Friday, July 31, 2009

How Wolfram Alpha could change software

InfoWorld has an article about How Wolfram Alpha could change software. "Try cutting and pasting from the results page. You can't, and with good reason. According to Wolfram Alpha's terms of use [5], its knowledge engine is 'an authoritative source of information,' because 'in many cases the data you are shown never existed before in exactly that way until you asked for it.' Therefore, 'failure to properly attribute results from Wolfram Alpha is not only a violation of [its license terms], but may also constitute academic plagiarism or a violation of copyright law.'"

I haven't used it much since it first came out, though I did use it the other day to find out went sunset was. Instinctively I typed in "sunset boston" and it gave me the sunset times that day for Boston, MA and Newton, KS. Oh yeah, it can probably figure out from my IP address I'm in Newton, MA and it's supposed to assume that for location-awareness in the search. So I typed in "sunset" and yep, it gave it to me for Newton, KS. That makes no sense at all. They can copyright the sunset in Kansas for all I care.

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Birther Claims

McClatchy writes, Here's the truth: 'Birther' claims are just plain nuts.

The 2009 Perseid Meteor Shower

NASA reminds us about The 2009 Perseid Meteor Shower "Earth is entering a stream of dusty debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle, the source of the annual Perseid meteor shower. Although the shower won't peak until August 11th and 12th, the show is already getting underway."

"For sky watchers in North America, the watch begins after nightfall on August 11th and continues until sunrise on the 12th."

"The 55% gibbous Moon will glare down from the constellation Aries just next door to the shower's radiant in Perseus. The Moon is beautiful, but don't stare at it. Bright moonlight ruins night vision and it will wipe out any faint Perseids in that part of the sky."

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Afghanistan Update

Spencer Ackerman wrote about What’s Missing From Miliband’s Afghanistan Speech. "U.K. Foreign Secretary David Miliband gave a speech to NATO headquarters in Brussels about the Afghanistan war, and it might be the most thorough and explicit explanation of coalition military and political strategy offered by a senior official of either the U.S. or U.K. government. There are just two big holes"

Podcasting Patented!

Ars Technica walks through the latest stupid patent award. Podcasting patented! VoloMedia claims major tech patent

"Hold onto your iPhones—a company called VoloMedia was yesterday granted a patent on a "method for providing episodic media content." Or, as the company puts it in today's announcement, VoloMedia now owns the "US patent for podcasting."

"The patent in question "was filed in November 2003, almost a year before the start of podcasting. This helps underscore the point, that for nearly six years, VoloMedia has been focused on helping publishers monetize portable media... Today, podcasting is 100 percent RSS-based. However, the patent is not RSS-dependent. Rather, it covers all episodic media downloads. It just so happens that, today, the majority of episodic media downloads are RSS-based podcasts, which is why we titled our announcement the way we did.""

Dave Winer provides some prior art of the work he did with Adam Curry in 2001. That's what I remember as the first podcast, or episodic media (in this case audio) download.

And, doesn't a six year lead time in processing a patent application seriously impede its usefulness?

Why Americans Hate Single-Payer Insurance

Paul Krugman explains Why Americans hate single-payer insurance. He points to a Washington Post story that included this quote: "At a recent town-hall meeting in suburban Simpsonville [SC], a man stood up and told Rep. Robert Inglis (R-SC) to ‘keep your government hands off my Medicare.’"

He doesn't spell it out that people are idiots and that the Republicans are lying to them but he does complain about the fear-mongering.

"We already have a system in which the government pays substantially more medical bills (47% of the total) than the private insurance industry (35%)."

If in 10 minutes Jon Stewart can get Bill Kristol to admit that the VA is a great health care system that's run by the government, imagine what could happen in say an hour long debate on healthcare between the sides (well by sides I mean the one trying to do something and the one lying to try to do nothing). Imagine if there was some forum, like an all day news channel, that could afford the time to have detailed debates between experts about health care. Or maybe some institution with a large building in our capitol where leaders could meet and discuss issues at length. Nah, they'd probably just screw it up.

Cellphone Gripes

David Pogue follows up last week's rant against The Irksome Cellphone Industry with detailed instructions on How to Bypass Stupid Voicemail Instructions. When you look at the industry overall, it's pretty ridiculous.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Real Controversies Result in Burgers

"The arrest of and ensuing debate over Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. has resulted in one positive thing: a new burger at Cambridge's signature burger joint [Mr. Bartley's]."

Years From Now, He Will Show This at His Wedding

Woot blogs, "Cute-blogging isn't usually my thing, but how could I resist this 5-year-old boy playing guitar and singing "Folsom Prison Blues"? Warning: not recommended for those with low cute tolerance."

Recreating Fenway

A friend had an extra ticket for the Red Sox at Fenway last night and invited me along. I hadn't been in a long time and it was fun, even though the Sox lost. The seats weren't great, in the right field grandstand under the upper deck. At some point we got to talking about what you'd need to do to recreate the full experience at home.

First, put some wood slats over the seat on your couch. Also install some arm rests in the middle and make the seats very narrow. Better yet, just swap out the couch for small wooden lawn chairs. You're also going to need to install one row behind you and two rows of seats in front of you.

It's optional, but to fully recreate section 7, install a large vertical metal beam in front of your TV. To get really complicated it should be on a moving platform that blocks the same view on the TV regardless of the camera angle being shown. This also varies by section, but for section 7, the seats should face 90° away from the TV.
Fenway 1.jpg

Invite strangers over to sit in the extra seats. Instruct them to randomly stand up and down, but only during plays and not between them. Also instruct them to synchronously stand and raise their hands above their head and cheer at random times starting after the 4th inning. About once every other inning have someone walk by you, forcing you to stand to let them by.

The people behind you should be talking most of the time about random things; but not about the game. The person to your left should be sitting with a wide stance for no reason. People on both sides of you should be using the arm rests. At random times you should pass food and money back and forth along the row. Also, people need to walk by in front of the TV at random times. Some of them should have large coolers on top of their head and should be shouting the name of one item from the concessions menu at Fenway. Half of these people should stop to block the view of the TV not covered by the large vertical beam you installed.

This could vary throughout the year, but during July and August turn on the heat and make the room really hot. Make sure the strangers sitting around you have not showered. The room should also smell of stale beer and sausages; you might have to set this up a day ahead of time.

Turn the sound down on your TV. Have one of the strangers announce only the name of the player at bat and of players coming into the game. You'll have to get all the rest of the information about the game visually. Close your eyes during the instant replays of all close plays; you only get to the see the replay of non-controversial ones. Having the sound down should also ensure that you don't know why a coach is arguing with an umpire.

In the middle of the 8th inning, everyone should stand up and sing Sweet Caroline. Then have a third of the strangers stand up and wait in the dining room. When the game ends, have them return and join everyone else in the living room. Everyone should stand up around you and not move for 10 minutes. Then have everyone walk slowly around the house three times. Then, to recreate the experience of getting home via the T, have them all move very slowly into the bathroom or a large closet and stand there very close to you with one arm raised above their head. After 45 minutes, they can all go home.

Every third game, have someone throw a beer on you.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Healthcare Bill So Far...

Nate Silver does a good analysis on The Baucus Bill's Bad Math. "The Associated Press has some speculative details of the 'compromise' health care bill that looks ready, at long last, to emerge from Max Baucus's Senate Finance Committee:"

New Desktop Image

Today's Astronomy Picture of the Day.

How to Buy a Mattress

How to Buy a Mattress.

Blue M&Ms Linked to Reducing Spine Injury

Ok, this title, Blue M&Ms linked to reducing spine injury is just wrong. It's really about giving the same blue dye intravenously immediately after a spinal cord injury. Apparently in rats it helped them get back some function, which is a big deal. Human tests are still pending but it works by blocking ATP, which rushes to the injured site, from damaging more tissue.

Ok, it's really about this picture...

The dye turned rats blue, temporarily.

House Democrats Read Healthcare Bill!

The Washington Post reports House Democrats Gather for Health Care 101

"They were all House Democrats, boning up on the historic and controversial health-care reform legislation that's gradually emerging from their chamber. The rough draft of the bill ('America's Health Choices Act') runs more than 1,000 pages, with amendments yet to come. Last week the Democrats decided that they needed to know more about the legislation before they go back to their constituents for the August recess. Hence the teach-in, an unusual basement seminar that lasted five hours with one break for procedural votes on the House floor. Staffers led the members through the bill section by section -- from Division A, Title I, Subtitle A, Section 101 all the way through Division C, Title V, Subtitle D, Section 2531."

Seriously? Representatives reading they bill they will vote on is news? It should just be standard procedure. How sad.

Jon Stewart Pummels Bill Kristol

Jon Stewart had Bill Kristol on The Daily Show last night. It was another frankenedit since the interview ran long but the full interview is online now (and below). Stewart really is the only person on TV who can point out republican hypocrisy to their face. In this interview, he gets Kristol to admit that the federal government can run a better healthcare system than what the public has, and they do today for our veterans.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Bill Kristol Extended Interview
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorJoke of the Day

I think Rachel Maddow could do this, though Republicans rarely go on MSNBC. The sunday morning talk show hosts (Stephanopolis and Gregory) don't seem to want to call them out on this and the Democrats on with them fail miserably at it.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Simpsons Sets Two Records

The Simpsons Awarded Guinness World Record for Longest Running Sitcom and also for most Emmy's
for a single show.

Volcano From Space

Thank you Bad Astronomy for this. Holy Haleakala! I mean, Manam!
manam_volcano 1.jpg

"That’s the Manam volcano in Papua New Guinea, as imaged by NASA’s Earth Observing-1 satellite (and you can also download a ginormously embiggened version, too). In late June the volcano had a minor eruption, captured by the orbiting camera. You can see several older pyroclastic flow beds, where previous eruptions spewed out viciously hot rocks, gas, and ash which roared down the slope of the volcano to the sea."

Boston in the 1920s

I think my favorite line is "who fifty years ago founded a religion in conservative Boston."

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Shocker, Study Links Rise in Health Care Costs to Job Losses

BusinessWeek reports Study Links Rise in Health Care Costs to Job Losses "In a first-of-its-kind study, the non-profit Rand Corp linked the rapid growth in U.S. health care costs to job losses and lower output. The study, published online by the journal Health Services Research, gives weight to President Barack Obama’s dire warnings about the impact of rising costs if Congress does not enact health care reform."

Cronkite Replaced by Jon Stewart?

Tristero is so right in Jon Stewart On Point . "Of course I laughed my head off. But there is a very serious, very sobering reality behind all the humor: Until the so-called news media stops providing access to jokers like the birthers, then the best news reports in America will be produced by a professional comedian."

See also Shiny Objects by dday. "At a time where all the policy focus is on reforming health care for the first time in a generation, white reporters everywhere are obsessed with the story of a black man arrested in his own home for daring to be angry about it, and how terrible it was for the President to speak on behalf of those in such a circumstance. Similarly, while health care and urgent domestic issues demand attention, the wingnuts want to talk about Obama's birth certificate and some grand conspiracy to plant certificates of live birth in Hawaii and articles in the local paper 47 years ago in the hopes that later on a biracial kid growing up on the islands in the 1960s would fulfill the obvious goal of becoming President. G. Gordon Liddy was absurd and doddering last night on Hardball. He lied about a deposition from Obama's grandmother that the President was born in Kenya, a result of mistranslation. But you know what he did? He ate up five and a half minutes on prime time cable TV. I know that Chris Matthews was basically beating up on Liddy and the Birther movement in general. But that old saying about how there's no such thing as bad publicity? It's especially true when time is finite."

Factchecking Obama's Health Care News Conference covered Obama's Health Care News Conference.

2009 Failed States Index

Foreign Policy has put out the 2009 Failed States Index.

Picture 12 1.png

There are detailed rankings and an interactive map.

As Kevin Drum points out, "According to FP, a grand total of 37 countries are minimally stable this year. The entire rest of the world is either borderline or in outright chaos"

Book Review: The Omnivore's Dilemma

I've seen several interviews with Michael Pollan and seen several movies that were inspired by his work, including King Corn and Food Inc. both of which I highly recommend. But I hadn't actually read Pollan's original book on the subject, The Omnivore's Dilemma.

The subtitle is "A Natural History of Four Meals" but the book is in three parts. In the first he talks about industrial farming and it's extremely eye-opening and in parts terrifying. After World War II, munitions factories were turned into fertilizer plants which allowed us to grow lots of corn, which needs a lit of fertilizer. Then under Nixon's administration we changed how we subsidize farmers and started producing basically two big crops in the US, corn and soybeans. Since then, we've been about finding new markets for corn. High fructose corn syrup, not used much before 1980 is now the most used sweetener. We feed livestock corn instead of the things they evolved to eat. Often the food we feed them makes them sick and we slaughter them just before they'd die from illness. Many of those chemicals ingredients you see listed (like xanthum gum) are made from corn. In fact the corn we grow is mostly inedible and is used for it's sugar (that is energy value) and the soy is used for proteins and then scientists figure out how to recombine them into "food".

I still love his description of how most supermarkets are mostly corn. There's the corn in the produce section of course, but also the meat, the soda and snack foods, the sweeteners in yogurt and sauces and baked goods etc. Even the waxy coating on cucumbers is made from corn. Then he describes how the linoleum and particle boards used to construct the market are also made from corn.

The various descriptions of the farms and how he tried to gather information about them was also really interesting. The corn seed is genetically created and controlled by Monsanto and farmers must buy each seasons seeds from them. Corn is the first domesticated plant to have evolved into intellectual property. He wasn't allowed into slaughtering houses or chicken coops because if we found out how disgusting they were we'd stop allowing them. In fact, there are laws that prevent you from disparaging foods (remember Oprah libeling beef?).

The second part is in two sections and covers organic food, first on large scale farms and second on a tiny self-sustaining one. We learn that a lot of the problems with the large industrial farms is caused by their scale. Small farms can produce vegetables and meat, and use the generated manure as fertilizer. On large farms, the density of animals means the manure builds up so they're standing 2 feet deep in it and it becomes a poison to the land. "In fact, when animals live on farms the very idea of waste ceases to exist; what you have instead is a closed ecological loop--what in retrospect you might call a solution."

Then we learn that many of the farming laws make smaller farms impractical; such as you have to have a separate bathroom for the food inspector to use. The larger organic farms use some of the same techniques as the small farms but their scale involves many of the problems of the large farms. Shipping food great distances in refrigerated trucks uses a lot of energy as does the machinery needed to farm on a large scale.

In the last section, Pollan hunts a pig and forages for mushrooms. He had never hunted before and was surprised at how much he enjoyed the experience although he was nauseated when dressing the corpse. I thought this section dragged the most as he was talking more about his experiences than facts about food sources.

Ultimately he prepares and describes four meals. "A cheeseburger and fries from McDonald's; roast chicken, vegetables and a salad from Whole Foods; and grilled chicken, corn and a chocolate soufflé (made with fresh eggs) from a sustainable farm; and, finally, mushrooms and pork, foraged from the wild." Some of these were interesting, others felt like filler.

Parts are very interesting, other parts drag on. I wanted to know more facts about the food I eat and where it comes from and less about his experiences learning this information and preparing the meals. I thought he repeated himself several times and was annoyed when he told stories out of order (like with the boar hunting). Still the info about corn, beef and chickens is worth the price of admission and the time to read the rest.

This might be a good accompaniment to the book, 10 US Food Policy Destinations. "For people who want to know where their food comes from, Google Maps offers a profound passport to the landscape you choose to view, in place of the pastoral image that an interested party wants you to view. For most of these locations, you can explore even more using the street view feature."

101 Simple Salads for the Season

Mark Bittman in the New York TImes Minimalist column writes Recipes for 101 Simple Salads for the Season

"SUMMER may not be the best time to cook, but it’s certainly among the best times to eat. Toss watermelon and peaches with some ingredients you have lying around already, and you can produce a salad that’s delicious, unusual, fast and perfectly seasonal.

That’s the idea behind the 101 ideas found in this section. In theory, each salad takes 20 minutes or less. Honestly, some may take you a little longer. But most minimize work at the stove and capitalize on the season, when tomatoes, eggplant, herbs, fruit, greens and more are plentiful and excellent."

The Netflix Prize Comes To A Buzzer-Beater, Nailbiting Finish

The Netflix Prize Comes To A Buzzer-Beater, Nailbiting Finish.

"Since we reported on the contest last night, two teams in the Netflix Prize have spent the last few hours jumping back and forth on the Netflix leaderboard as the three-year-long competition ticked into its final moments, with last minute sniping submissions coming from both sides."

Now Netflix has to run the algorithms on the private data set to see which team actually does better.

Hard Times at Harvard

Nina Munk in Vanity Fair has an article about Hard Times at Harvard. Yet again it uses that word, profligate.

"Once upon a time—that is, the fiscal year ending June 30, 2008—Harvard’s endowment stood at $36.9 billion, way, way up from $4.8 billion in 1990. No other university endowment in the world comes close to matching Harvard’s. Yale’s endowment, the second-largest in the nation—$22.9 billion for fiscal 2008—is nearly 40 percent smaller than Harvard’s. Stanford’s is less than half the size: $17.2 billion, as of last year...Harvard’s endowment had lost $8 billion, or 22 percent, in the first four months of the fiscal year, from July through October 2008. To put that number in context: $8 billion is greater than Columbia University’s entire endowment ($7.1 billion as of fiscal 2008)."

It goes on to talk about how the Harvard Management Company, which oversaw the endowment, was run and how it interacted with the administration, including Larry Summers. There's one passage that struck me as odd...

"Incensed, one member of the board of Harvard Management Company, the fund that manages Harvard’s endowment, told me, ‘This story is about leadership. It isn’t about money.’ He may be right. At some point in the last five years, the men and women who run Harvard convinced themselves that the endowment would grow at double-digit rates forever. If Harvard were a publicly traded company, those people would have been fired by now."

I'm not so sure that's how publicly traded companies seem to work.

Some Space Photos

NASA's Spitzer Images Out-of-This-World Galaxy "NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has imaged a wild creature of the dark -- a coiled galaxy with an eye-like object at its center. The galaxy, called NGC 1097, is located 50 million light-years away. It is spiral-shaped like our Milky Way, with long, spindly arms of stars. The 'eye' at the center of the galaxy is actually a monstrous black hole surrounded by a ring of stars. In this color-coded infrared view from Spitzer, the area around the invisible black hole is blue and the ring of stars, white."
nasasspitzer 1.jpg

Here's a newly discovered planetary nebula in the constellation Cygnus. This is the death of a red giant star shedding its outer layers outward. It really has nothing to do with a planet, except this is where heavier elements come from. Well to astronomers heavy means anything bigger than Hydrogen or Helium which together make up 98% of the known mass of the universe. Stars fuse Hydrogen into bigger elements such as Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen up through Iron and when they die these get flung into space to be reused by other bodies (stars, planets, etc.).

NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory had it's 10th birthday this week. Pretty good given its expected life was just 5 years. Here's a new version of one of its images of supernova remnant E0102-72.
E0102 1.jpg

And some space cameras point at the earth. Here's the Grand Canyon as seen by the European Space Agency's Envisat:

Snow Leopard Desktop Pictures

These purport to be the The New Desktop Pictures of Snow Leopard. Whether they are or aren't, some of them are gorgeous and you can download them and use them now (probably even on windows :).

Six Visual Proofs

Bil the Lizard writes Six Visual Proofs. I never learned math this way but I wish I had.

1/3 + 1/9 + 1/27 + 1/81 + ... = 1/2E86130D9-A1B1-4CD0-914C-7D505089836B.jpg

The Best Film Titles Ever Made

Creative Review writes about The best film titles ever made. "In our August issue, Adam Lee Davies looks at the continuing rise of the film title sequence since its artistic resurgence in the 1990s. In his article, Better Than the Film?, he talks to many of the genre's leading practioners such as Kyle Cooper and Garson Yu. For CR Blog, Davies has selected 30 of the best title sequences ever made..."

They have YouTube clips of them all. Not sure I agree on all of them, but they made a list so I don't have to. :)

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Smarter Than the Average Bear

The New York Times reports Bears in the Adirondacks Defeat BearVault Food-Protection Container

"The BearVault 500 withstood the ravages of the test bears at the Folsom City Zoo in California. It has stymied mighty grizzlies weighing up to 1,000 pounds in the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park. But in one corner of the Adirondacks, campers started to notice that the BearVault, a popular canister designed to keep food and other necessities safe, was being compromised. First through circumstantial evidence, then from witness reports, it became clear that in most cases, the conqueror was a relatively tiny, extremely shy middle-aged black bear named Yellow-Yellow"

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Six Tips for Supercharging Safari

Six Tips for Supercharging Safari is a pretty good list. The only one I use is 5, AdBlock, but I know people that are happy with 1 and 2.

In Some Ways Obama is Like Cheney

TPM reports, Yet More Obama Secrecy: Won't Release Info On Visits From Health-Care Execs.

Update: Obama just said it hasn't been a secret. There have been pictures taken at the meetings and they are releasing the names of the people.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

You Can't Talk and Drive Safely

The New York Times reports Driven to Distraction - In 2003, U.S. Withheld Data Showing Cellphone Driving Risks

"The former head of the highway safety agency said he was urged to withhold the research to avoid antagonizing members of Congress who had warned the agency to stick to its mission of gathering safety data but not to lobby states."

"That letter said that hands-free headsets did not eliminate the serious accident risk. The reason: a cellphone conversation itself, not just holding the phone, takes drivers’ focus off the road, studies showed. The research mirrors other studies about the dangers of multitasking behind the wheel. Research shows that motorists talking on a phone are four times as likely to crash as other drivers, and are as likely to cause an accident as someone with a .08 blood alcohol content."

Monday, July 20, 2009

Humans Do Glow

io9 reports We All Shine On In New Proof Of Bioluminescence.

"Researchers in Japan have finally managed to prove the existence of the human body's bioluminescence with these first-ever pictures of the body's natural shine."

"The human body literally glimmers. The intensity of the light emitted by the body is 1000 times lower than the sensitivity of our naked eyes."

Here's the PLoS One paper.

40th Anniversary of First Moon Landing

40 years ago today, I clearly remember watching Apollo 11 land on the moon and Neil Armstrong take his first step. The family was together watching in my sister's room, because she had the newest TV (it was still black and white). I don't remember for sure, but I can't imagine we were watching anything other than Walter Cronkite on CBS. I was (almost exactly) 3.5 years-old and I think it's the earliest memory I have. Pretty cool for a first memory.

Kottle has assembled The giant Apollo 11 post. "In this entry, I've collected some of the best resources on the web related to the anniversary...articles, historical documents, audio, video, transcripts, photos, and the like. Enjoy."

Friday, July 17, 2009

Bill Moyers on Health Care

The July 10th episode of
Bill Moyers Journal ""

The highlight was the interview with Wendell Potter on Profits Before Patients. "In his first extended television interview since leaving the health insurance industry, Wendell Potter tells Bill Moyers why he left his successful career as the head of Public Relations for CIGNA, one of the nation's largest insurers, and decided to speak out against the industry. "I didn't intend to [speak out], until it became really clear to me that the industry is resorting to the same tactics they've used over the years, and particularly back in the early '90s, when they were leading the effort to kill the Clinton plan.""

It ended with Moyer's essay on Money and the News which completely damns all of Washington and the influence of money on politics. The webites also provides more details on Money, Politics and Health.

Really a great episode. I just wish that Moyer's interview style wasn't so naive sounding. He knows all these things but asks questions as if it's the first time he's heard of them.

Amazon Deletes Purchased Orwell Books From Kindles

David Pogue reports Some E-Books Are More Equal Than Others.

"This morning, hundreds of Amazon Kindle owners awoke to discover that books by [George Orwell, including 1984 and Animal Farm] had mysteriously disappeared from their e-book readers. These were books that they had bought and paid for—thought they owned. But no, apparently the publisher changed its mind about offering an electronic edition, and apparently Amazon, whose business lives and dies by publisher happiness, caved. It electronically deleted all books by this author from people’s Kindles and credited their accounts for the price."

The Future of Reading (A Play in Six Acts) has some chilling comparison of quotes from Bezos, 1984-like stories and the Kindle license agreement.

Sec of Def Robert Gates Lashes Out at Defense Budget

Wired wrote yesterday Gates: Future Jet Supporters are Risking Today’s Troops.

"At a speech today in Chicago, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates lashed out at members of Congress, at the ‘defense and aerospace industry,’ and at the ‘institutional military itself’ for trying to keep ultra-expensive, often-useless weapons programs in the Pentagon budget. It’s just not right, he said, while the country is fighting two wars in which such gear is clearly not required."

“If we can’t bring ourselves to make this tough but straightforward decision – reflecting the judgment of two very different presidents, two different secretaries of defense, two chairmen of the joint chiefs of staff, and the current Air Force Secretary and Chief of Staff, where do we draw the line? And if not now, when? If we can’t get this right – what on earth can we get right? It is time to draw the line on doing Defense business as usual. The President has drawn that line. And that red line with regard to a veto is real.”

LRO Photographs Apollo Landing Sites

lro_apollo11site.jpgBad Astronomy is freaking out that the Apollo Landing Sites Were Imaged by LRO! "The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has taken pictures of the Apollo landing sites!"

There's are ones for all the Apollo landings on the NASA page. You have to see the one of Apollo 14.

Sotomayor Hearings

So I watched most of the Sotomayor confirmation hearings and they were for the most part uninteresting.

The ABA Journal lists the Top 10 Quotes From the Sotomayor Hearings. Nothing that exciting.

Jan Crawford Greenburg writes Liberals Lash Out Against Sotomayor Testimony. "Obviously, the name of the game is confirmation, but if you have 60 votes, why not explain your views on the role of the courts and liberal judicial philosophy? Justice Breyer wrote an entire book on this! He and Scalia have gone on the road to debate whether the Constitution is living or dead (I moderated one of their debates and just tried to stay out of the way)."

Jack Balkin asks What are Supreme Court confirmation hearings good for? "What purposes, exactly do these hearings serve? The candidates are instructed to say nothing controversial or reveal their actual views...So what is the point of these hearings, other than an opportunity for dredging up potential scandals and giving the press and Washington, D.C. something to be distracted about? The short answer is that the hearings are often more about the Senate--as representatives of various strands of public opinion--than the candidate. They are opportunities for Senators to make claims about what they believe are the mainstream understandings of the U.S. Constitution."

The Los Angeles Times after the first two days reports Senators out-talk her 2 to 1 by literally counting the words: "Monday was the worst day: senators 23,175, Sotomayor 942" but of course that was just opening statements so obviously the 19 senators would outtalk the one nominee. It then reported that as of Wednesday morning it was 50,082 words by senators and 20,728 by Sotomayor which they call 2:1. They leave the math to you for the second day: Senators: 26,907 Sotomayor: 19,786 which is pretty balanced.

Mark Tushnet wrote in The Senate Judiciary Committee and Henry IV, "I don't fault anyone for doing what today's rituals demand. I just wish that we could figure out some other way to do whatever it is that this particular ritual does."

Le Wrath di Khan

I just saw this from Robot Chicken...

Thursday, July 16, 2009

NASA Releases Preview Partially Restored Apollo 11 Video

NASA Releases Preview Partially Restored Apollo 11 Video.

"To commemorate the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, NASA released partially restored video of a series of 15 memorable moments from the July 20 moonwalk. The source material for the restoration project is the best of the available broadcast-format video. Lowry Digital, Burbank, Calif., is significantly enhancing the video using the company’s proprietary software technology and other restoration techniques. The video is part of a larger restoration project that will be completed in September and provide a newly restored high definition video of the entire Apollo 11 moonwalk."

They have to restore them, because Houston, We Erased The Apollo 11 Tapes. "An exhaustive, three-year search for some tapes that contained the original footage of the Apollo 11 moonwalk has concluded that they were probably destroyed during a period when NASA was erasing old magnetic tapes and reusing them to record satellite data."

Star Wars: Uncut

Star Wars: Uncut seems like a very odd project...

"Hello! You and 472 other people have the chance to recreate Star Wars: A New Hope. Below is the entire movie split up into 15 second clips. Click on one of the scenes to claim it, film it, and upload it. You can have up to three scenes! When we're all done, we'll stitch it all together and watch the magic happen. All the scenes have been taken! If you missed your chance to participate in this project, don't worry. I'm currently creating a way for everyone to get involved by the end of the week"

Eyes Wide Shut

Jamie Stuart's essay Eyes Wide Shut is easily the best piece I've read on that film. It's long and it starts getting good in the Aesthetics section, about a third of the way through.

I saw the film twice on opening weekend and years before this blog started writing notes about it, trying to figure it out. I picked up on how in the first part of the film Bill visits various characters and in the second he tries to find out what happened to each of them but is dependent on others (roommates, desk attendants, Victor) to tell him and we can never be sure if the info is right.

It wasn't until seeing Martin Scorcese guest on At The Movies where he listed his favorite films of the 90s that he described Eyes as Kubrick filming a dream that I got it. And I was annoyed that none of the many reviews I had read mentioned this at all. After that I didn't put much more effort into analyzing it though I have seen parts of it again when it's shown on cable.

Stuart's essay really makes me want to watch it again. Here are some choice paragraphs, but just read the whole thing.

"Eyes Wide Shut’s main character, Bill Harford, is constantly entering into situations that existed before him, and will continue once he’s gone. Bill is traveling through a series of future light cones, touring through the ripples of previous events, and the viewer, put in his place, enters into these situations as blindly as he does. We’re given no more exposition than the main character. Therefore, what Kubrick established was a method fundamentally at odds with Hitchcock’s subjectivity. Hitchcock built suspense by granting the audience more information than his characters through the use of cutaways, or, in the case of Rear Window, panning away from a sleeping James Stewart to show the murderous events going on across the courtyard. Kubrick, who felt 20th Century art had become too subjective and was in dire need of locating a sense of objectivity, would have none of that winking. "

"As Eyes Wide Shut unspools, Kubrick begins filling our minds with strange inconsistencies, of which the previously mentioned [air conditioner] is only one. An obviously missing statue in one scene is another example; a chair that comes and goes near Bill’s front door which he likes to place his coat on is another. He’s begging us to wonder whether these things are intentional or not."

"The black & white motif is used to directly counter the “rainbow” of colors awash throughout most of the film. (Remember, The Wizard of Oz pairs B&W reality in Kansas against lush color in Oz.) There appears to be a logic to the use of colors which goes as follows: blue represents an artificial or mechanical surface; red represents an internal entry, Eros, or the life instinct; orange represents normalcy and familial warmth; and yellow represents unreliability and a lack of control. Red and blue are seen most frequently, often paired within the same shot to contrast each other. Kubrick paired these two once before during the opening titles of A Clockwork Orange, and a clockwork orange is, of course, somebody who appears to be living yet is really mechanical."

"Bill is a boob...This scene features one of the funniest moments in the film. As Mr. Milich steps out of his apartment, we can see some lights reflected on the glass door of the building. These lights are the neon signs in front of Sonata Cafe and Gillespie’s Diner. Upon cutting to a reverse we can see both buildings directly behind Bill. He's apparently hired a cab to drive him to a destination that was right across the street from where he was. The cabby most likely drove around, then dropped his clueless passenger off.

Now, here’s a curve ball. The next day when Bill returns to Sonata Cafe and finds it’s closed, he steps back and looks around the block; in the background, we can see the building with the storefront that’s supposed to be Rainbow Costumes -- however, it’s been stripped of any visible identification, save the marks of where the Rainbow sign was. What’s going on? Is this intentional? Poor production values? No. Once again, it’s intentional. Like the AC. Like the missing statue. The reason Kubrick has Bill step aside to look around is to deliver this information. Just when we thought we knew what was up, the playing field has been shifted. Kubrick is refusing to grant us the slightest bit of resolution. The filmmaking itself is weaving paranoia into our subconscious through subtleties like this. And it's these traits that render the film functionally surrealist."

I Wonder What They'll Call Their Geniuses

The iPhone Blog mocks the report that Microsoft Stores to Open Up “Right Next Door to Apple” Stores. I think it's eminently mockable but we'll see.

I wonder what they'll call their geniuses? Super-geniuses? If they start giving free or cheap classes in how to use Word and other Office apps it might be a huge benefit to society.

I wonder who's computers MS Stores will have on display? Or for sale?

Emmy Awards

The Emmy nominations were announced. Way to many categories to look through. The Big Bang Theory got three nominations but not for best comedy series. Morons.

To look at one category, Outstanding Drama Series, the nominees are:
Big Love • HBO
Breaking Bad • AMC
Damages • FX
Dexter • Showtime
House • FOX
Lost • ABC
Mad Men • AMC

I agree that all of these are worthy. I don't watch Damages and probably would have included Friday Night Lights instead of it. What's notable to me is that only Lost is one of the big 3 networks. AMC's first two original series are (rightfully) among the best; hope they can keep up the streak.

Our Newest Element

Universe Today says Welcome "Copernicium," Our Newest Element "The newest element on the periodic table will likely be named in honor of scientist and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. Element 112 will be named Copernicum, with the element symbol 'Cp.'"

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Quiet Coup (May 2009)

I finally read Simon Johnson's article, The Quiet Coup from the May issue of The Atlantic. Excellent article on the economic crisis and what it will take to get out of it.

Revisiting Battlestar Galactica's Ending

Brad argues Battlestar's "Daybreak:" The worst ending in the history of on-screen science fiction. It contains tons of spoilers so don't read it if you haven't seen all of BSG.

It's very long and it goes off repeatedly on several factual elements in the final episode. They're true and I had problems with some of them, but they weren't my real issues with the end of the series. I thought the pacing and plotline of the 4th season was much weaker than the rest of the series, which I think peaked with the beginning of the 3rd season.

Was it the worst ending of any Sci-Fi TV show? Brad really means most disappointing and perhaps that's true. For some reason I watched most of Andromeda and that just completely sucked in ways BSG couldn't hope to match. I still think TNG's finale All Good Things was a great final episode and with one exception, I thought B5 wrapped up things quite well.

I haven't changed my mind about The Sopranos ending, but I also don't think about it anymore. Brad wrote this 4 months after the BSG finale; time to get over it.


I hadn't heard of Mitochondrial Eve before and even if the show got the definition wrong, it gave one in the show which worked ok. I didn't care at all that cast landed at 150,000 years ago when it should have been 50,000 years ago for things to work out. So they got some of the science details wrong, those things don't bother me much, it wasn't a show about science.

I didn't buy the characters giving up all technology. I didn't love but was ok with Head Six and Head Baltar being angels, I thought doing so with Kara was cheap. Buy all accounts Head Six and Head Baltar knew what they were, Kara didn't, so why the difference and why would god solve the problem in that way? I thought the whole Opera House dream turned out to be pointless to just being a random scene of events. In no way was it important to resolving the situation that the characters had the knowledge of that dream. I hadn't pieced together all the issues Brad does with the All Along The Watchtower song as used but basically agree with them.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Soap Bubble Bursting | Mail Online

The Daily Mail has some Super-slow-motion pictures show soap bubble bursting in stunning detail.

Todays Time Sink

Damn you xkcd. Sigh... TV Tropes.

Science and Engineering Lectures in the Boston Area

I've found Fred Hapgood's Selected Lectures on Science and Engineering in the Boston Area to be the best collection of interesting events in the area and check it every Monday. If you're planning on going to something posted here, let me know.

Incompetence, Avoided?

In the Pipeline writes Incompetence, Avoided? "The world may or may not have been waiting for this, but there's now some theoretical support for the Peter Principle" pointing to an article in MIT's Technology Review, Why Incompetence Spreads through Big Organizations.

"Now Pluchino and co have simulated this practice with an agent-based model for the first time. Sure enough, they find that it leads to a significant reduction in the efficiency of an organization, as incompetency spreads through it. "

Sotomayor Hearings

I'm watching the Sotomayor confirmation hearings on C-SPAN. I expect it to be pretty boring and the opening statements by the Senators are mostly that way (though an audience member just started screaming during Sen. Feinstein's opening statement). I think they should do away with opening comments by Senators just like they did away with having the accountants read the rules at the Academy Awards.

I'll leave it to TPM to liveblog, I'll probably post a few summary comments.

Here are some expectations of court reporters.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

1939 The Greatest Year For Movies

Ty Burr writes in The Boston Globe The unrivaled year for moviemaking: 1939 "Yet 1939 trumps them all, and only partly on the extraordinary quality of the movies themselves. Rather, the year marked the peak of the Hollywood studio system - a factory in the paradoxical business of mass-producing individual dreams."

Movie Review: The Happening

Avoid seeing The Happening at all costs. It tries to be a chilling parable but instead it's inconsistent nonsense with incredibly annoying characters. Yet again, and worse than ever before, M. Night Shyamalan foregoes character and any logical progression of actions to stage creepy scenes with his actors.

This film attempts a theme that humans are harming the planet (or more precisely that the planet is upset with us) but fills it with such ridiculous ideas and horrible dialog. I'll end this with a series of quotes from the film, the first one is spoken by a science teacher to his class:

"Science will come up with some reason to put in the books, but in the end it'll be just a theory. I mean, we will fail to acknowledge that there are forces at work beyond our understanding. To be a scientist, you must have a respectful awe for the laws of nature."

"You know that everyone gives off energy, right? It's scientifically proven. They got these cameras that can record what color you are when you're feeling different things. People that are angry give off a different color than people that are sad. See this ring? This ring can supposedly tell you what you're feeling. Let's see what you're feeling right now. "

"Why are you giving me one useless piece of information at a time? What's going on?"

"We're so much the same, Jess. I don't like to show my emotions either."

"Can you believe how crappy people are?"

"We're not gonna be one of those assholes on the news who watches a crime happen and not do something! We're not assholes! Elliot please tell us what to do!"

"We're packing hot dogs for the road. You know, hot dogs get a bad rep. They gotta cool shape, they got protein."

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Movie Review: The Sin of Harold Diddlebock

I have a season pass on my TiVo for all Harold Lloyd films. On June 11th it recorded from TCM, The Sin of Harold Diddlebock and I finally watched it this morning. It's Lloyds last film, made in 1947 and has all the quintessential Lloyd elements.

It opens with a football game which is actual scenes from Lloyd's classic, The Freshman. Then he works in an office starting off enthusiastic and ending up broken down and fired. Then he talks to a woman co-worker and describes a lifetime of lost love. Then we get to this scene and I was hooked:

"It ain't as if anyone ever drank a Diddlebock before, you can't tell what it'll do to you!" It just gets wackier. It ends with another archetypal Lloydism, with him dangling from a building ledge. Oddly, that was the low point of the film for me, it was no Safety Last.

After the above bar scene I looked up the film on imdb and found it was written and directed by Preston Sturges. Well that explains it. In fact, Sturges wrote the film to bring Lloyd out of retirement, it had been 9 years since his last film.

The supporting cast was a lot of fun too. The sidekick is Sturges regular Jimmy Conlin. The bartender in the above clip is Edgar Kennedy, famous for his slow burn and listed in imdb as appearing in over 400 movies. I also recognized Lionel Stander and Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West).

If you like screwball comedies of the 40s and Sturges or Lloyd, you'lll enjoy The Sin of Harold Diddlebock.

Friday, July 10, 2009

That Secret Program the CIA Hid From Congress

Current CIA Director Leon Panetta recently told members of Congress about some classified program that the CIA misled Congress about. Spencer Ackerman writes Panetta Wasn’t Talking About Torture

"Great piece by Newsweek’s Mark Hosenball and Michael Isikoff peeling back more layers from CIA Director Leon Panetta’s apparent concession that CIA misled Congress about unspecified ‘significant actions.’ Their reporting finds, contra Sam Stein, that the actions in question weren’t about the ‘enhanced interrogation program,’ but rather some other, still-classified covert program"

This AP piece by Pamela Hess has some good info: CIA Director terminated secret program.

"Democrats revealed late Tuesday that the CIA Director Leon Panetta had informed Congress in late June that the spy agency had been withholding important information about a secret program begun after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Panetta has launched an internal probe at the CIA to determine why Congress was not told about the program. Exactly what the classified program entailed is still unclear. Schakowsky, D-Ill., said Friday that the failure to inform Congress about the program was intentional. The CIA and Bush administration consciously decided not to tell Congress, she said."

Ackerman is going nuts trying to find out What The Hell Was That CIA Program About?

Warrantless Surveillance Report Finally Released

The Long-Awaited Warrantless Surveillance Report Finally Released and Spencer Ackerman takes a look: "A year later, the report is complete, and I’ve just gotten a copy of it. What does it say? I’m still reading it, but one thing it says is that the CIA’s involvement in the program is deeper than has been reported. And one interesting bonus fact: the report calls the program the ‘President’s Surveillance Program,’ rather than the manipulative ‘Terrorist Surveillance Program’ handle the Bush administration gave the program when it became public in order to put critics in a tight spot. "

He goes on to describe what the CIA involvement was: "According to the report, CIA would prepare a threat briefing for President Bush justifying the need for such surveillance. Then-CIA Director George Tenet’s chief of staff was in charge of compiling such a report. Then the agency lawyers would vet the assessment to determine whether there was “a compelling case for reauthorization of the” surveillance. Tenet or his deputy, John McLaughlin, would sign it. Then the Department of Justice lawyers would get involved. By 2005, owing to bureaucratic changes, the responsibility for approving this threat assessment every 45 days passed to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the responsibility for drafting it went to the National Counterterrorism Center"

Herschel Telescope First Light Images Released

Universe Today reports Herschel Telescope First Light Images Released. "The Herschel telescope has now turned on all its instruments, taking a few 'first light' images with each instrument of galaxies, star-forming regions and dying stars. Herschel astronomers said they were 'staggered' by the results, saying 'these observations show that Herschel’s instruments are working beyond expectations."

Herschel is an infrared telescope as the Spitzer Space Telescope is.

100 Essential Skills for Geeks

Wired lists 100 Essential Skills for Geeks. Turns out, I'm not all that geeky.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Homomorphic Encryption Breakthrough

Bruce Schneier weighs in on the Homomorphic Encryption Breakthrough.

"Last month, IBM made some pretty brash claims about homomorphic encryption and the future of security. I hate to be the one to throw cold water on the whole thing -- as cool as the new discovery is -- but it's important to separate the theoretical from the practical."

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Panetta Says CIA Misled Congress

The Wall Street Journal reports Lawmakers Say CIA Misled Congress. "Central Intelligence Agency Director Leon E. Panetta has told lawmakers that CIA officials misled Congress 'for a number of years' since 2001, according to a letter released Wednesday from six Democratic lawmakers."

How long does this shit have to go on? Obama, I want my transparency. Congress I want you to do your oversight job, find out the info, issue subpoenas to get it, put people in jail who refuse. CIA, I want the freakin' truth already. What did Bush and Cheney have you do? You to NSA.

On Google's Chrome OS

A brilliant piece by Fake Steve Jobs, Let's all take a deep breath and get some perspective. "They've already got Android, and nobody wants it. Now they're going to make yet another operating system, this time out of a browser that nobody wants. What's next? A Gmail-based operating system? A YouTube-based operating system? Honestly, Google, is there anyone in charge over there? Is there anyone who knows how to criticize anything in that fucked up little Montessori preschool of yours?"

On thinking it through, it doesn't make too much sense to me. I could imagine writing a stripped down OS that made Chrome run better and assuming all apps are web-based maybe there's something there. Though aside from stripping out X, Linux isn't all that fat.

Google is all about getting more eyes on the web so their ads make more money. If an OS is to do that, they must think that there's some device that doesn't exist because of OS limitations. There are enough desktop and laptop computers with choices of OSes. A new device (perhaps a tablet) that just supports a browser? But still since Linux exists and is free, it's not like there's an MS license preventing manufacturers from creating one.

Maybe the anti-MS faction inside Google just went a little too far on this one.

Google Chrome OS

The Official Google Blog wrote Introducing the Google Chrome OS "So today, we're announcing a new project that's a natural extension of Google Chrome — the Google Chrome Operating System. It's our attempt to re-think what operating systems should be."

"Google Chrome OS is an open source, lightweight operating system that will initially be targeted at netbooks. Later this year we will open-source its code, and netbooks running Google Chrome OS will be available for consumers in the second half of 2010. Because we're already talking to partners about the project, and we'll soon be working with the open source community, we wanted to share our vision now so everyone understands what we are trying to achieve."

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Significant Rulings of U.S. Supreme Court Term

Significant rulings of U.S. Supreme Court term is a good overview of the term from the SF Gate.

"The Voting Rights Act survived the U.S. Supreme Court's just-completed term. School employees weren't given free rein to strip-search 13-year-olds for illicit painkillers. Federal regulation of political campaign ads remains intact, and prosecutors in most cases still can't use evidence that police obtained illegally. It was the year of the shoe that didn't drop, of court analysts' predictions that didn't come to pass. There were no blockbuster rulings, but there were some significant ones."

SSNs Are Guessable

New algorithm guesses SSNs using date and place of birth.

"So far, most of the [Social Security Number]-related ID theft problems have resulted from institutions that were careless with their record keeping, allowing SSNs to be harvested in bulk. But a pair of Carnegie Mellon researchers has now demonstrated a technique that uses publicly available information to reconstruct SSNs with a startling degree of accuracy. The irony of their method is that it relies on two practices adopted by the federal government that were intended to reduce the ability of fraudsters to craft a bogus SSN."

Simon Johnson on Banking

Simon Johnson's, How To Buy Friends And Alienate People talks about the problems with (mostly big) banks and how the ABA is mishandling it.

Movie Review: Julie & Julia

I saw a sneak preview of Julie & Julia today. I didn't know Julie Powell's story at all, but this is based on her book Julie and Julia, 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen. She blogged her experience trying to cook all the recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year. The blog became popular and then got a story in the New York TImes which resulted in a book deal. It's more a year of self-discovery rather than a cooking lesson but it was quite fun.

This is a return to form for writer-director Nora Ephron. The less said about Bewitched the better. While not quite as good as Sleepless in Seattle it's better than You've Got Mail. I laughed many times and almost cried once, though I no longer remember at what.

The film starts by saying it's based on two true stories. It spends half time time telling Julia Child's story of arriving in Paris in the 40s and learning to cook French food at Cordon Bleu and then becoming a teacher and writing the book with her partners. There are various struggles as she finds what interests her, overcomes prejudice against Americans at cooking school and struggles to find a publisher. Her husband Paul was a diplomat and had to deal with a McCarthy era investigation. This was almost completely unrelated to anything else in the film, but explained their moving around and provided some opportunity to show their relationship.

The other story is Julie's. She works in a self-described soul-sucking dead-end job answering phones for an organization helping rebuild lower Manhattan after 9/11. This sounded less soul-sucking than many jobs I could imagine but she was the standard powerless customer service rep that has to listen to people complain to her all day long. She and her husband move to a new 900 square foot apartment above a pizzeria in Queens. She's previously written half a novel but has a problem finishing things; hence her one year goal to finish Child's book. The stress of doing that in a tiny kitchen while dealing with work and her husband yields a surprisingly engaging story.

Meryl Streep completely nails Julia Child. Whenever I thought it was too much of a caricature, I had to remind myself that no, no it wasn't. That was how Julia talked and acted. The film makes a few mentions of her 6'2" height but I only caught the use of one obvious Lord of the Rings-type miniature technique.

Early on Amy Adams had a couple of Enchanted moments that worried me, but she then fell well into place as a modern day adorable Meg Ryan in a Nora Ephron film. Based on the bits of the blog I've read they cleaned up her New Yorker language. At one point she wonders if she's used the f-word too much in her blog which is odd to think of her typing since she barely cursed at all in the film.

Stanley Tucci as Paul Child reminded me of Gene Kelly in An American in Paris even though he never wears the famous stripped shirt. Chris Messina is Julie's husband Eric and isn't as interesting as the other leads. The character is a little underwritten and he's no Tom Hanks.

Julie Child's life is rich enough for a dedicated biography. The story of Julie's blog probably isn't but the two work well together. The film worked best when it concentrated on the cooking. While there's some food porn, there's not nearly as much as Big Night or Eat Drink Man Woman.

I wondered if those under 30 will recognize the clip of Dan Aykroyd's classic SNL skit. Here's the whole thing for a refresher.

It opens August 7th and I think will be one of the better films of the year. There should probably be a warning for vegetarians as there are several scenes of cooking raw meat, poultry and the killing of inevitably delicious crustaceans.

Interrogation Contracts That the CIA Won’t Let You See

Spencer Ackerman writes "This is my favorite rejection under the Freedom of Information Act ever." so you know it has to be good.

It's Still Kennedy's Court

The Blog of Legal TImes reports on a panel that summarized this latest Supreme Court term, It's Still Kennedy's Court, Say Supreme Court Practitioners

"For all the talk of Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. slowly guiding it rightward, the Supreme Court still belongs to Justice Anthony Kennedy."

"Roberts and his fellow conservatives are "going just as far to the right, and just as fast, as Justice Kennedy will let them," said Pamela Harris, executive director of Georgetown’s Supreme Court Institute."

The Senate Filibuster

Our Senate and the Fillibuster power: Posner vs Becker.

Medicare's Administrative Costs

Greg Mankiw wrote Medicare has lower administrative costs? and cited a study that said no.

Paul Krugman pounced on it in Administrative costs saying the study was from the Heritage Foundation and flawed and refuted by Jacob Hacker.

Robert Book, the author of the Heritage Foundation report commented to Krugman's article saying, nope it's valid and ad hominem attacks aren't. "expressing health administrative costs as a percentage of total program costs is silly, since the bulk of program costs are health care claims and administrative costs are mostly unrelated to the level of health care claims. (Medicare claims processing is only about 4% of administrative costs; the other 96% is unrelated to the level of claims). This is clear from a moment’s thought — if you insure a healthy 25-year-old who never goes to the doctor (or at least, not enough to exceed the deductible), a health plan’s cost for that person is 100%, no matter how efficient the administration is. Private insurance has a lot more people like that than Medicare does."

Krugman followed up with A bit more on administrative costs which looks at costs of other large health care systems like Canada's saying that public systems can be as efficient or moreso than private.

And Mankiw follows up with Costs versus Efficiency. "True, Medicare’s administrative costs are low, but it is easy to keep those costs contained when a system merely writes checks without expending the resources to control wasteful medical spending."

Honestly this sounds like economists who specialize in other fields, jumping into the health care economics and trying to find their way. Where are the health care economist bloggers?

Google Apps Out of Beta

Wow, it's official Google Apps is out of beta (yes, really) including Gmail. Ok, not so interesting...

Incandescent Bulbs Return to the Cutting Edge

The New York Times reports Incandescent Bulbs Return to the Cutting Edge.

"Researchers across the country have been racing to breathe new life into Thomas Edison’s light bulb, a pursuit that accelerated with the new legislation. Amid that footrace, one company is already marketing limited quantities of incandescent bulbs that meet the 2012 standard, and researchers are promising a wave of innovative products in the next few years. Indeed, the incandescent bulb is turning into a case study of the way government mandates can spur innovation."

Now about those CAFE standards for cars...

Finally Watched Palin's Resignation Speech

Mother Jones wrote Say It Ain't So, Sarah and embeds the video. They write:

"You really have to watch the whole thing from beginning to end. There's the dead fish. There's the bit about staying in office being the quitter's way out. There's the basketball riff. There's the part about resigning being the only way she can stop herself from going overseas on lavish taxpayer financed junkets. I guess we all have our favorite parts, but my sister's reaction pretty much summed it up: WTF?"

I guess it was a form of self-sacrifice.

US Finalizes Stem Cell Research Guidelines

US finalizes stem cell research guidelines.

"The new rules, which go into effect Tuesday, follow President Barack Obama's March 9 executive order lifting a ban on embryonic stem cell research, an order that went into effect under his predecessor, George W. Bush.

They allow funding for research using human embryonic stem cells derived from embryos created by in vitro fertilization (IVF) for reproductive purposes and no longer needed, in a departure from the Bush administration's policy.

The National Institutes of Health's (NIH) guidelines are slightly less restrictive than those outlined in a draft document released in April in that they allow the use of existing stem cell lines, in addition to new ones derived from IVF procedures."

My Forecast

This is the NWS service forecast for me for today, Today "A chance of showers and thunderstorms, then showers likely and possibly a thunderstorm after 3pm. Mostly cloudy, with a high near 71. East wind around 7 mph. Chance of precipitation is 60%. New rainfall amounts between a quarter and half of an inch possible."

Seriously? They felt the need to say showers and thunderstorms followed by showers and then a thunderstorm?!?

Monday, July 06, 2009

Obama Uneasy Over Indefinite Gitmo Detention

Well at least this... "President Barack Obama said Thursday he's uneasy about his own proposal to indefinitely imprison some of the most dangerous terror suspects being held now at Guantanamo Bay. He called it 'one of the biggest challenges of my administration.'"

Reported by The Associated Press.

Coffee Drinks Illustrated

Coffee Drinks Illustrated:

It's already being extended here and here.

Roadside America

Roadside America, Your guide to uniquely odd tourist attractions.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

We Had To Destroy Teh Villiage To Save It

I've now watched a total of 8 minutes of Glen Beck's show. I've had enough.

CIA's former bin Laden expert: "The only chance we have as a country right now is for Osama bin Laden to deploy and detonate a major weapon in the United States.".

On Greenspan With Some Perspective

J. Bradford DeLong has some Sympathy for Greenspan.

"there is near-universal consensus that America’s monetary authorities made three serious mistakes that contributed to and exacerbated the financial crisis." Allowing the shadow banking sector to be unregulated, nationalizing AIG, letting Lehman fail.

"There is, however, a lively debate about whether there was a fourth big mistake: Alan Greenspan’s decision in 2001-2004 to push and keep nominal interest rates on US Treasury securities very low in order to try to keep the economy near full employment. In other words, should Greenspan have kept interest rates higher and triggered a recession in order to avert the growth of a housing bubble? If we push interest rates up, Greenspan thought, millions of Americans would become unemployed, to no one’s benefit. If interest rates were allowed to fall, these extra workers would be employed building houses and making things to sell to all the people whose incomes come from the construction sector. Full employment is better than high unemployment if it can be accomplished without inflation, Greenspan thought. If a bubble develops, and if the bubble does not deflate but collapses, threatening to cause a depression, the Fed would have the policy tools to short-circuit that chain. In hindsight, Greenspan was wrong. But the question is: was the bet that Greenspan made a favourable one?"

DeLong goes back and forth on this. Mark Thoma says, "The Fed's decision to keep interest rates low contributed to the bubble, but was not itself the sole cause of it. As to whether the Fed made a mistake, I'll just note that the tradeoff wasn't quite as stark as Brad implies, i.e. there were other policy instruments that Fed could have used to limit the housing bubble. Regulation is certainly one means the Fed had to that end, but Fed communication could have helped too. If Greenspan had, for example, told people to stay away from mortgages because they were toxic rather than implicitly encouraging them to invest in housing, things might have been different."

"So narrowly, keeping interest rates low and employment high was the right thing to do. The mistake was letting all of the action brought about by those low rates, or most of it anyway, occur in a single sector, housing, rather than using regulation and other means to limit the flow of resources into the housing market in pursuit of profits based upon the misperception of risk"

David Beckworth says Yes Brad, the Fed's Low Interest Rate Policy Was a Mistake "Brad's uncertainty is understandable given he invokes the entire 2001-2004 time frame. For during this period there was a time when the U.S. economic recovery was sputtering along (2001-2002) and a time when the recovery began to take hold (2003-2004). It was during this latter period that Fed's low interest rates were a big mistake"

He has some charts I won't copy here, but if you can understand this, please explain it to me. :) "Here we see productivity growth soaring just as the real federal funds rate is being pushed into negative territory. Normally, a rise in productivity growth should lead to a rise in the natural interest rate and ultimately, a rise in the federal funds rate for monetary policy to stay neutral. However, this latter development did not happen. It seems, then, the Fed did push its policy rate below the natural rate and in the process created a huge Wicksellian-type disequilibria."

DeLong then replies with Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself: I'm a Central Banker of Wealth and Taste... beginning with a rather clear explanation of the original goals of central banking by Knut Wicksell and then points to some other comments on the matter.

6 Gorgeous Twitter Visualizations

6 Gorgeous Twitter Visualizations are all useless, but are in face pretty.

Health Care Economics

Paul Krugman wrote, Health care is not a bowl of cherries.

"Both George Will and Greg Mankiw basically argue that we don’t need a government role because we can trust the market to work — hey, we do it for groceries, right? Um, economists have known for 45 years — ever since Kenneth Arrow’s seminal paper — that the standard competitive market model just doesn’t work for health care"

James Kwak adds, "lightly regulated” private health insurance is a fantasy, because the whole point of a for-profit insurer is to charge premiums that expect the expected payout under the policy; as a result, no sick person would be able to afford insurance. You don’t need adverse selection or moral hazard to explain this: if I know someone has an expensive form of cancer, I’m going to charge him $100,000 for health insurance, and he won’t be able to pay. The free market for health care is one in which sick people die, and smart people who ignore that point are being less than honest."

He also points to Krugman who points to digby who points out that in much of america, health insurance is already a monopoly. "The Justice Department considers an industry to be “highly concentrated” if one company has 42 percent of the market. In Arkansas — Senator Lincoln should take note — Blue Cross Blue Shield has 75 percent of the market. If you take government self-insurance plans out of the equation, it's higher. The state ranks as the ninth most concentrated in the country. Is it any wonder that insurance premiums have risen five times as fast as wages?"

Zachary Roth in TPM adds Health-Care Market Characterized By Consolidation, Not Competition:

"The report, released by Health Care for America Now (HCAN), uses data compiled by the American Medical Association to show that 94 percent of the country's insurance markets are defined as "highly concentrated," according to Justice Department guidelines. Predictably, that's led to skyrocketing costs for patients, and monster profits for the big health insurers. Premiums have gone up over the past six years by more than 87 percent, on average, while profits at ten of the largest publicly traded health insurance companies rose 428 percent from 2000 to 2007."

In 10 states, just one or two heath insurers control at least 80% of the market.

My own experiences tackle this from a different angle. I found it impossible to get enough information to make an informed choice on insurance plans. Are the doctors I want in the plan? Well it's easy to check for my primary care physician but I don't know what I might get in the next year and what specialty I might need and what specialist I might want. Blue Cross gave me a choice of several dozen plans and it was impossible to compare them because the information in the grid was mostly the same (100% or 80% coverage) but littered with footnotes saying this plan's deductible doesn't cover this care and this other plan doesn't cover this other care. And still I don't know what illness I might succumb to in the coming year to pick appropriately.

And while my current situation might be a little unusual, getting health insurance from your employer makes little sense to me. Businesses are hard enough to run profitably and health insurance costs are skyrocketing. No one wants to cut them but they have to. How many of you think your company chooses it's insurance company based more on the care you'll get (and that has to be averaged acrossed all employees) instead of the cost of the plans?

Pricing Digital Content

Free: The Future of a Radical Price is a new book by Chris Anderson, editor of Wired.

Priced to Sell is Malcolm Gladwell's review of Free in The New Yorker.

But Seth Godin says (for the first time)
Malcolm is wrong.

I've only read the two reviews, not the book. Chris says info wants to be free and money can be made by selling around it (Google gives away search and sells ads). Malcolm says free is just another price point and somethings will still cost money. Seth says "oh yeah..."

I think about this stuff in the background a lot but don't know anything more than anyone else but I want to make a few points. Publishers made lots of money because publishing was expensive. They were the only ones that could get content out to a lot of people. Now publishing is cheap, so publishers will make less money. It's not clear if it's none, but it's going to be less.

One of the bases of economics is that scarcity commands a higher price.

One of the hardest problems in business is pricing things effectively. Too high and you don't sell enough, too cheap and you don't make enough. But sometimes, too cheap means you don't sell enough (if people find your product is too cheap to be worth it) and competition matters a lot. If various big newspapers are giving away their content online, I'm not going to pay for the Boston Globe. I might pay for the Wall Street Journal if I think their content (which at least was specialized and useful) is worth it.

Gladwell cites a case where James Moroney, the publisher of the Dallas Morning News wasn't willing to pay Amazon 70% to distribute the news via the Kindle. He was outraged. I wonder how much the reporter got.

Or how much a book author gets (not much) or a musician (again not much).

Making publishing cheap should allow the profit to go directly to the creator. Lots of people say that with more content editors will be more important to help people find what they want, but I find that amazon and netflix point me at content better than a lot of traditional reviewers. Maybe editing will be free too. If all you have to pay is the creator, maybe you don't need to pay so much.