunnel," said Bruce Aylward, WHO co-ordinator for the eradication of polio.

    Bruce Aylward, coordinator for the polio eradication project, noted that the WHO is still needs to find $200m for operations in 2006. "Now it's simply [about] getting the financial resources to get this thing finished. You'll never get another chance like it."

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    How to build a better future

    The news from Grand Rapids was school closings.

    The news from Holland was that striking teachers would be fired.

    The news from Kalamazoo was that graduates of the Kalamazoo Public schools (enrollment of about 10,000 pupils) will get four years' tuition paid to any public college or university in Michigan. Students enrolled from grades 9 through 12 will get 65%. Students enrolled from grades 3 through 12 will get 95%. Students enrolled for all 13 years (K through 12) will get 100%. All they have to do is attend Kalamazoo Public Schools, graduate from KPS, and maintain a 2.0 average in college.

    The long-term impact of this on Kalamazoo can not be overstated. It makes the public school district much more attractive (compared both to surrounding districts and to private schools). It gives hope to thousands of students every year that they can have a better future. It will build a more educated workforce in Kalamazoo, attracting better jobs. And, thanks to seven anonymous donors, it will not cost a penny of tax money.

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    Thursday, November 10, 2005

    100 posts!

    The previous post was my 100th post on this blog! It took me 14 months, averaging approximately 1 post every 4.2 days, but that statistic is deceptive; several times I have gone almost a month with no posts, and I have written as many as 5 posts in a single day. Hopefully I can get to 200 posts a little more quickly; my goal is to write post #200 by next summer.

    Meaningless records

    In a particularly pointless effort, Boeing has flown a new 777-200LR Worldliner jet 13,423 miles from Hong Kong to London, setting a new record for a commercial airplane (though not a commercial flight; the plane carried just 35 passengers -- pilots, Boeing engineers and an international assortment of journalists, all of whom had been carefully weighed with their luggage). The Earth’s circumference is approximately 40,000 km. So you can get from anywhere to anywhere in about 20,000 km. This airplane is flying an extra 1,500 km just for the heck of it.

    There are some records that just don’t matter any more, and this is one of them. It’s as if someone had followed Magellan’s ship around the world, and then sailed another 50 miles at the end.

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    Sunday, November 06, 2005

    Lest readers think I am biased against US media

    In a recent article entitled "Bird flu plan 'one of the best'" the Beeb quoted Professor Roy Anderson (cited as "the government's advisor on infectious diseases", though no title was given) as saying that the UK's plans to deal with bird flu are "as good as if not better" than the plans of other countries.

    There is a big difference between the "as good as" quote in the article and "one of the best" in the article title.

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    Friday, November 04, 2005

    American news

    After the apparently accidental death by electrocution of two Muslim teenagers, Paris has been wracked by riots for more than a week. Last night alone, more than 500 vehicles were burned.

    After a unanimous UN Security Council condemnation of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's call for Israel to be "wiped off the map," Iran's foreign minestry expressed surprise that the Security Council had never condemned threats made against Iran by the US and Israel or the crimes of the Israeli regime going on to say that Iran was committed to its engagements based on the UN charter. "[Iran] has never used force against a second country or threatened the use of force."

    For some reason US broadcast news has been too busy telling us about what Michael Brown was wearing than to give us important international news.

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    Worst food ever.

    The letter I just sent says it all:
    To Whom It May Concern:

    I have always been an adventurous eater and have enjoyed a wide
    variety of salsa flavors (including mango, peach, artichoke, apple,
    etc.) and I recently purchased a bottle of Salpica Mango Peach Salsa
    expecting to have something deliciously sweet and spicy.

    I have to tell you, your salsa is without a doubt, the nastiest thing
    I have ever put into my mouth. In all honesty, the flavor was
    unmistakably reminiscent of vomit.

    Please do not send me any certificates for free products; after such
    an experience I will never touch your merchandise again, and will
    request that it be dropped from my local grocery store. I hope that
    you will redesign the salsa in question, but again, it really doesn't
    matter to me, because I will not try it again. All I am asking for is
    an apology from whoever is responsible for this atrocious flavor.

    Unless you enjoy the flavor of vomit, consider yourself warned.

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    Wednesday, September 14, 2005

    Two for the price of one!

    Here it is, folks; the day we've all been waiting for. Northwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines, both going bankrupt the same day!

    I bet all those Northwest mechanics, striking from their $37/hour jobs, feel pretty stupid now. Yesterday they lost their jobs (Northwest began hiring permanent replacements) and today they will lose their pensions. Happy retirement job hunting!

    Who would have predicted two of America's largest and best-known companies would become penny-stocks?

    Plenty of people. At this point it is clear that the US aviation industry is an unmitigated disaster. United Airlines. US Airways. Delta. Northwest. Our biggest air carriers are completely and universally unable to turn a profit. Nor is this a recent phenomenon brought on by rising fuel costs, Hurricane Katrina, the war in Iraq, or the September 11 attacks. For decades, the airlines have been playing this game, blaming external events for their failure and getting bailed out by the US government.

    There are two solutions for this problem. One is to nationalize US aviation. The other is to let the free market run its course. No more bail-outs. No more emergency federal loans. If an airline can't turn a profit, they go out of business. Anything less will just prolong the problem, and increase the cost taxpayers must eventually bear.

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    Friday, September 09, 2005

    On the lighter side...

    Recent discoveries suggest that pterosaurs, the flying reptiles living at the same time as dinosaurs, grew to sizes that are frankly mind-blowing.

    Newly found Romanian and Brazilian fossils indicate a wingspan greater than 40 feet, and possibly as much as 60 feet.

    For comparison, today's biggest flying bird, the wandering albatross, has a wingspan of about 11 feet. Looked at another way, this is about the size of a commercial airplane capable of carrying 20 to 30 passengers.

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    Jose Padilla follow-up

    What's that? You say you've forgotten who that is?

    Let me remind you.

    A US citizen, Padilla was arrested in Chicago in May 2002, on suspicion of planning to detonate a "dirty bomb." President Bush declared Padilla an "enemy combatant," a designation created by Bush that allows the military to hold someone indefinitely without charges. Since then, for three years, Padilla has been held in the Navy brig in Charleston, SC.

    A ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that this was legal. Apparently you can become a federal judge without reading the US Constitution.

    "The exceedingly important question before us is whether the president of the United States possesses the authority to detain militarily a citizen of this country who is closely associated with al-Qaeda. We conclude that the president does possess such authority," read the ruling written by Judge Michael Luttig, who is seen as one of Mr Bush's possible nominations for the Supreme Court.

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    Sticking our collective nose in other countries' business

    In the grand tradition of US intervention in Latin America, Roger Noriega, the Assistant Secretary of State for the Americas, suggested that Nicaragua's congress should think twice before impeaching their President, Enrique Bolanos. "If there were this kind of judicial mugging of President Bolanos I think the [inter-American] community would respond very, very forcibly," Noriega said.

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    Thursday, September 08, 2005

    Striking mechanics just don't get it

    Northwest Airlines' striking mechanics just don't seem to get it. The mechanics average about $70,000 a year in pay. They were willing to take a 20% pay cut, but no the 25% cut the company proposed. This represents a new average pay of $56,000 versus $52,500. Today in negotiations Northwest demanded even steeper cuts.

    I know there is some hardball negotiating going on here, but the mechanics need to consider their position. Northwest has done reasonably well with its replacement workers, and has said it will begin hiring permanent replacements on Tuesday if a deal has not been reached. Northwest clearly has a lot of bargaining power here, since it has such an alternative. What alternative do the mechanics have? They will probably be lucky to get jobs that would match even the 25% pay cuts that Northwest was offering.

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    Tuesday, September 06, 2005

    Insight from abroad

    The following is from a comment on this Gadgetopia post:

    Hello, I am from Germany and probably get different informations than you get.

    It is a terrible thing what happens in New Orleans at the moment. How can the wealthiest country in the world forget their own people?

    Why don`t they get enough food and water to the people for five days?

    Why can`t they evacuate 100.000 people in five or six days?

    In many countries the USA have a problem with their reputation because of the IRAQ WAR. Your President MR BUSH seems to have special interests in OIL. And the people who voted for him were mostly white.

    New Orleans doesn`t seem to have OIL nore WHITE People. It did not seem to interest him for the first three to four days. Praying is just not enough at some stage…

    I just cannot imagine, that it is not possible to send to drink (coke, beer, water , whatever) and food to those people in 1 day. Why did it had to take 6 days????

    You should ask your president these questions and don`t let him get away with his view to a great future.

    Let me say one thing: Mr. Bush in one of the craziest COWBOYS you have ever had as a president…

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    SBC: A story

    Let me tell you a story about the telephone company. I call this little story, "I Want My Two Dollars! Two Dollars!"

    Once upon a time, Carter lived in Ann Arbor, and he used either a calling card or a cell phone for long distance calls. So for the land line, he had local service from Ameritech, which changed its name to SBC, and no long-distance service at all. Carter was perfectly happy with this arrangement, and no one else seemed to mind much either.

    Then he moved and when Carter called SBC to transfer the phone service he was told that they must select a long-distance provider. If you had tapped the phone line when Carter made that call, you would have broken the law. But you also would have heard a conversation something like this:

    SBC Rep: You must have a long-distance provider selected.
    Carter: But I don't use this phone for long-distance. In fact, I don't even use it for local calls! All I use it for is dialing up my ISP, which I get free.
    SBC Rep: Dialing up to the internet? {Insert DSL sales pitch here}.
    Carter: No. I'm not going to pay that much ($25 for the phone line + $25 for DSL = $50 to get online!). And I don't want a long-distance provider either.
    SBC Rep: Tell you what. SBC has a long-distance plan with no monthly fee. So you only pay for the calls you make. If you don't make any calls, it won't cost you anything.
    Carter: (Still pissed off about the hassle he just got from the gas/electric company, and tired of arguing.) Fine. Give me that.

    So Carter moved to Livonia, and never used the phone except to connect to their ISP. In fact, most of the time the phone wasn't even plugged into the jack! Then Carter moved again, to Holland (the small city in western Michigan, not the small nation in western Europe). SBC didn't hassle Carter about transfering his service this time, and Carter didn't even think about the long-distance, which they had never used, and never paid for not using.

    Well, the months went by, and then one day Carter noticed something on the back of his phone bill. Amidst all the irrelevant information and advertising was a little notice saying something to the effect of:
    Dear customer, unfortunately for you, we have decided that we just aren't making any money off this long-distance plan. For some reason, the people who choose this plan (no monthly/annual fee, high per minute charge) don't really make a lot of long-distance calls. Who could have predicted that? So we're discontinuing this plan. You can stay on it as long as you want, but we're going to start charging you a $2 monthly fee.

    As you can well imagine, Carter wasn't too happy about this. So one morning when the phone in question was inexplicably out of service, in addition to calling in the service request, Carter decided to take a minute to talk to someone about this.

    Carter: Good morning! I noticed on the back of my recent bill that my long-distance plan is being discontinued and you are going to charge me a $2 monthly fee until I change or cancel the service.
    SBC Rep: That's right.
    Carter: Do you have any long-distance plans without a monthly fee?
    SBC Rep: No, yours was the only one and now it's gone.
    Carter: In that case, I'd like to cancel this long distance service. Seeing as how I never use it and didn't really ask for it - I was told that I had to have a plan - I am really not interested in paying for it.
    SBC Rep: Sure thing. I do need to let you know there is a $10.44 cancellation fee.
    Carter: (Blowing his top.) So let me get this straight. For a plan which I didn't want, have never used, and will never use, you are going to either charge me $2/month or $10 to cancel it!
    SBC Rep: Those are the charges, yes.
    Carter: I will not pay either of those fees. Those were not disclosed when I signed up for this plan and I have never agreed to them. I want you to cancel it at no charge.
    SBC Rep: I am telling you now that if I cancel it you will be charged.
    Carter: Fine. Then let me talk to your manager.
    SBC Rep: I am an account manager [Note: if you don't know this is fancy language for salesperson].
    Carter: If you can't do this at no charge, then I want to talk to your supervisor.
    SBC Rep: My supervisor will have to charge you for this also.
    Carter: I am sure there is someone in the company who can waive a $10 charge.
    SBC Rep: $10.44. And no, there isn't.
    Carter: (Having a creative thought.) What if I cancel all my phone service? Would you still charge me?
    SBC Rep: No.
    Carter: So you're telling me that SBC would rather lose me completely than just lose my long-distance service?
    SBC Rep: (Getting frustrated.) Let me transfer you to someone in customer service who may be able to help you.
    Carter: (Wondering who I've been talking to all this time - customer disservice?) OK.
    SBC Rep: Before I transfer you {Insert DSL sales pitch here}.

    That's right, after all that she actually had the nerve to try to sell Carter DSL (and at $15 above SBC's advertised price)! So eventually someone in customer service picked up Carter's call, and told him that despite what he read on his statement, and despite what the first person told him, there would not be a $2 charge. Did Carter believe her? (Give me a break! Would you believe her?) Of course not. So being a sensible person, (and mistaking Rep #2 for a sensible, if uninformed, person) Carter thought it might be a good idea to pin her down.

    Carter: If I do get this $2 fee, will you reverse it for me?
    Rep #2: You won't get a $2 fee.
    Carter: I understand that. But another rep just told me I would.
    Rep #2: I'm sorry they must have been wrong.
    Carter: Obviously someone is wrong. I'm worried that it's you. If I get this $2 fee, will you reverse it for me?
    Rep #2: You won't get a $2 fee. (Can you say 'broken record'?)
    Carter: I understand that you are telling me I won't get a $2 fee. So if I do, it's a mistake, right? So if I get this $2 fee you will fix that mistake and reverse the fee for me, right?
    Rep #2: (Not sounding entirely sure.) Right.
    Carter: Great! Talk to you in a month when I need that two dollars back!
    Rep #2: (Stunned.)
    Carter: [click.]

    Carter has learned his lesson. Next time he moves, he is not going to get a land-line at all. He will just going to get broadband from the cable company. The cost is about the same as a phone line + DSL, and the cable company won't give him shit about my long-distance provider.

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    Friday, September 02, 2005

    $1,000,000 Boing Boing award

    Flying Spaghetti Monster follow-up.

    On August 19, Boing Boing offered a $1,000,000 award for anyone who "can produce empirical evidence which proves that Jesus is not the son of the Flying Spaghetti Monster."

    Many bloggers offered to add further to the award, which was rejected "...because many of you offered sums payable in "whisky and wenches," or "ho's 'n' blow," neither of which really count."

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    "The most powerful kiss in history"

    Louise Kelsey, 58, was working at the Park Hyatt in Melbourne, Australia on November 19, 2001 (the day before Uruguay's first World Cup playoff against Australia), when an Uruguayan soccer player kissed her against her will.

    She said the player was flirting with her, saying she had beautiful eyes. He then grabbed her as she left and kissed her.

    Ms Kelsey told the Victorian County Court her post traumatic stress disorder after the incident exacerbated her nystagmus - a pre-existing condition that causes involuntary eye movement. She was declared legally blind in August 2002.

    The Park Hyatt's defence team does not dispute that an incident occurred, but it put forward a doctor, who said the kiss must have been "the most powerful kiss in history" if it caused its recipient to become legally blind.

    The hearing is ongoing.

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    In the wake of the storm

    In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Michael Leavitt, Secretary of Health and Human Services, said a public health emergency warning was in place from Louisiana to Florida. He said there were grave concerns about cholera, typhoid and dehydrating diseases.

    Mr. Leavitt's warning may have missed the mark, however; outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and typhoid are not probable because the microbes which carry them are virtually non-existent in the US, and so an outbreak like the one in West Africa is very unlikely.

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) records from previous US disasters show the majority of medical problems after the events have been associated with diarrhoea and asthma. The CDC and the Food and Drug Administration are advising people to throw away food that may have come into contact with flood water and only to drink bottled water.

    Dr Glenn Morris, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Maryland Medical School in Baltimore, said: "The biggest problem is the sewage contamination of the water. Just splashing around in the water, if there is sewage contamination there is a risk you could get it on to your hands and get it into your mouth." He said viruses such as hepatitis A could be a threat as well as dangerous strains of E.coli.

    As many wild animals have been pushed from their normal habitats into limited dry areas (and hence into closer contact with people), rabies may become a problem. Another problem may be mosquito-borne diseases, such as West Nile Viral Encephalitis. Stagnant flood waters may result in a booming mosquito population. WNVE killed more than 200 people in the US in 2004.

    Fortunately, these diseases are not directly transmitted from person to person, and so as the water recedes and order returns to the area, any disease outbreak should die off quickly.

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    Wasn't that a mighty storm?

    I've held off posting on Hurricane Katrina for nearly a week, but I can't keep my mouth shut any longer. There is only one reason that nine people died in Florida, hundreds in Mississippi, and probably thousands in Louisiana.

    Human stupidity.

    Human stupidity, for all the people in Florida who didn't evacuate. ("Oh, it's just a Category 1 storm.") Even a 'weak' hurricane is quite a force to be reckoned with, as nine families now know all too well.

    Human stupidity, for the people in the Louisiana and Mississippi gulf coast who chose not to evacuate. They don't even have the excuse of the Floridians; this was a Category 5 hurricane, one of the strongest ever in the Atlantic, bearing down on them. There was plenty of time to evacuate; warnings were going out on Friday and the storm didn't hit until Monday morning.

    When New Orleans ordered a 'mandatory evacuation', approximately 20% of the population (including the mayor) didn't leave. They can call it 'mandatory' until they are blue in the face, but this evacuation was clearly voluntary.

    Here's the worst part, though. It seems that the evacuation order only applied to people with cars, and with money to pay inflated gas and hotel prices. More than 9,000 people took shelter (I know they don't want to call it a shelter, but please, look the word up; it is what it is) in the Superdome; many were waiting in line all day Sunday to get in. Why didn't 250 busses take these people to the Astrodome, out of harm's way, before the hurricane hit? Wouldn't that have been easier than waiting until 3+ days after the storm to evacuate? Isn't it likely that if evacuation had been free, a lot more people would have left?

    I remember one September,
    When storm winds swept the town;
    The high tide from the ocean, Lord,
    Put water all around.

    cho: Wasn't that a mighty day,
    A mighty day, a mighty day,
    Great God, that morning
    When the storm winds swept the town!

    There was a sea-wall there in Galveston
    To keep the waters down,
    But the high tide from the ocean, Lord,
    Put water in the town.

    The trumpets warned the people,
    'You'd better leave this place!'
    But they never meant to leave their homes
    Till death was in their face.

    The trains they all were loaded
    With people leaving town;
    The tracks gave way to the ocean, Lord,
    And the trains they went on down.

    The seas began to rolling,
    The ships they could not land;
    I heard a Captain crying,
    'God, please save a drowning man!'

    The waters, like some river,
    Came a-rushing to and fro;
    I saw my father drowning, God,
    And I watched my mother go!

    Now death, your hands are icy;
    You've got them on my knee.
    You took away my mother,
    Now you're coming after me!

    Somewhere between 8,000 and 12,000 people died in the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 and it remains the deadliest natural disaster ever to strike the US. Katrina may surpass that number; as of last night more than 20,000 people were still missing.

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    Wednesday, August 24, 2005

    Nothing to lose means everything to gain

    A couple days ago I commented on the stock market's odd reaction to the Northwest Airlines strike. I stand by my comment, and apparently The Economist does too. While British Airways has cut $1.8 billion/year in costs and is in a strong financial position, they have been crippled by their recent strike. Northwest Airlines, on the other hand, anticipated the likelihood of a strike, and on the verge of bankruptcy with little to lose, didn't give much in their union negotiations.

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    Exploding cigar, anyone?

    I hope Reverend Pat Roberston isn't planning to visit the United Kingdom; he may find himself stopped at the border.

    Pat Robertson recently called for the assassination of Venezualan President Hugo Chavez, saying it 'would be cheaper than a war.' Wasn't there something in the Bible about 'Thou shalt not'...something...I'm sure someone as familiar with the Good Book as Rev. Robertson knows the saying! Apparently Rev. Robertson is also not familiar with the USA's long (and often comical) history of assasination attempts agains Chavez's friend, Fidel Castro.

    Meanwhile, UK officials announced a plan to bar foreigners believed to inspire terrorism. Interior Minister Charles Clarke published a list of 'unacceptable behaviors' which would prompt deportation or a ban on entry. The list of activities, which covers any non-UK citizen in Britain or abroad, includes expressing views which foment, justify or glorify terrorist violence in pursuit of particular beliefs and seeking to provoke others to terrorist acts.

    Calling for the assassination of a head of state? Definitely on the list!

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    Monday, August 22, 2005

    Great quote...

    "Actually I rarely think the market is right. I believe non dividend stocks aren’t much more than baseball cards. They are worth what you can convince someone to pay for it."

    - Mark Cuban, yesterday in a blog post

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    Saturday, August 20, 2005

    Northwest Airlines employees strike

    Shares of Northwest closed down 10 cents, or 1.8 percent, at $5.38 Friday on Nasdaq, as the Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, representing 5,400 mechanics, cleaners and custodians, went on strike.

    I have to confess my surprise at this. I thought a strike, particularly a really crippling strike, would have been just the thing to tip the struggling airline into bankruptcy. Although bankruptcy is usually viewed as a negative, in this case it would allow Northwest to dump their pensions on the PBGC and restructure all their labor contracts. Today, bankruptcy could be a competitive tool in the airline industry.

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    Thursday, August 18, 2005

    Re-wilding America

    Once upon a time in the Pleistocene Era (between about 1.8 million and 10,000 years ago) some really big animals (the technical term for which is 'megafauna') roamed North America. Cheetahs and lions roamed the western plains, hunting pronghorns, camels, and elephants.

    Nearly all of the North American megafauna species became extinct about 13,000 years ago - not coincidentally, about the time humans arrived in the area. This disappearance has left glaring gaps in the complex web of interactions, upon which a healthy ecosystem depends. The pronghorn, for example, has lost its natural predator and only its startling speed - of up to about 60mph - hints at its now forgotten foe. The human extermination of 'top predators' such as cheetahs, lions, and wolves, has lead to countless problems farther down the food chain, which many scientist believe could best be remedied by resoring top predators and megafauna to the ecosystem.

    No, I'm not crazy and yes, you read that correctly. A recent article in Nature magazine discussed the idea of repopulating North America with megafauna. Although many of the specific species are long extinct, they have close relatives among the lions, cheetahs, elephants, camels, and antelopes of Africa and Asia. In addition to strengthening North American ecosystems, this would provide a safety net for the world's megafauna, which survives today almost exclusively in Africa.

    While this would certainly not solve all of North America's ecological problems (global warming, habitat loss, etc.), it is an idea that, at the least, bears consideration.

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    Tuesday, August 16, 2005

    Behold His Noodlyness: the One True Monster!

    One of the most exciting developments in fundamental physics in the last twenty years has been the development of so-called "String Theory." In String Theory, all fundamental sub-atomic particles are visualized and described mathematically as microscopic vibrating strings. Although as yet unproven, many physicists believe that String Theory has the potential to become the long-sought "Theory of Everything," through which the fundamental physical nature of all matter and forces will become understood.

    Obviously String Theory IS correct, although misnamed (a secular humanist conspiracy perhaps?). As NOODLE Theory clearly unambiguously reveals, He has created the fundamental subatomic particles that form all matter in this universe in His own quivering image! You, me, the Earth, the stars...everything in the universe...are all built of trillions of tiny jiggling noodles, microscopic copies of our Divine Saucy Maker. Truly He is everywhere and in all things!
    -Steve Lawrence, PhD

    President Bush on Flying Spaghetti Monsterism (8/2/05): "I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought," Bush said. "You're asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, the answer is yes."

    Summary of Stated Beliefs:
    * The Universe was created by a Flying Spaghetti Monster.
    * All evidence pointing towards evolution was put in place by His Noodly Appendage.
    * Global warming, earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters are a direct consequence of the decline in numbers of pirates since the 1800s.
    * Bobby Henderson is the prophet of this religion.

    Codes of conduct:
    * Prayers are ended with "Al Dente" rather than "Amen".
    * Followers are expected to dress in pirate regalia to help avert global warming.

    Benefits of conversion:
    * Like the great noodles they worship, Flying Spaghetti Monsterists have flimsy moral standards.
    * Every friday is a relgious holiday. ("If your work/school objects to that, demand your religious beliefs are respected and threaten to call the ACLU.")
    * FSM heaven is WAY better; it's got a Stripper Factory AND a Beer Volcano.

    Read more about FSMism here, and then read the Words of the Prophet.

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    Avast ye swabs!

    Today I be addin' "Pirate Mode" for me front page, thanks be t' th' Mediocre Minds Pirate Translator.



    More intellegent design nonsense

    Lyndon Johnson liked to tell a story about a Depression-era school teacher who was applying for a job in Johnson City, Texas, the president's hometown. The school board, he said, was divided on whether Earth was round or flat, so they asked him how he taught it.

    "The poor fellow needed a job so much; he said, 'I can teach it either way.'"
    Henceforth, if President Bush has his druthers - or if the school boards in Kansas, Pennsylvania and elsewhere that have decreed equal time for "intelligent design" in their classes have theirs - teachers will have to teach it both ways. Or maybe no way.

    The idea of giving equal time to scientifically untestable beliefs that question established scientific principles says in effect that if enough people believe in something, you should not only respect that belief, but call it science. Yes, evolution is scientific theory; so is gravity.

    The late Pope John Paul II recognized years ago that biological evolution had progressed beyond the hypothetical stage as a guiding principle behind the understanding of the evolution of diverse life forms on Earth, including humans. At the same time, he rightly recognized that the spiritual significance that one draws from the scientific observations and theory lie outside of the scientific theories themselves. To mush them up is to offend both, and some Catholic scholars have suggested that intellegent design (as known in the US: an alternative to evolution) is actually blasphemous.

    Many people have been concerned by a recent New York Times opinion piece by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna and a close associate of the new pope, declaring, "Evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense ... is not true." Schönborn's opinion appeared to redefine the church's view on evolution, though he has since clarified that the article was based on personal opinion rather than Catholic doctrine. The two systems - belief in a divine origin and Darwinian science - aren't incompatible. They belong in different realms, and they're another argument why sectarian doctrine doesn't belong in public education.

    There are no scientific studies that even mention intelligent design. It rests largely on the argument that DNA is too complex to have evolved through random selection. To shove it into the classroom as science is an attack on science itself (and in fact, many school boards introducing intellegent design have also inserted changes on the age of the Earth and on the Big Bang).

    None of this would matter nearly as much if the United States were still leading the world in the training of scientists. But by almost any measure we are losing ground to China, India and other competitors in the global high-tech world. Teachers around the country say the president's statement will only encourage creationists and other fundamentalist activists who already have them afraid to discuss evolution.

    Since his election campaign in 2000, the president led the cheerleading for tougher academic standards. His showcase No Child Left Behind education law requires teaching techniques and other school programs to rest on "scientifically based research" - the law uses the phrase 111 times. But apparently, when it comes to biology or geology, equal time for something that's scientifically untestable is good enough.

    Excerpted from: Peter Schrag, Sacramento Bee, August 10, 2005

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    Wednesday, August 10, 2005

    It Takes a Designer

    Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) came on the Diane Rehm Show this morning to discuss his new book, It Takes a Family. During the course of the interview, Senator Santorum made several comments that deserve more follow-up than Diane gave them.

    A caller commented that he didn't believe that gay marriage was really a pressing issue. Senator Santorum's reply was that this is the most pressing issue in America today. He said that he was very concerned about the "breakdown of traditional marriage." I have two questions I would like Senator Santorum to answer regaring this. Did you marry for love, or was your marriage arranged by your families? Was a dowry paid?

    Later in the same interview, Senator Santorum discussed the so-called "Intellegent Design Theory." In discussion of whether this "theory" should be taught in science classes, sociology classes, or anywhere at all in public schools, Diane asked one of her best follow-up questions ever, "Doesn't 'Intellegent Design' imply a Designer?" Of course it does, and unless the Senator is prepared to argue that humans are the creation of visiting aliens, it implies a deity.

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    Thursday, August 04, 2005

    How to make basketball better

    In the last two or three years, the rookie of the year has been a high school player. There were seven high school players in the All-Star Game, so why we even talking an age limit?...As a black guy, you kind of think [race is] the reason why it's coming up. You don't hear about it in baseball or hockey...If I can go to the U.S. Army and fight the war at 18, why can’t you play basketball for 48 minutes and then go home?
    - Jermaine O’Neal, Indiana Pacers’ forward
    When the new NBA and players union decided to include an age limit (19, or one year after their high school class gradudates) in their new collective bargaining agreement there was widespread celebration from NBA and college coaches. The NBA coaches are happy, because they expect to get more experienced and mature players, and college coaches will no longer have to contend with NBA recruiters.

    Unfortunately, this deal is not as good as these coaches have made it out to be.

    First, for every Carmelo Anthony, delivering a national title to their team, there are twenty versions of Stephon Marbury and Tim Thomas: players who leave after one season, sending programs into downward spirals and costing coaches their jobs.
    What if Lebron James was not allowed to play [in the NBA], would he still have gotten his Nike contract? I think he would have. So I don’t think he is going to college. So what does he do?
    - Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski
    In the future, players like James have only two legitimate options for that one year. They can go to Europe and get paid while competing against lesser talent, or (more likely) they can play in the NBA Developmental League, which will be the NBA’s version of a minor league. If the very best players go to the Developmental League, then the second and third-tier players coming out of high school — guys with a very realistic chance of making the NBA eventually — will begin to follow and fortify the league. As the NBADL rises, Division I college basketball will fall.

    What solution is there for college basketball? Some (of the few who have acknowledged a problem) have suggested paying college athletes. College basketball, however, can never provide the basketball development experience that full-time play in a minor league could, and will never be as attractive to players anticipating a professional career.

    The solution can be found in every NCAA advertisment: put the student back in "student-athlete". Recognize that someone desiring to become a professional athlete can be better served by a development league than by a university, and focus on those who simply play the game for fun before beginning their real career. Require college basketball players to pass the same admission standards and the same academic requirements as other students.

    This is unlikely to happen because large universities, alumni, and the NCAA are too wedded to the current system (a minor league in denial about its nature). Alumni care more about their alma mater's win-loss record than its academic reputation, and universities (and hence the NCAA) are at the mercy of alumni money.

    But wouldn't it be great to have real amature basketball, with athletes playing for fun and for respect in their spare time? Basketball players desiring to go pro could do so out of high school (through minor leagues) rather than faking interest in a degree. Universities and coaches would not be concerned with their players transferring because the players would be there for a degree first and the game second. We can always dream.

    Note: Lest readers think that this is a "sour grapes" column, I am an alumnus the University of Kentucky (the winningest program in college basketball), lived for the past several years in metropolitan Detroit (home of the Pistons, NBA champions in 2004 and runners-up in 2005), and am currently a graduate student at Michigan State University. And when I was there, my high school had an outstanding program which produced several NCAA stars and NBA players. So I have nothing to be bitter about!

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    Tuesday, August 02, 2005

    Nashville isn't even pretending any more

    I channel-surfed across a "country music" special on ABC tonight, and I was shocked at how little country there is left in the music. As I write this, I am watching a band consisting of three electric guitars, an electric bass, and a drum set. They are all dressed like a heavy metal band (ratty jeans, black T-shirts, tattoos all over) and the lead singer looks like a Kurt Cobain wanna-be (slightly long unkempt hair and a couple days' stubble on his face). The song sounds like something you might have heard on Top-40 radio fifteen to twenty years ago.

    I have argued for years that "modern country" (or "young country" or "hot country" or whatever the local radio station calls it) is just rock/pop repackaged with cowboy boots, a hat, and a (usually fake) southern drawl. Apparently the labels have decided that its not even necessary to repackage any more, but that just calling it "country music" is enough.

    If you don't believe me, try calling your local "country music" radio station and asking for Jimmie Rodgers ("the father of country music"). They probably won't even know who he is, and if they do, won't have his music, much less be willing to program it. Try asking for Hank Williams. Not Hank Williams Junior, not Hank Williams III (whose music is more country, and better than his dad's), but the Hank Williams. You might get lucky and find a station willing to play a couple of his songs (more likely they'll play a cover by Junior), but it's pretty unlikely. Even Johnny Cash, who has regained a measure of popularity over the last decade, is hard to find on "country music" playlists. Loretta Lynn recently released an outstanding new album, which many have suggested is the best in her long career, chock full of original material (she wrote every song on it), but you wouldn't know about it if you listen to "country" radio.

    I'm not suggesting that country music, or any artistic style (music, literary, visual, or other), should be frozen in time. Change is inevitable. But no genre has done as much to lose its history than modern country music. "Oldies" stations keep older rock, R&B, and Top-40 songs and musicians in the public eye, but very few stations (mostly independently owned and operated) continue to play older country music. How many people even know what real country music sounds like?
    Nobody saw them running
    From 16th Avenue
    They never found the fingerprints
    Or the weapon that was used
    But someone killed country music
    Cut out its heart and soul
    They got away with murder
    Down on music row....

    They thought no one would miss it
    Once it was dead and gone
    They said no one would buy them ol'
    Drinkin' and cheatin' songs
    Well there ain't no justice in it
    And the hard facts are cold
    Murder's been committed
    Down on music row

    For the steel guitars no longer cry
    And the fiddles barely play
    But drums and rock 'n' roll guitars
    Are mixed up in your face
    Ol' Hank wouldn't have a chance
    On today's radio
    Since they committed murder
    Down on music row
    From "Murder On Music Row" by Larry Cordle.

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    Friday, July 29, 2005


    The first comment on is priceless.

    Apropos of nothing, but priceless.

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    Thursday, July 21, 2005

    Water, water everywhere!

    Last night I glanced out of my apartment during a heavy thunderstorm, and saw droplets flying horizontally past the window.

    Curious, I peered more closely and saw all the apartment community's sprinklers shooting away, deepening the standing water in the grass behind my home.

    I know they want the grass to be nice and green, but this was absurd.

    Wednesday, July 20, 2005

    Are we at war with Eurasia or Eastasia today?

    A US citizen is arrested in Chicago and held prisoner for years. He is never charged with any crime, and so his case never goes before a jury. It sounds like something out of 1984, but it is a real case currently before a federal appellate court.

    Jose Padilla was arrested at a Chicago airport in May 2002, on suspicion of planning to detonate a "dirty bomb," a conventional bomb laced with radioactive material. President Bush declared Padilla an "enemy combatant," a designation created by Bush that allows the military to hold someone indefinitely without charges. Since then, for three years, Padilla has been held in the Navy brig in Charleston, SC.

    A South Carolina judge ruled that the government must charge Padilla with a crime or release him, a decision appealed by the Bush Administration to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The question they must decide is whether Padilla, an American seized on U.S. soil, should have been designated an enemy combatant. "I may be the first lawyer to stand here and say I'm asking for my client to be indicted by a federal grand jury," Padilla's lawyer, Andrew Patel, told a three-judge panel of the court.

    The US Constitution says:
    Amendment V:
    No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

    Amendment VI:
    In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.
    Perhaps, having achieved the Presidency in a manner which was questionable at best, Bush now intends to do away with the Constitution. Since his election, half the amendments which constitute the Bill of Rights have been severely weakened (#1, 4, 5, 6, 10), with others (#2) already crippled by previous administrations. He has certainly ignored or weakened other amendments as well (#12, 14). Is his plan eventual nullification of amendment 22? With solid Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, and possibly as many as 3 appointments to an already-agreeable Supreme Court, are we headed for a new King George?

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    Tuesday, July 19, 2005

    The Bush standard

    For months, President Bush has said he would fire anyone found to have leaked information leading to the unmasking of CIA officer Valerie Plame, a pledge which he reaffirmed as recently as June 10. Now that Bush's Deputy Chief of Staff, Karl Rove, and Vice President Dick Cheney's Chief of Staff, Lewis "Scooter" Libby, have been implicated by Matthew Cooper, a reporter for Time Magazine, Bush is quickly backing away from his promise, saying yesterday, "If someone committed a crime, they will no longer work in my administration."

    Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) said the standard for holding a high White House position "should not simply be that you didn't break the law," and the nation seems to agree with him. An ABC News poll released yesterday found that only one-quarter of Americans believe the White House is fully cooperating with the investigation

    For Bush, who campaigned as a straight shooter with promises to "uphold the honor and dignity of the White House," this shifting stance on who he will hold accountable reveals how sensitive a special prosecutor's investigation of the CIA leak is becoming for Bush.

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    Thursday, July 14, 2005

    Porn in the USA

    A couple weeks ago, I commented on a law requiring pornographers to obtain (and maintain indefinitely) detailed records on all "performers".

    "ABitDifferent" left a very insightful comment on the matter, and I would like to highlight several points he made.

    1. The law goes well beyond businesses that people would normally think of as pornography creators and distributors. Search engine sites like Google and Altavista which cache images, adult offline sex toy (and even lingerie) stores which have images of women in sexually explicit poses on the packages, video stores which sell or rent adult movies, book stores which sell any book or magaize with a sexually explicit image on the cover, and any adult calendar seller, would all be subject to this law. These are just some examples, there are many others who will also fall under this.

    2. Online pornographers are particularly incensed by this because of the way in which the industry works. Typically large adult paid websites advertise through "sponsorship" programs; free websites get a few images to show off the material and recieve a commission on sales. The problem is that most of the paid websites are based in the United Kingdom, which has a law prohibiting pornography producers from giving out documentation regarding their models' personal information (to prevent stalking and harrassment). This is the very documentation that the US sites will now be required to get. The predicted effect is that this will largely shut down legal US pornography websites, but not affect UK pornography.

    This strikes me as yet another example of American Puritanism at work. We can't get rid of pornography online (the internet is international, after all), and the Constitution ensures that it can't be censored (although Congress is still working on getting rid of that nasty First Amendment!), but we'll be sure to take the high moral ground by making it difficult for Americans to produce (or make any money off of) porn! Oh well, I guess we'll be getting that much more "Hot Asian teen sex!" spam.

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    GM discount is brilliant (but Chrysler, not so much!)

    Here's why:

    As has been widely reported, the top-line impact of GM's "employee discount for everyone" ad campaign has been a 41% increase in sales for June. Some people have theorized that, like other recent campaigns to boost sales, this would come at the expense of profits.

    An employee discount is typically 3% to 4% below invoice. However, in offering the employee discount to everyone, GM rescinded its previous $3,000 to $4,000 cash-back incentives, so the end price may be the same or even higher.

    In other words, they are making as much or more money per car, and selling many more cars. Brilliant!

    Chrysler has gone GM one better by offering the employee discount to everyone, in addition to $3,000 to $4,000 cash-back incentives. The figures aren't in on how this is affecting sales volume (although Chrysler, as well as most other automakers, lost sales in June when only GM was offering the employee discount), but this double discounting can't be good for the bottom line.

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    Thursday, July 07, 2005

    Thought for the day

    "What is the difference between unethical and ethical advertising? Unethical advertising uses falsehoods to deceive the public; ethical advertising uses truth to deceive the public."

    Vilhjalmur Stefansson, "Discovery", 1964

    Found on Seth's Blog

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    Wednesday, June 29, 2005

    The Lost Liberty Hotel

    Freestar Media LLC, a group with strong libertarian ties, announced yesterday that it has initiated a request to have Supreme Court Justice David Souter's home condemned, so that a hotel can be built on the site. Justice Souter's vote in the recent "Kelo vs. City of New London" decision allows city governments to take land from one private owner and give it to another if the government will generate greater tax revenue or other economic benefits when the land is developed by the new owner.

    Logan Clements, CEO of Freestar Media, points out that the City of Weare will certainly gain greater tax revenue and economic benefits with a hotel on 34 Cilley Hill Road than allowing Mr. Souter to own the land.

    The proposed development, called "The Lost Liberty Hotel" will feature the "Just Desserts Café" and include a museum, open to the public, featuring a permanent exhibit on the loss of freedom in America. Instead of a Gideon's Bible each guest will receive a free copy of Ayn Rand's novel "Atlas Shrugged."

    Clements indicated that the hotel must be built on this particular piece of land because it is a unique site being the home of someone largely responsible for destroying property rights for all Americans. "This is not a prank" said Clements, "The Towne of Weare has five people on the Board of Selectmen. If three of them vote to use the power of eminent domain to take this land from Mr. Souter we can begin our hotel development."

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    Efficient health care

    For the past 18 months, the federal Medicare bureaucracy has been testing a big new idea, and they've discovered something that a child could have told them: paying more for better health care is efficient.

    Center for Medicare Services administrator, Dr. Mark McClellan, said Medicare's rules force the agency to pay for duplicative tests and services, and to cover readmissions that would not have been necessary if patients had received better care the first time.

    Bills are currently pending the Senate Finance Committee and House Ways and Means Committee.

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    Suck: ten years later

    The Big Fish: Ten years later, the story of, the first great website.

    For your edification, here are a couple classic Suck episodes:

    "The Last Filler Ever!"

    "Gone Fishin"

    I still dream of the day Suck returns ("But think how good it will feel when you see the Sucksters again, tanned, rested and ready, with recharged batteries and can-do attitudes!"). In the meantime, be sure to enjoy RabbitBlog!

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    Friday, June 24, 2005

    A bad week for the First Amendment

    The House of Representatives passed the "Flag Desecration Amendment" to outlaw burning of the US flag. While this is nothing new (this passes the House every year or two), this year it has a very real possibility of passing the Senate as well.

    The Supreme Court ruled that private property can be condemned and seized by the government (using the principle of eminent domain) and then given to another private party. In other words, the county can seize your house to allow Wal-Mart to build a supercenter. The good news is that it was a narrow 5-4 decision allowing states to set law in this regard; ;individual states can outlaw this type of seizure (and several have).

    A law taking effect this week requires pornographers to obtain (and maintain indefinitely) detailed records on all "performers". This one has obviously gotten less media coverage than the prior issues, but it is just as egregious. I have no objection to the initial data collection, but like any other business, pornographers should only be required to maintain the documentation for a limited time. The biggest problem with this law, however, is that it applies retroactively to "any book, magazine, periodical, film, videotape, or other matter which contains one or more visual depictions made after November 1, 1990 of actual sexually explicit conduct." In other words, it is retroactive 15 years!

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    The Great Eye is ever watchful

    A recent photograph by the Hubble Space Telescope looks eerily like Sauron's great eye!

    The ring is composed of dust particles in orbit around Fomalhaut, a bright star located just 25 light years away in the constellation Pisces Austalis (the Southern Fish). The picture was taken using Hubble’s coronagraph, a device which blocks the glare of a star while gathering the faint reflected light from any surrounding ring.

    Astronomers suspect the ring around Fomalhaut is the dusty trace of a belt of small comet-like bodies that surround the star, similar to the Kuiper Belt surrounding our solar system. Frequent collisions between these bodies generate enough dust to replenish the ring, which would otherwise be eroded by the star’s radiation in short order (on a galactic scale, that is!). Since the Kuiper Belt is a by-product of the creation of our solar system, the ring around Fomalhaut may be similarly linked to planet formation.

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    Wednesday, June 22, 2005

    "Higher Standards, Lower Prices" Wal-Mart?

    After getting whallupped by Target for the last several months, it seems that Wal-Mart has learned something about shoppers.

    People want cheap merchandise but they don't want to feel cheap.

    KMart had so much trouble with this concept that they went bankrupt. Wal-Mart's sales have been down lately, but they have years to go before bankruptcy might be an issue.

    Here are the numbers: Target's same store sales (a key industry indicator, measuring sales at stores open at least a year) increased 5.1%, lead by strong women's clothing sales. Wal-Mart's were just 2.5%, below company forcasts for the second consecutive month.

    Currently, Wal-Mart attracts more low-income customers than Target, with nearly a third of Wal-Mart shoppers earning less than $25,000 a year. The world's biggest retailer is now trying to accelerate growth by appealing to a broader, and well-heeled, group of shoppers.

    In a bid to appeal to high-income shoppers, Wal-Mart's upping the fashion and quality quotient on apparel, home goods and other items. The goal is to let customers know Wal-Mart is a destination for trendy and fashionable items at a good value, said spokeswoman Karen Burk.

    Part of me hopes Wal-Mart is successful (the part of me that owns their stock!), but the "upscale discount" market is more crowded and more demanding than "low price at any cost". In addition to Target, Meijer has done quite well lately with the slogan: "Higher Standards, Lower Prices" (and a clever supporting advertisement for their produce selection).

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    Pension audits

    The Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association, a union representing 16,000 airline ground workers, has requested an investigation into possible mismanagment of United Airlines' pension fund. On Monday the association sent a letter to Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao and Bradley Belt, the executive director of the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC). The PBGC has never conducted such a forensic audit of any plan it has taken over.

    "The PBGC and its plan termination insurance are increasingly called upon to protect and pay the pension obligations promised by large, troubled corporations," O.V. Delle-Femine, the union's national director, said in the letter. "The PBGC and responsible plan fiduciaries should, as a matter of course, undertake forensic audits of any distressed plans in order to determine whether any of the parties providing financial services to the plans may have contributed to their demise...Unfortunately, at this time, forensic audits of pensions virtually never are undertaken and wrongdoing related to pension failures has gone undetected."

    Legislative liaison Maryanne DeMarco said the union was not aware of specific wrongdoing in the management of United's pension funds, but noted that a US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) report released last month indicated widespread conflicts of interest exist among pension consultants and money managers that may cause significant financial damage to pension funds.

    United used Russell Investment Group as its chief pension consultant. Russell is also listed as investing money for United via alliances with other money managers. Russell's wide-ranging operations appear to be of the sort the SEC has called on plan overseers to investigate carefully.

    "They are a huge broker, a money manager and supposedly provided objective advice to the largest pension failure in history," said Edward Siedle of Benchmark Financial Services, a firm that investigates possible wrongdoing among money managers and was consulted by United's union. "If that doesn't merit an investigation, I don't know what does."

    After the savings and loan crisis in the 1980s the Resolution Trust Corporation (RTC) conducted forensic audits and barred firms found to have misbehaved from further work. But lawyers for the Labor Department and PBGC have stated that they have not conducted forensic audits in the past and do not have such capabilities in-house.

    Given that United's bailout is probably the beginning of a chain reaction by the end of which the entire airline industry (and likely the auto industry as well) will dump their pension obligations on taxpayers, it is critical that the PBGC follows the lead of the RTC. Otherwise we will find ourselves subsidizing the enrichment of a few shareholders.

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    Monday, June 20, 2005

    The de-Carly-ization plan

    Carleton S. "Carly" Fiorina's successor CEO at Hewlett-Packard, Mark V. Hurd, has recently made some big announcements about the direction in which he hopes to take the company.

    On June 13, HP announced it would separate its printer and PC divisions. In part, this increased separation may make other PC manufacturers more willing to bundle HP printers with their machines. Hurd seems to have opted for product focus rather than synergy, a strategy that is also apparent in HP's sales force.

    Hurd has announced a sweeping reorganization in HP's sales force; a move that will undo a major element of Fiorina's strategy. Fiorina attempted to create an integrated sales force selling bundles of HP products to corporate customers. Hurd intends to return to a more product-specific focus. The change could lower HP's selling costs, since less central coordination would be required. More important, HP would no longer be sending generalist account reps up against the focused salespeople from the likes of Dell and Lexmark.

    Hurd is also prepping the company for big layoffs, expected to total 15,000 people, intended to match the efficiency of rivals such as Dell. According to one insider, "The board replaced Carly because it wanted to focus on execution. Mark is doing just that."

    This is obviously just the beginning, as Hurd has only been on the job for 2 1/2 months. But these seem to be steps in the right direction.

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    Friday, June 17, 2005

    Restrictive ballot access = Jim Crowe?

    Speaking Wednesday night at a fund-raiser to retire the debt from his 2004 presidential campaign, Nader complained that Democratic Party powerbrokers had kept him off the ballot in such Southern states as Georgia and Virginia - which reminded him of the oppressive Jim Crow laws that denied African-Americans equal rights. "I felt like a [n-word]," remarked the 70-year-old white multimillionaire graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School.

    Maybe that explains the harsh reception Nader has gotten from Supreme Court Justices Rehnquist and Thomas.

    Yesterday, Nader said he was using the word in the same spirit as the Black Panthers of the 1960s: "as a word of defiance." But few were buying that explanation.

    According to Al Sharpton, "If Ed Koch had said what Ralph Nader said, we'd be marching. This doesn't rise to the level of a march. It rises to the level of a wrist slap...Nader is not a racist by any stretch of the imagination."

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    Have you heard of the Downing Street Memo?

    In the USA, if you listen to or watch mainstream news or read mainstream newspapers, you probably have not! (Another reason to support public broadcasting.)

    The "Downing Street Memo" contains meeting minutes transcribed during British Prime Minister Tony Blair's meeting on July 23, 2002—a full eight months prior to the invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003.

    The minutes detail how our government did not believe Iraq was a greater threat than other nations; how intelligence was fixed to sell the case for war to the American public; and how the Bush Administration’s public assurances of "war as a last resort" were at odds with their privately stated intentions. When asked, British officials did not dispute the document's authenticity and a senior American official has described it as "absolutely accurate." Yet the Bush administration continues to simultaneously sidestep the issue while attempting to cast doubt on the memo’s authenticity.

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    Thought for the day

    "...but plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize,
    only be sure to always call it please -- research"

    "Lobachevsky", by Tom Lehrer

    Banks v. Realtors

    "Why Would Consumers Want Big Banking Conglomerates to Take Over Local Real Estate?" read the full-page Washington Post advertisement on Wednesday. The ad listed several newspaper clippings highlighting stories of banks' past bilking of their mutual fund clients and their more recent epidemic of fumbling customers' confidential account information. This ad was just the most recent in a series of full-page print ads from the National Association of Realtors (NAR) to further its ongoing turf war with the American Bankers Association (ABA).

    Speaking to the House Financial Services Committee, ABA Chairman and Executive Vice President of Wachovia Betsy Duke made the obvious point in favor of allowing banks to compete with real estate agents in the lucrative business of selling houses: letting them compete will increase competition. Hard to argue with that one.

    NAR President Al Mansell (the CEO of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, a subsidiary of Cendant) took a swipe, accusing bankers of irresponsible lending practices and failure to protect customer account information. He also implied that bankers might subjugate the best interests of consumers to the pursuit of profits.

    The question is how the banks differ in that regard from the real estate cartel's aim. Real estate agents continue to charge 6% commissions for the sale of homes in a market where homes don't just sell themselves, but often do so for more than the asking price. Meanwhile, the NAR is fighting an insurgency by online and discount real estate brokers who charge less than the 6%. "Full-price" agents deny discount agents access to databases of houses for sale, refuse to show properties being handled by discounters, and more.

    Are banks really going to be worse for consumers than Realtors already are?