Thursday, March 31, 2011

13 percent of biology teachers advocate creationism

I missed this LiveScience article when it came out in January, but I doubt the underlying fact has changed: 13% of high school biology teachers "advocate creationism in their classrooms."

That's depressing.
"We say [evolution is] a central idea in biology, but someone can get a biology degree and not take a class in it," Randy Moore, a science and evolution education specialist in the biology department at the University of Minnesota who was not involved in the study, told LiveScience. "We let that go in the name of religious freedom."
This is where Stephen Jay Gould's idea of non-overlapping magisteria might be helpful. On the other hand, Gould's argument relies primarily on this assumption:
Creationism does not raise any unsettled intellectual issues about the nature of biology or the history of life. Creationism is a local and parochial movement, powerful only in the United States among Western nations, and prevalent only among the few sectors of American Protestantism that choose to read the Bible as an inerrant document, literally true in every jot and tittle.
The concept of non-overlapping magisteria, relying as it does on an assumption (the Bible is neither literally true in every detail nor inerrant) that creationists consider not just repugnant but false, isn't going to gain any traction among creationism's adherents.

Truly, we're talking about faith here, and that's terribly difficult to overcome because faith, in the extreme, is immune to evidence. And those who have adopted a literalist reading of the Bible are extremely faithful.

A couple of creationism-advocating teachers, not identified by name, are quoted in the LiveScience piece. Each has a different reason for teaching creationism in the classroom.
"I am always amazed at how evolution and creationism are treated as if they are right or wrong. They are both belief systems that can never be truly or fully proved or discredited."
I can understand, and I even have a distant sympathy for, this point of view. Humans cannot "see" evolution taking place before our eyes, so a person deeply skeptical of science's extrapolations from partial evidence could conclude that there's a lot more belief required for evolution than most biologists are willing to admit. (I happen to think -- yes, to believe -- that the same scientific method that has been so successful in other disciplines like chemistry and physics, whose status as "sciences" is not in doubt, is probably producing similarly valid results in biology. Evolution, then, remains by far the best current explanation for the profusion of life around us.)

This teacher, on the other hand, is simply deluded.
"I don't teach the theory of evolution in my life science classes, nor do I teach the Big Bang Theory in my [E]arth [S]cience classes.... We do not have time to do something that is at best poor science."
A Stephen Jay Gould or an Albert Einstein would be qualified to judge whether something is poor science. Someone advocating as "science" the insipid fantasy of creationism -- or, as its current advocates would have us refer to it, intelligent design -- is clearly not qualified to pass judgment on the quality of scientific theories. And yet this nitwit is allowed to teach children "science." That's just sad.

I've said before that creationism, aka intelligent design, is not science. You can argue the contrary until you're blue in the face, but you'll still be manifestly, fundamentally, and irredeemably wrong.
Creationism is not science, period, end of discussion. Intelligent design is creationism with an asterisk and therefore is not science, period, end of discussion.

Why? Because any question posed by the fossil record that does not have an answer is assumed to represent the handiwork of God (or in the parlance of intelligent design, a designer that could, if you wished, be regarded as God).

Positing that God is responsible for as-yet unexplained anomalies in the fossil record allows creationism's supporters to declare victory and go home without even trying to answer the question.
Creationists, if you want to play in science's yard, then you play by science's rules. And creationism/intelligent design fails, egregiously, on that count.

Now if we could only get the 13% of high school biology teachers advocating for creationism -- and the 60% who "weakly [teach] evolution without explicitly endorsing or denying creationism in order to avoid controversy and questions" -- to understand that.

Maybe this simple equation will get through to the younger teachers:
Creationism = FAIL

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The cross-country runner

Courtesy of Longreads, a piece by Michael Oppenheimer, "The Race That is Not About Winning", celebrating onscreen portrayals of the high school cross-country runner. That's just an excuse, though, to reflect on a certain kind of oddball that isn't accorded much attention by Hollywood, or anyone else for that matter: "the American teen male anti-athlete."
He is not a genius, he is not pathologically shy, and he is not widely loathed. Rather, he is a little shy, a little marginal, and a good bit quirkier than his classmates. He does not necessarily read constantly, but when he reads—or listens to music, or skips school to go to a matinee by himself—it is with an outsider’s wistfulness, with a hopeful eye on the world beyond high school.
I wasn't a cross-country runner but it was the only athletic activity I even fleetingly considered pursuing. Now I understand why.

This piece will hit very close to home for a few of you -- or rather, if I may be so bold, us.

Amazon takes on music publishers in the cloud

Courtesy Daring Fireball, here's a piece describing Amazon's stance on paying music publishers royalties for music stored on Amazon's "new online music locker," Cloud Drive.
... Amazon resists any suggestion that it needs licenses for storage. The company tells paidContent: “We do not need a license to store music in Cloud Drive. The functionality of saving MP3s to Cloud Drive is the same as if a customer were to save their music to an external hard drive or even iTunes.”

That is exactly the position that everybody outside the music industry takes, because it's the one that makes sense.

If Cloud Drive is what this article makes it sound like, an extension of one's personal music collection to the cloud, and access is limited to the collection's owner, then I would politely ask the music industry to shut the f--k up and stay the f--k out of the way, thank you very much.

Of course, somebody's always worried about pirated content:
But unless it was purchased through Amazon, the company has little way of knowing the music’s provenance—ie what’s been bought and what has, in some cases, been copied from someone else’s collection.
Correct, Amazon has little (probably no) way of knowing whence the content originated. And guess what? That's not Amazon's problem, as long as the content can only be accessed by the collection's owner. This is precisely how access to your own music collection works in your house. Any deficiencies in the model are beyond Amazon's control.

The music industry has an almost robotic tendency to respond to the concept of "online music access" by saying: "we'll take another piece of that."

No. Back the f--k off, you cretins.

Get this through your thick skulls: I am not a f--king pirate. Stop treating me like one.

I own every goddamned song in my collection, and I am not about to pay you another f--king penny for it.

When you sold it to me, the agreement was that I could listen to it as much as I liked, when I liked, where I liked. I'm holding you to that agreement.

As I've said before, any model of cloud-based access to music I own that requires ongoing payment of royalties to the music publishers is nothing more than a destructively greedy and illegitimate racket.

Amazon is sticking up for its customers. Good for you, Amazon.

(Disclaimer: I have never been employed by Amazon, nor do I own any stock in it.)

UPDATE: As I assumed, Amazon explicitly restricts access to the collection's owner. From Amazon Cloud Drive's official terms of use:
You may not use a name, username or email address that you are not authorized to use or share your username and password with others for purposes of allowing others to use the Service through your account.

Arizona bans bias-based abortions

According to Reuters:
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer on Tuesday signed into law a controversial bill that makes the state the first in the nation to outlaw abortions performed on the basis of the race or gender of the fetus.
This, in spite of the fact that the law's backers can point to no evidence that abortions on such a basis are happening in Arizona.

What is it about some so-called conservatives that while they decry the government's attempts to impose any restrictions on gun ownership or to collect taxes, they embrace the most draconian and offensive intrusions into our sexual practices and the results of those sexual practices?

Do you think abortion is murder? Then convince the rest of us.

Make a compelling case for your position -- a case that rests on something more relevant to the rest of us than doctrine laid down by religious authorities (persons or texts) we don't recognize as having either the expertise or the right to lay down such strictures on non-adherents.

(By the way, your position would be stronger if so many of you didn't also oppose contraception. Sheesh, this is the twenty-first century -- you can't have it both ways. You never could, but now, unlike a hundred years ago, we know that.)

Abortion opponents, weaseling your way into our most intimate and difficult decisions through batshit-crazy laws like Arizona's just makes you look like authoritarian wingnuts who can't be trusted to respect anyone else's rights.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

MSNBC loses viewers by not being a news network

As of a bit more than a week ago, CNN was beating up on MSNBC and even Fox News in the ratings. The gains came in the wake of the Japanese quake and reactor crisis, coupled with the unrest in Libya.

The big ratings loser was MSNBC, and the problem was especially noticeable during the weekends when MSNBC normally airs a number of prerecorded shows about prisons. It decided to stick to its normal schedule rather than provide live continuing coverage of either major story.

MSNBC president Phil Griffin was evasive about the network's strategy on weekends.
He called MSNBC’s weekend reliance on “Lockup,” its recorded documentary-style program about prisons, a “tricky situation.” He said, “This is our strategy for weekends, and it has worked well for us.” Its audience now “has an expectation” of seeing such programs on Saturday and Sunday nights, he said.

Is he seriously telling us that he, the man in charge of a news network, has not a clue about how to cover the news?

Does Phil Griffin think he's running E! or the Biography Channel? Their viewers might indeed have expected normal programming to resume. A news network's audience would have different expectations. Judging by the ratings, they did, and they had little use for MSNBC's irrelevant canned programming.

I guess Griffin wants to drive home the message that MSNBC isn't a real news network. Well, that narrows down your choices when real news breaks, doesn't it?

Google and recipes

Here's a highly critical blog entry by Nicholas Carr about Google's new specialized handling of recipes in its search results.
What's not to like about a specialized recipe search engine? Beneath the surface, though, some funny things were going on, and not all of them were salubrious. In fact, the changes illustrate how, as search engines refine their algorithms, their results become more biased. In particular, the changes reveal how a powerful search engine like Google has come to reward professional sites that are able to spend a lot on search engine optimization, or SEO, and penalize amateurs who are simply looking to share their thoughts with the world.
I suppose specialization was inevitable, but it's important to recognize the tradeoffs that Carr points out.

By the way, I didn't intend for the last few entries to be all about Google. It's what happens, though, when a company plays that big a role in our lives.

(And just so it's clear, I have never worked for or owned stock in Google.)

Google delays release of Honeycomb source

I don't care as much about tech stories as I did, but this one caught my eye because I think some commentators don't understand it. Business Week, among others, is reporting that Google is delaying release of the source code to its upcoming version of the Android operating system. The release, codenamed Honeycomb, is intended to run on tablet-style machines that will compete with Apple's iPad.
"To make our schedule to ship the tablet, we made some design tradeoffs," says Andy Rubin, vice-president for engineering at Google and head of its Android group. "We didn't want to think about what it would take for the same software to run on phones. It would have required a lot of additional resources and extended our schedule beyond what we thought was reasonable. So we took a shortcut."

Rubin says that if Google were to open-source the Honeycomb code now, as it has with other versions of Android at similar periods in their development, it couldn't prevent developers from putting the software on phones "and creating a really bad user experience. We have no idea if it will even work on phones."
The same article notes that big manufacturers already have access to Honeycomb's source code. If you don't write software for a living, that probably sounds like somebody is getting screwed -- namely, smaller developers that don't have the clout of, say, HTC or Samsung. However, it's possible, and I think even likely, that these bigger manufacturers have agreed to strict controls over how they may use or modify the source. More to the point, they're probably manufacturing the tablets for which Honeycomb is intended. The smaller developers who won't be getting access to the source for the time being are likely to be developing ancillary software or peripherals.

The trouble with the coverage of the delay is that it gives prominent coverage to those who see ulterior motives in such delays:
Eben Moglen, a professor of Law at Columbia Law School and the founding director of the Software Freedom Law Center, believes that Google is simply repeating the past mistakes of other companies that tried to put tight controls around the release of their open-source software. "It's usually a mistake," Moglen says. "Long experience teaches people that exposing the code to the community helps more than it hurts you."
Professor Moglen assumes that Google is delaying the release of the Honeycomb source out of a desire to keep total control over it. I think his assumption is out of whack, likely because he has never written software.

Where he sees a dark corporate conspiracy to back off from its commitment to open-source software, I see hacks that would be embarrassing for Google to acknowledge its engineers wrote, and costly for the company to maintain if external developers started relying on them. I've written software and I've worked with big source code bases. I know how easy it is for hacks to be introduced when deadlines loom. Not every first solution is elegant, but sometimes you have to ship with the source base you've got, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld.

Google is delaying release of the source, not reneging on its commitment to release it at all. Calm down, people.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Google needs to adopt "opting in"

Nicholas Carr's Rough Type blog pointed me to Judge Denny Chin's rejection of the Google Books proposed settlement.

Judge Chin's rejection has three main underpinnings. First, the settlement would address novel copyright concerns that are better left to Congress, especially since those concerns extend to stakeholders who are not covered by U.S. law. Second, the settlement would create a new right for Google (the right to publish entire so-called "orphaned" works) that the original lawsuit simply did not cover and that therefore fall outside the scope of what the court could legitimately approve.

Finally, the settlement would upend long-established practice by requiring copyright holders to opt out of the proposed scheme rather than opting into it. As Judge Chin opined:
... it is incongruous with the purpose of the copyright laws to place the onus on copyright owners to come forward to protect their rights when Google copied their works without first seeking their permission.
This, to my mind, is the most important point made in the decision because it goes to the heart of what I hate about so many firms' online practices: they would rather beg forgiveness rather than seek permission. Indeed, most such firms don't even worry about begging forgiveness.

Whether it's Wal-Mart (which apparently added my email address to its database without asking me), or Angie's List, or Google itself with its privacy-invasive Buzz rollout, we're seeing what the market does if it is allowed to follow its own instincts. It doesn't ask permission before it exploits us.

Good for you, Judge Chin.

And Google, are you ever going to learn to ask before you do?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

"The BP Oil Spill and the Bounty of Plaquemines Parish," Randy Fertel

A longish piece in Gastronomica reflects on the ways life has changed in Plaquemines Parish, near the mouth of the Mississippi River, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil disaster (I refuse to trivialize it by calling it a "spill"). Unsurprisingly, the reflections are often rueful and the silver linings he finds are limited; as he remarks, "The BP oil spill's cloud is so darkly apocalyptic, literally and figuratively, that it seems to have us all looking willy-nilly for something good to come out of it."

He thinks the key to a long-term revival of the area is allowing the wetlands to reestablish themselves: only thus can the ecosystem recover from overfishing and the entire area become more robust against hurricanes. Opposition by oyster farmers, whose current beds will be cut off from the salt water they require, is likely to be fierce, but a far greater obstacle will be our current fiscal straits: "[T]he necessary awareness is arriving just when America is broke," as one observer put it.

It's a well-written, engrossing article; check it out.

The Sunday Times as loss leader

A piece from the Nieman Journalism Lab looks at the New York Times paywall. It ponders the curious reality that paying for Sunday-only home delivery will cost you less than the premium digital access model, though home delivery gets you exactly the same online access as the digital-only subscription. The writer speculates that this has to do with Apple's subscription model and the paper's desire to notch up better numbers for print subscribers.

It's an argument that doesn't make complete sense to me, but I'm not in the business of publishing a paper.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Wait -- maybe we need to know less?

The last entry talked about needing to know more; this one considers the possibility that we need to know less.

It's prompted by a pair of entries from Nicholas Carr's "Rough Type" blog: his 6 March 2011 entry entitled "Distractions and decisions" and his 7 March 2011 entry entitled Situational overload and ambient overload".

Where "Americans need to know more" focused on the problem of getting good information into our hands, Carr's pieces talk about the problems attendant on what is perceived to be too much information. "Distractions and decisions" linked to a Newsweek article surveying the growing body of research on "decision science" and its surprising revelation that a surfeit of information can lead human beings to be unable to make a decision, or even to make a poor one. Too much information overwhelms our decision-making center, and if a decision is required anyway, our brains are often bad at assigning discrete pieces of information their proper weights, i.e., determining which bits of data are more important than others.

"Situational overload and ambient overload" attempts to divide "information overload" into two categories. Situational overload is Carr's term for "the needle-in-the-haystack problem" of finding the right nugget of data in a vast collection; this is a problem we know how to solve and generally have done a decent job of solving (even if we don't think as highly of search engines as we once did). Ambient overload, on the other hand, is what most of us experience today if our lives at all partake of the ultimate information firehose, the Internet: we are inundated by innumerable nuggets of information we find interesting. (Carr's two pieces languished in my browser for two weeks due to ambient overload.)

Ambient overload cannot be addressed by better filters: in fact, Carr argues that better filters make the problem worse.
As today's filters improve, they expand the information we feel compelled to take notice of. Yes, they winnow out the uninteresting stuff (imperfectly), but they deliver a vastly greater supply of interesting stuff. And precisely because the information is of interest to us, we feel pressure to attend to it. As a result, our sense of overload increases.
So we come back to the problem of Americans who aren't getting good information and therefore aren't making good, sound policies to address the myriad problems we face. It seems clear to me that Americans in general are absorbing enormous amounts of irrelevant or bad data, delivered by television, radio, and the Internet. This would seem to be a clear case of situational overload, except that the information we're absorbing is virtually all information for which we've asked. Our filters are set to let crap through, and we're perfectly happy with that. Whether it's celebrity gossip or trashy TV shows or packaged political information calculated to reinforce our existing biases, we're wallowing in it by choice.

When we do need or want good information about a problem our country faces, we're ill-equipped to evaluate the worth of the information we obtain. I can't think of a single issue, after all, on which you can't find articulate, compelling commentary and plausible-sounding data to back it up. When we look for objective sources of information, we find it side-by-side with its critics' loud proclamations of the source's bias.

So it's not just that we need better information: we need to be able to trust, or to discern, that what we're getting is better information. And then we need to make sure we're not getting too much of it, or we'll be no better off.

Whoosh. Have I made the problem hard enough?

Americans need to know more

This Newsweek article, provocatively entitled "How Ignorant are Americans?", is pretty popular on The Browser right now. At first I wasn't inclined to pay it much heed: hand-wringing about American ignorance is its own cottage industry, and has been for decades. However, I finally read it and was mildly encouraged by a bit of research noted at the end of the article:
For years, Stanford communications professor James Fishkin has been conducting experiments in deliberative democracy. The premise is simple: poll citizens on a major issue, blind; then see how their opinions evolve when they’re forced to confront the facts. What Fishkin has found is that while people start out with deep value disagreements over, say, government spending, they tend to agree on rational policy responses once they learn the ins and outs of the budget.
However, that brings us to the problem of what constitutes a trusted source of information. Far too many people mistrust the news media these days, and I'm hard-pressed to argue that they're wrong. I doubt anyone can claim that his or her favorite news organization hasn't made mistakes that cast doubt on its trustworthiness. Also, no one can say whether factual errors are caused by sloppiness or bias.

A more troubling question is whether enough of us want to find trustworthy sources of information. If you believe most media observers, most of us seek out media outlets that present news slanted to reinforce our beliefs. It could be because we think we're in a culture war and we need to support our allies. It could be because we're so confused by the claims of every media outlet to be The Source Of Unbiased, Reliable Information that we've thrown up our hands and simply handed ourselves over to whatever source is least likely to insult us. Whatever the reason, this pernicious habit of balkanizing ourselves into echo chambers is a tall, perhaps unbreachable obstacle to getting to Fishkin's promised land of a well-informed population capable of determining rational responses to its problems.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Support SaveKUSF

I've been quite remiss in not reminding you to support the SaveKUSF campaign.

On 18 January 2011, the University of San Francisco sold its FM broadcasting license to the Classical Public Radio Network (CPRN), a nonprofit entity owned by the University of Southern California (USC). CPRN, in turn, adopted the staff and music of the Bay Area's last commercial classical-music station, KDFC, turning KDFC's programming noncommercial and airing it on KUSF's former frequency, 90.3 FM. This might seem a net boon for classical-music lovers, except that the range of the 90.3 FM signal is significantly less than that of KDFC's former frequency (102.1 FM). In the end, what the sale did was to reduce the availability of classical music on the air and to eliminate KUSF's programming altogether -- programming that served a far more diverse and far less well-represented set of communities.

I've discussed the issue at greater length in several entries:
(There are also a few other entries in which KUSF is mentioned tangentially; search this blog for "KUSF" if you're interested.)

What I haven't done, however, is to point you explicitly to the Web page for the SaveKUSF campaign. SaveKUSF is dedicated to stopping the still-pending sale of USF's license to CPRN.

SaveKUSF might at first glance seem to be a quixotic campaign: the FCC, to my knowledge, has never denied a license sale. However, two Petitions to Deny have been filed; the one filed by Friends of KUSF can be found online courtesy of Media Alliance. Friends of KUSF's petition details the shady way in which the transaction was carried out and the ulterior motives of CPRN's president, Brenda Barnes, who appears to be using CPRN to develop (and ultimately, one assumes, to promote) an online music service. At the very least, the fight for the license may shed some much-needed light on the backroom dealings that involved not just USC and USF, but the media conglomerate Entercom as well.

However, carrying out the legal fight against the sale of the license requires money -- a lot of it. SaveKUSF is asking everyone with an interest in preserving local, community-oriented radio to help with this fight by donating. Visit SaveKUSF to find out how to donate via PayPal or by check.

I've said before and I'll say again that KUSF's programming was worth preserving because it went beyond music: the station served a dozen or more foreign-language communities who can find such programming nowhere else on the radio dial. In addition, there were shows addressing the needs of the disabled, the theatrical community, and other groups. The capper is that KUSF also played classical music, the kind of classical music that KDFC, with its emphasis on "popular" pieces and composers, would never touch.

You can get a flavor of what KUSF was, and more importantly still is, by checking out the "KUSF in Exile" Internet stream featuring many of the programs and hosts left out in the cold on 18 January. Some of the programming is new and live; the rest is from the KUSF Archives. Go to the KUSF Archives for the link to the stream. (Many thanks to WFMU for hosting the stream, and for generally providing terrific advice and moral support to the SaveKUSF campaign.)

Halliburton fracking info, week 18

Trying to get back on the biweekly schedule of check-ins on Halliburton's fracking fluids disclosure page. There appear to have been no updates since week 14 of my vigil.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A skeptic on Libyan intervention

Foreign Policy magazine has a roundup of responses to the question, "Does the world belong inside Libya's revolution?" Most of the responses are upbeat to various degrees, applauding the Security Council for putting its united muscle behind its lofty rhetoric for once. However, Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations expresses a gloomier opinion that jibes with my own, reassuring to my ego since Zenko undoubtedly knows more about the situation than I do.
In short, while we believe we are ready to "do something" in Libya, we are having a debate over what tactics we find acceptable, rather than what strategy will succeed.
Zenko argues that the world has not done its due-diligence analysis of the Libyan situation: the U.N. resolution articulates a desired end (the protection of Libyan civilians from brutalization at the hands of Qaddafi's military) without articulating what is needed to achieve that end (e.g., no one has explained, or even considered in a serious way, whether regime change is needed).

Zenko's point is essentially the Powell Doctrine applied to the international community.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Larry Summers on bubbles

I'm pretty sure this interview with Larry Summers in The International Economy was serious ... but this statement leaves me unsure:
Bubbles lead to excessive optimism, excessively high prices of assets, and excessive creation of those assets, whether they’re factories or houses or shopping centers. Bubbles then lead to excessive borrowing against those assets.
Huh. Here I thought bubbles were created by excessive optimism, excessively high prices of assets, excessive creation of those assets, and excessive borrowing against those assets. I didn't know bubbles were the precursors of those conditions.

Professor Summers, is this the caliber of advice you gave President Obama?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

No calls, thanks

A quick piece in the New York Times cites anecdotal evidence showing that voice calls are becoming endangered beasts, at least for interactions among people with preexisting relationships.
For the most part, assiduous commenting on a friend’s Facebook updates and periodically e-mailing promises to “catch up by phone soon” substitute for actual conversation. With friends who merit face time, arrangements are carried out via electronic transmission.
Surprisingly, the piece never mentions the most common kind of phone call I get: the telemarketing cold call.

Although I grew up with the phone, I've never liked it. As Miss Manners observed in the article, "The telephone has a very rude propensity to interrupt people."

Friday, March 18, 2011

Halliburton fracking info, week 17

Actually, week 17 started this past Monday, 14 March 2011, and I should have updated the blog on week 16 anyway. Ah me, things have been busy. Sorry about that.

In any case, Halliburton's fracking fluids disclosure page appears to have no new information since last we checked in, so we've been missing nothing.

One wonders why exactly it is taking so long for Halliburton to come clean about all of its fracking formulations. The only explanation I can imagine is that the company is sanitizing the information for some reason.

Delay is not helping your reputation, Halliburton.

Stupid science writing

I'm not quite sure what to make of Wilson da Silva's opinion piece for Cosmos magazine. da Silva is the editor-in-chief of Cosmos and apparently has had more than enough of sensationalistic and misleading news coverage of the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.
Why do accidents around anything ‘nuclear’ – from the accidental release of gas no more radioactive than the air in the northern Flinders Ranges, to the leak of low-level hospital waste of used gloves and smocks – trigger such panicked coverage?
He makes some good points, noting that some coal-fired power plants emit radioactive materials that constitute "one of the largest sources of man-made radiation exposure," yet this fact never makes the news. He also notes that the panic that could be induced by all the misleading and wrong news coverage could make the situation worse for the already suffering people in the quake- and tsunami-devastated areas.

However, da Silva does himself and his viewpoint no favors by acting as though there is nothing to worry about. His determination to show that the media sensationalism is completely meritless leads him to write things like this:
In a very real sense, solar power is really just nuclear power from a distance. Ditto with wind power (winds are generated by the difference between warm air, heated by the Sun, and cool air at the poles) and wave power (largely powered by winds). Even geothermal energy has a nuclear origin, largely generated by the radioactive decay of minerals.
True statements all -- and completely beside the point.

While there may be some coverage out there that has mischaracterized the technology underlying nuclear power plants, and while I don't doubt opinion pieces have been written that raise da Silva's hackles by inveighing against nuclear power in any form, I've found the coverage to be no worse than is usual in the wake of a disaster. I certainly don't think the coverage has been so bad or misleading (outside, perhaps, of some cable news outlets) that it warrants the condescension of da Silva's attempt to put solar and wind power on the same footing as fission-based power generation.

Nuclear fission involves fuel that is harmful to living beings. Wind doesn't. Solar doesn't. (da Silva never mentions how our atmosphere protects us from the "titanic nuclear reactor" that is the sun.)

Moreover, da Silva totally ignores the fact that the design of the Daiichi power plants has been known to be more vulnerable to failure than other designs. The Times had an article to this point on 16 March, and it was not the only news outlet to report on the G.E. Mark 1's design problems.

da Silva not only asserted that the Fukushima Daiichi plant was safer than the Russian-designed Chernobyl plant, but also suggested that the Daiichi plant flat-out could not cause a disaster of Chernobyl's magnitude.
To say - as some news outlets have - that the Fukushima accident was now worse than the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, just shows how bad the coverage can get, and why people get anxious. Chernobyl was a Russian design without a containment vessel and the reactor core was exposed, on fire, and large quantities of the fuel itself released into the air.

The Japanese reactors are designed to prevent this ever happening; fuel is inside a thick steel vessel, itself within a containment structure that is specifically designed to prevent release of core materials even during an accident such as this. Also, boiling water reactors like the ones in Fukushima are cooled by water which, unlike the graphite core at Chernobyl, cannot burn.
It's not clear to me, at least, whether the containment vessels were "designed to prevent release of core materials" if their cooling systems had been damaged, as has happened at the Daiichi plant. Too, the ancillary pool of cooling water (the suppression chamber) at Reactor 2 may have been damaged, which would allow the continuous release of steam containing radioactive materials. In any case, to claim that the still-unfolding situation at the Fukushima Daiichi plant simply could not approach the magnitude of the Chernobyl disaster purely on the basis of the reactors' designs is arrogant and foolish.

Abstractly, I agree with da Silva's closing thought:
What we need to do as an advanced technical society is learn from each such calamity, so our engineers and scientists can build better and more resilient systems – bridges, buildings, roads and – yes – nuclear reactors. That’s progress. That’s science.
However, da Silva's opinion piece doesn't contribute to our self-education. It merely gives science's opponents a concrete example of how science's proponents scoff at mere mortals' legitimate concerns about uncertain situations.

Qaddafi tries to buy time

The AP headline is "Libya offers cease-fire after UN no-fly zone vote", but as the lede makes clear, Qaddafi's words may not be matching his actions:
Libya declared an immediate cease-fire Friday, trying to fend off international military intervention after the U.N. authorized a no-fly zone and "all necessary measures" to prevent the regime from striking its own people. A rebel spokesman said Moammar Gadhafi's forces were still shelling two cities.
I'm sure the rebel spokesman is telling the truth, because it makes no sense for Qaddafi to have stopped ground action.

The no-fly zone resolution would not allow the U.S. or anyone else to undertake serious offensive action against Libyan military forces. Qaddafi's army has more than enough force at its disposal to overwhelm the rebels solely using ground troops and armor. Absent aircraft (which are, admittedly, important for more than their firepower: they're often critical for reconaissance) actually being in the air, what can the rest of the world actually do against the Libyan military if no one is willing to declare war?

The only reason for Qaddafi to feel uneasy is if he suspects the Arab League is ready to intervene. I don't know if that's the case, although I don't see why it would: it would rather badly undermine the moral authority of the remaining autocratic governments in the League itself. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Syria and Iran couldn't be too happy about that prospect.

A cease-fire, even if Qaddafi honored it, wouldn't be much help at this point. Unlike other recent autocrats, he apparently has decided he has no viable exit strategy, so he's going to hold onto power until he's dead. That being the case, it's impossible to imagine he will agree to share power with anyone else, and certainly not the Libyan rebels: he would be as good as cutting his own throat. Whether he can hoodwink anyone else into believing he can be trusted to share power is a different question, though. That's where I think this cease-fire gambit is leading: to a cooling-off period for the rest of the world. If outsiders' attention can be taken away from Libya, perhaps he can quietly consolidate his power again. That possibility has to be scaring every Libyan who isn't part of the military or in Qaddafi's inner circle.

Reality TV question on SAT

The New York Times reports that some who took the SAT last Saturday were required to write an essay in response to this question:
“How authentic can these shows be when producers design challenges for the participants and then editors alter filmed scenes?”
"These shows" referred to reality TV series.

If I had taken the SAT last Saturday, my entire answer would probably have been, "Not too authentic." What more is there to say, really?

Oh I know, one can always flesh out a response: believe me, I knew how to excrete enough non-nutritive filler to make a composition of any required length. That, however, is not a skill I want the SAT testing for, nor do I wish this generation of students to develop it in response to stupid questions like this one.

What some also overlook, and this would seem to include the College Board (the organization in charge of the SAT), is that the question penalizes those kids who don't watch reality TV. There are some who don't watch any TV, in fact. (I knew a fellow who grew up without watching TV. Smart as a whip, and contrary to the stereotype you probably have in mind, quite well socialized and not at all snobbish.)

The College Board's VP of communication defended the question as being self-contained enough for any student to answer. In the strictest sense he's right: the question was preceded by a one-sentence explanation of what reality TV was.

Of course, a one-sentence definition cannot acquaint the student with the range of reality TV shows, nor provide him with concrete examples to support whatever opinion he chooses to assert. Do you think a one-sentence description of a car would give you enough context to discuss the quality of its steering if you had never driven?

So this question was banal if you watch reality TV and unanswerable if you don't. That's weirdly impressive, to come up with a question that fails in multiple contexts. But the impression left is not a good one.

UPDATE: I should have linked this piece to my earlier entry on how standardized essay tests are scored. The fate of the reality-TV essays rests almost entirely on the model of acceptable responses developed by the test scorers, and that should make all of the test-takers nervous. I know there were experimental sections of the SAT in my day, and the understanding I had was that they didn't have quite the same weight as the more established parts of the test; I wonder if that's still the case, and if the College Board considers the reality-TV question experimental.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

In praise of alone time

Over a week ago I ran across a provocatively titled piece in the Boston Globe, "The power of lonely: What we do better without other people around." A growing body of research suggests that even the most sociable and extroverted person needs to spend some time by him- or herself. Alone time fosters creativity, can aid memory, and for teenagers may be crucial to forging a self-identity.

The writer put the best spin on the studies he cited, but I'm not convinced all of them actually support his thesis. I don't need studies, though, to believe in the power of time spent by oneself -- or if not the power, at least, the need, for some of us.

"Fancy scientific terms"

A severe-weather expert on the Weather Channel, discussing what will happen to the radioactive debris emitted from the stricken Japanese nuclear reactors, characterized the term "dispersion" as a "fancy scientific term for 'dilution.'"


When did the perfectly ordinary word "dispersion" become "fancy"?

Writers created our visual grammar

Speechwriter Rob Goodman argues in an essay that the visual grammar we associate with films -- the zoom, the jump cut, etc. -- has its origins in the written word. Goodman looks in particular at the zoom, and cites three instances of the written word creating that effect in the mind's eye.

I don't know that Goodman is right, but the essay was worth reading just to hear about a fascinating 1937 novel by British author Olaf Stapledon, Star Maker.

In making his point, Goodman mentioned the children's show Blue's Clues as being notable for its use of long, continuous takes. Apparently one of the show's consulting psychologists had discovered that edits confuse young children. More about how the show was crafted for its young audience is available in an Onion A.V. Club article. It's an easy read and, for someone who found Blue's Clues oddly interesting (that is, for me), it's an informative look at why the show feels so different from shows aimed at older audiences.

NY Times introduces digital subscriptions

Email went out today to registered users from the New York Times announcing its introduction of digital subscriptions. The program was rolled out today in Canada for a shakedown trial; the rest of the world, including the United States, enter the brave new world on 28 March 2011.

The Web site will continue to offer up to twenty articles per month free to everyone; a subscription will be required to access more than that. There are more caveats, generally in the reader's favor, about readers who follow links from Facebook, Google, or certain other sites.

There are three pricing tiers, all of which include full Web access from any device:
  • iPhone, Android and Blackberry smartphone app access: $15 for 4 weeks
  • iPad and Times Reader 2.0 access: $20 for 4 weeks
  • All of the above: $35 for 4 weeks
It's telling that these tiers all assume some kind of dedicated-app access. I would seem to be out of the mainstream in not using a smartphone or iPad app to read the paper. (Out of the mainstream -- who would have guessed?)

Existing Times subscribers and registered users on will be eligible for an as-yet unspecified special offer; details on that offer (or those offers) will be available on 28 March.

More information is available at The Times's own article on the subject contains more detailed information and context.

When the Times introduced its "premium access" tier a decade or so ago, I was still hooked on the idea that I should not pay for Web content. Too, the premium content I could no longer access seemed to be mainly op-ed pieces and so wasn't that compelling to me.

Today? The world has changed somewhat, and so have I. We have far fewer well-curated and well-edited sources of information. I've come to accept that somebody has to pay for the hardworking people who bring us good information, properly contextualized.

The minimum announced price works out to around $200 a year (assuming a 52-week year). That at first blush sounded steep to me, but consider that the paper's newsstand price is $2 and the home-delivery price for my part of California is $14.80 a week (after a 6-month teaser rate of $7.40 a week).

Though my own finances are rocky right now, as I consider my monthly subscriptions, the paper is a serious contender, while cable TV, for instance, is less and less compelling.

UPDATE: I should have mentioned that subscribers to the print edition will have unlimited access, as you'd expect. From the FAQ:
Free, unlimited access is provided to all print subscribers, no matter what type of subscription you have (daily, weekday, Weekender, etc.).

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Why Frank Rich left the Times

I've spent most of the day either watching cable news coverage of the Japanese nuclear reactor crisis or monitoring behind-the-scenes developments regarding the group formerly known as KUSF volunteers. I've had quite enough drama from all sides for now.

I finally got around to reading Frank Rich's last column for the New York Times, in which he explained why he decided to leave the paper.
Safire, a master of the form, was fond of likening column writing to standing under a windmill: No sooner did you feel relief that you had ducked a blade than you looked up and saw a new one coming down. He thrived on this, but after 17 years I didn’t like what the relentless production of a newspaper column was doing to my writing. That routine can push you to have stronger opinions than you actually have, or contrived opinions about subjects you may not care deeply about, or to run roughshod over nuance to reach an unambiguous conclusion. Believe it or not, an opinion writer can sometimes get sick of his own voice.

I found myself hungering to write with more reflection, at greater length at times, in a wider and perhaps experimental variety of forms (whether in print or online), and without feeling at the mercy of the often hysterical exigencies of the 24/7 modern news cycle.
"Hysterical exigencies." Yes, that's an apt phrase.

Rich identified his great strength as an opinion writer: his ability to find "a narrative in the many competing dramas unfolding on the national stage." That ability to see a path through the weeds is what I will miss most about him, and the nation will be the poorer for the loss of his authorial eye.

I find myself gravitating to longer pieces recommended by the likes of The Browser and Longreads rather than to snippets of tech news from Hacker News or Engadget. The short "news" pieces I used to devour were like unsatisfactory tapas: I thought I'd eaten the equivalent of a full meal, but found myself hungry again a disconcertingly short time later. If Rich actually pens the promised longer pieces, I'll be eager to read them.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Perspective on Japan crisis

Patrick McKenzie blogged a piece in response to what he apparently considers the terrible English-language coverage of the Japan crisis.
Quite a lot of the reporting on Japan, including that which is scaring the heck out of my friends and family, is the equivalent of someone ringing up Mayor Daley during Katrina and saying “My God man, that’s terrible — how are you coping?”
I'm not sure I agree with McKenzie 100%, but he makes the same good point about the proper functioning of many Japanese infrastructure systems in the wake of the quake and tsunami that some aircraft-safety engineers make with regard to passengers who survive aircraft crashes: rather than considering such events miracles, we should consider them the hoped-for results of extensive safety engineering applied to those systems. Luck plays a role, but so do design and personnel training.

That said, the Mark 1 reactors currently in jeopardy in the Fukushima Daiichi plant were based on a G.E. design known to be vulnerable to precisely the kind of failure that we're seeing.

Everything at the Daiichi reactors might have worked as well as it was designed to work, but that doesn't mean the design was good enough for that plant.

Sampling CNN coverage of Japan crisis

I know this is a developing story; events are outstripping the resources of news gatherers, and I'm sure everyone at CNN is doing the best he or she can.

However, I think there's something temperamentally unsuitable about some of the people CNN, and likely Fox News and MSNBC, recruit to present the news.

Chad Myers, a "severe weather expert" for CNN, gave a brief weather overview for the area around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, where four of the six reactors have experienced extensive damage leading to emissions of radioactive steam and/or explosions that have damaged their outer shells.

I have no quibbles with Myers's meteorological skills (I'm not qualified to assess them), but I was unsettled by his inappropriate excitability.

At a time of crisis, the last thing we need is a guy raising his voice to make his points like a motivational speaker at a seminar. Add to that his (presumably inadvertent) conflation of "radiation" and "radioactive particles," and you have a fellow whose grasp of the facts at hand is in doubt.

Myers said something to the effect of, "I know you think radioactivity goes in all directions, but this dry wind is blowing everything out to sea." He apparently meant that the wind was blowing the radioactive particles suspended in the air out to sea, away from population centers.

Anyone can make a slip of the tongue. However, the people charged with presenting technical information to the audience have a special responsibility not to spread misinformation. Myers should have caught his own error, minor though it was, and corrected it. My reason for singling him out for this mistake is that I think he was too damned focused on being an animated TV presenter to pay close attention to what he was saying.

And that, in a nutshell, is what I think is wrong with so many of cable news's anchors: they're hired on the basis of how they present themselves rather than on how they present information.

Wolf Blitzer, during the same broadcast, struggled for words. This is a Blitzer trait in my experience because he's always trying to play the narrator, always wanting to be The Voice Of Authority, always searching for a poignant observation that will be the capper to whatever someone else just said (and always, seemingly, without a script). I wish Blitzer and his bosses would reconcile themselves to the fact that sometimes, all an anchor can do -- all he should do -- is to play traffic cop, moving from one correspondent or video piece to another without injecting his own insipid blather.

These people get in the way of the news because they worry they don't have anything to add. They're probably right to worry.

Nevertheless, they should worry even more that others will reach the same conclusion I have: these news presenters are too annoying to make it worth watching their newscasts at all.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Language and computing

The "On Language" feature in the New York Times ended on 25 February 2011 with a column entitled "The Future Tense." I wouldn't bother mentioning it except for columnist Ben Zimmer's offhand remarks about "Watson," the IBM supercomputer that competed on the game show "Jeopardy!"
Watson’s trouncing of the “Jeopardy!” champs Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings doesn’t mean that language processing has advanced to the point of language comprehension. The best-guess techniques Watson used never approached any deep understanding of the semantic content in the “Jeopardy!” clues. Instead, Watson crunched terabytes of data to figure out statistically likely responses to clues based in part on which words appear most often with other words in the texts it has stored.
I'm no expert in natural-language processing or artificial intelligence, but even I know that Zimmer is talking out of something other than his mouth.

We simply don't know how the human brain "comprehends." Odds are, though, that comprehension is rooted in the processing of massive amounts of data. If so, "deep understanding of semantic content" is a matter of our brains finding patterns in input data that match patterns of previously input data. In other words, our brains probably do something rather similar to Watson, albeit via parallel processing techniques we do not yet fully understand.

Zimmer made a mistake I thought had been consigned to the garbage heap of history in the eighteenth century: he assumed that humans were qualitatively different from, and superior to, the rest of the natural world. We are neither. Nor should we bewail that fact.

Peer pressure

I've finally gotten around to reading The Big Short, Michael Lewis's account of the mortgage mess and of the handful of people who saw it coming (and profited from their insight). It's a distressingly compelling story -- indeed, so far it reads more like fiction than not, though I keep reminding myself that what happened (and is still happening) was real.

Lewis often makes the point, if not in so many words, that the skeptics he profiled felt totally isolated from their peers. I've no doubt some of them were made to feel like lepers, unfit for polite Wall Street company. Yet these people were the ones to whom we all should have been paying attention.

In a totally different realm, Bob Rosenbaum writes in Slate about Major Harold Hering, one of the Air Force officers entrusted with a launch key for nuclear missiles. Hering made the mistake of taking his Air Force oath too seriously for the taste of his superiors. By the terms of that oath he felt it necessary to ask a question.
How could he know that an order to launch his missiles was "lawful"? That it came from a sane president, one who wasn't "imbalance[d]" or "berserk," as Maj. Hering's lawyer eventually, colorfully put it?
According to Rosenbaum, there's still no good answer to that question.

Hering paid heavily for his integrity.
Hering needed a lawyer because as soon as he asked the question he was yanked out of missile training class, and after two years of appeals, eventually had to leave the Air Force, trade in a launch key for the ignition keys to an 18-wheeler.
Hering did a far greater service for this country than those who shorted the mortgage-bond market did. However, they have one thing in common: they asked inconvenient questions that bucked the conventional wisdom.

They also turned out to be right.

Maybe we should be paying more attention to the contrary voices of our society instead of dismissing them out of hand.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

California tsunami inundation maps

These are not maps of where inundation has occurred, but maps projecting where inundation likely will occur. The maps were a joint project of the California Emergency Management Agency, the California Geological Survey and the University of Southern California.

It appears that the assumptions underlying the maps are described in a paper written by Richard K. Eisner, Jose C. Borrero, and Costas E. Synolakis in 2001. One assumption to note is that for simplicity's sake, the maps represent the worst-case scenarios envisioned by the authors.

Eroding North Korea's isolation

Courtesy of Longreads, a link to a lengthy piece in The Atlantic by Robert S. Boynton about the handful of dedicated souls communicating with North Koreans in defiance of Kim Jong-Il's repressive government.

Articles about North Korea generally hook me these days because it is such a bizarre specimen of a nation. Its insularity is remarkable; its government's success at indoctrinating its people while keeping them ignorant of the rest of the world is almost unbelievable.
Given this isolation, it’s even more remarkable that since 2004, a half-dozen independent media organizations have been launched in Northeast Asia to communicate with North Koreans—to bring news out of the country as well as to get potentially destabilizing information in. ... And as with all intelligence-gathering projects, their most valuable assets are human: a network of reporters in North Korea and China who dispatch a stream of reports, whether about the palace intrigue surrounding the choice of Kim Jong Il’s successor, or the price of flour in W┼Ćnsan.

... [T]hese new media organizations are helping to create something remarkable: a corps of North Korean citizen-journalists practicing real journalism inside the country.

The threat to the North Korean government arises not just from these new media organizations. Ordinary North Koreans are gaining access to technologies that let them obtain information in a variety of ways, complicating the government's job of suppression.
Across the border, as the Chinese got richer, they were trading in their Walkmans and cheap computers for iPods and computers with larger hard drives and DVD burners. And what do a billion Chinese do with their old stuff? Sell it to their poor neighbors. (A 2009 survey found that 58 percent of North Koreans had regular access to a cassette recorder with radio, and 21 percent watched videos on video-compact-disc players.)
It's dangerous for the news gatherers and news consumers alike, but these developments are probably the best chance North Korea has of rejoining the human race.

Friday, March 11, 2011

GOP wants to cut funding for NOAA

In the ironic-timing department, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives approved some $454 million in cuts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Of those cuts, $126 million would be taken from the budget of the National Weather Service, whose Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued the tsunami warnings that undoubtedly saved lives on Hawaii and the mainland.

Only a handful of people know what the real impact of the cuts would be; the rest of us only have the predictable warnings of doom from Democrats and the equally predictable assurances from Republicans that the cuts will not affect people's safety but are absolutely essential to reducing the deficit. Neither party can claim such a close relationship to the truth that its statements can be considered trustworthy.

We'll never know if the warning system that kept so many alive today would have been just as effective with a smaller budget. The problem is that deficit hawks will not step forward to say unambiguously, "Services X, Y, and Z aren't worth paying for, so we're stripping funding for them." Well, that's not entirely true: conservatives have no difficulty being quite upfront about their determination to de-fund public broadcasting and Planned Parenthood. However, that's as far as they'll go in their straight-talking.

Deficit hawks, if you want to show you're credible, you'll cut funding for programs your constituents like, too. And you'll explain to everyone why it's necessary. Otherwise you're just playing the same petty politics in which you accuse your so-called big-government foes of indulging.

Preliminary tsunami damage not too bad

... in California, that is.

According to KCBS/KPIX, the local CBS radio and TV affiliates, most of the damage has occurred in harbors, specifically, those in Crescent City (which bore the brunt of the largest tsunami in recent U.S. history back in 1964) and Santa Cruz.

As for San Francisco:
The bluffs above San Francisco’s Ocean Beach were dotted with spectators who couldn’t resist seeing the effects of the tsunami for themselves.

The sun was shining, the air was warm, and the waves seemed no more dramatic than most days, several Sunset District residents said.
So we Californians can breathe a sigh of relief, right?

Well ...

There have been aftershocks to the Honshu quake that measured magnitude 7 or better. A magnitude 7 quake is worthy of being considered a major quake on its own. A professional pessimist, as I am some days, would reflect that it's at least possible the massive 8.9 that triggered the current tsunami is itself merely a precursor to an even larger quake. That, of course, could spawn an even larger tsunami.

(I don't mean to ignore the tremendous destruction and loss of life that the quakes that have already occurred have visited on Japan. I'm just not equipped to disseminate information about Japan's plight. However, I do have a pretty good perspective on the impact of any tsunami on California, so I'm playing to my limited strengths.)

Still waiting for the tsunami

Tsunami warning still in effect for northern and central California (and Oregon, and parts of Alaska) due to the 8.9 magnitude earthquake off the coast of the Japanese island of Honshu.

So far there's no mandatory evacuation for my area. Highway 17 in the South Bay is clogged, though, as people evacuate low-lying areas of Santa Cruz; Highway 92 out of Half Moon Bay is jammed for the same reason. Ocean Beach, China Beach and the Great Highway in San Francisco are closed. Were the Cliff House open, it would be a spectacular place from which to watch whatever happens. (It's closed because it's too early, not because it has been evacuated: the building is on a cliff fifty feet or more off the beach.)

This isn't directly related, but I can't resist a bemused comment about President Obama's official statement of condolence to Japan on the horrific earthquake that spawned the tsunami. Obama called the ties between the U.S. and Japan "unshakeable." Uh, Mr. President, don't you have advisors who vet your official statements? Didn't anyone in the White House recognize how unfortunate it was to use that word in connection with an earthquoke? You don't get points for wordplay in a statement of condolence.

Tsunami warning for U.S. west coast

The magnitude 8.9 earthquake off the east coast of Honshu, Japan has triggered a tsunami warning for the coastal areas of California north of Point Concepcion north to the border between Oregon and Washington. Hawaii is due to be hit first; at this point, I believe it's supposed to happen at around 3 AM Hawaii (5 AM PST). The tsunami will reach San Francisco Bay at 8:07 AM PST.

Tsunamis are generated when large earthquakes send shock waves through ocean waters. Those shock waves travel at some 500 MPH in deep water, but are barely noticeable in mid-ocean. The trouble occurs when the shocked water approaches gradually shallower coastlines: waves slow down, allowing following waves to catch up with them. This produces new waves of greater height. When those larger, slower waves actually reach shore they may only be traveling in the tens of MPH, but the amount of water makes those slower waves push farther onto land than usual. Moreover, tsunamis are a series of those larger, slower waves.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has four levels of message it issues, ranging from information, the lowest, to warning, the highest. The warning issued to northern and central California and Oregon (and parts of Alaska) signifies "inundating wave possible." (A lower-level advisory is in place for the rest of California.)

The trouble is, the actual damage from a tsunami depends on how high the waves are when they hit shore. Tsunami height is not nearly as easy to forecast as tsunami propagation speed, and the best indicator, unfortunately, is its impact on other areas. As such, mainlanders will be watching what the waves look like in Hawaii.

For myself, I await the tsunami with some confusion and a little dread. The news (Weather Channel and CNN) has been reporting the tsunami will reach "San Francisco Bay" at 8:07, but San Francisco Bay is somewhat insulated from such large waves by virtue of the Golden Gate. The western part of San Francisco, however, like the rest of the California coastline, is pretty much open to the ocean. Being just a few miles from the beach, in theory I ought to be preparing to move to higher ground. However, the beach is a bit lower than most of the rest of the city, as you can see from a 1998 USGS elevation map of San Francisco. The question therefore is, how far will a tsunami travel inland when it has to confront an upward slope (or a series of them, as the paved streets have sculpted the landscape)?

Nobody knows. So I sit, watching cable news instead of sleeping (this is one of those times I'll violate my usual rule of staying the hell away from cable news), wondering if I'll hear the air-raid sirens in a few hours (we don't have dedicated tsunami alarms as far as I know).

Monday, March 7, 2011

"The Capitalist's Paradox," Umair Haque

Beancounters, listen up. To paraphrase Shakespeare, I come not to praise you, but to bury you. I don't care about your "strategy," "business model," "campaign," "product," or "deliverables" (sorry). All that stuff is focused on outputs. What matters to people, in contrast, are outcomes: did this bring a tiny slice of health, wealth, joy, inspiration, connection, intellect, imagination, organization, education, elevation into my life, that lasted, multiplied, and mattered to me — or was its final result merely to make me just a bit fatter, wearier, unhealthier, disconnected, dumber, duller?
I'd like to believe Haque's blog entry is more than another hackneyed "the times, they are a-changing" bit of time-wasting. I think he's groping at the edges of something quite fundamental and true: American-style capitalism has dug the United States into a deep hole, and I'm not talking only about the fiscal one that China is financing. At the risk of reinforcing the country's worst Puritanical impulses (doing so tends to play into the hands of phony, moralizing religious and political leaders whose not so subtle message is that our problems are at heart due to falling from grace with their deity), it's hard for me not to suspect that our society's singleminded devotion to satisfying the purported desires of consumers, whlle denying the absolute requirement to educate those consumers about who they are and what they really need, has produced a population that is not just fatter and less thoughtful (let's avoid the loaded words "dumb" and "stupid," words which I acknowledge are favorites of mine in this blog), but overall less interested in making things, and itself, better.

If Haque and the many others who have been crying this same unpleasant headline into the town square are right, then in order to keep things from getting worse we're going to have to break with our habits. And how exactly are 300 million people supposed to turn on a dime, especially when a lot of them probably don't see a huge systemic problem? Beats me.

(Of course, there is the possibility that Haque and I are just trying to put an acceptable face on what is essentially the same message that the aforementioned phony, moralizing religious and political leaders have been so tiresomely bleating to us for so long. Messages like this seem to be no more than ineffectual hand-wringing because they don't offer a prescription, which is kind of important when you're calling for a change in direction.)

Friday, March 4, 2011

It's not nice to harvest visitor email addresses

... especially if you're a paid service, like Angie's List.

Not knowing how Angie's List worked, I visited its site and poked around a bit. Its most valuable content is reserved for members, so I started the process to join. The process requires navigating multiple Web pages. I bailed out when I saw that members had to pay subscriptions. I have no objections to subscription services: I just wasn't that serious about my search.

"Bailing out" consisted of deleting the page from my browser, since I didn't see a "Cancel" button or link. (I've since verified that no such button or link is present.) At the time I quit out of the signup process I already had had to provide an email address. I assumed that partial signups would not commit information to the organization's databases. How trusting of me, and how foolish. I got email from Angie's List less than twenty-four hours later.

It's unethical to harvest email addresses from potential members. Period. If I haven't signed on the dotted line, you shouldn't get to bother me. I don't care how easy it is to unsubscribe (and it is quite easy in the case of Angie's List), it's unethical to harvest the contact information of people who aren't formally members.

"But you get unsolicited email all the time!" Yes, and it sucks! Aping the unsavory behavior of others doesn't make you a good person, or a good organization. (By the way, the signup process makes it terribly easy to sign some poor shnook up for unsolicited email from Angie's List. Consider that another little bonus of this scheme.)

I see no need for the Angie's List subscription process to require multiple pages except to facilitate exactly the kind of information harvesting I saw.

Angie's List, what exactly in your business model requires such unethical behavior?

There is also a grey area as regards Angie's List's privacy policy.
By entering Personal Information on the Site, you consent to our use of the Personal Information for purposes related to the Site and the services offered and/or provided on or in connection with the Site. Without limiting the foregoing, by giving us Personal Information you are giving us and third parties engaged by us permission to contact you and/or send you promotional and/or other marketing information about services and offerings.
You might notice that nowhere does it say that "you" must be a member for Angie's List to use your personal information.

Again, Angie's List, what exactly in your business model requires such unethical behavior?

Here's how an organization with a real orientation toward consumers handles its online subscription process. Consumer Reports has a prominent "Subscribe" link (more than one, actually) on its home page. If you click it, the first page explains the types of subscriptions available and has a link to a user agreement that explains the potential subscriber's rights and responsibilities. One of the first items in that user agreement is a discussion of CR's privacy policy, with a link to a much fuller discussion thereof.

All this happens before CR gets around to asking for any personal information.

Angie's List, you need to be more like Consumer Reports in how you manage the membership process. You also need to be less greedy about acquiring and using personal information.

You claim the right to rate others. Act like it. Stop harvesting personal information from nonmembers.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Penalties for mortgage mess still being sorted out

I'm not surprised, but I'm still dejected that federal regulators can't come to a consensus on how, and how much, to punish lenders who botched the mortgages they issued.

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency apparently feels that only a few people have been hurt by lenders' botched paperwork and failure to follow the rules.
The acting comptroller of the currency, John Walsh, testified last week that while there were widespread problems with documentation and oversight of law firms and other crucial links in the foreclosure chain, only a “small number of foreclosure sales should not have proceeded.”
"Only a handful of people are known to have been sickened by the bad meat from the factory, so we shouldn't worry too much about the filth and excessive speed of the processing line."

Look, I'll agree that using whatever fines are assessed against culpable lenders to help out struggling borrowers is a bad idea. (It has been floated in policy circles as a way to combat the sluggish housing market and to reduce the number of foreclosures. It's also an idea that faces "fierce opposition from the banks.") It connects two problems that are logically independent and should remain separate from one another: the deliberate or careless failure by lenders to follow proper procedure when processing mortgages, and the fact that a borrower can't keep up with the required mortgage payments. In the absence of evidence that the lender knew the borrower wouldn't be able to keep up with payments, not keeping up with payments is deeply regrettable but it's not the lender's fault. (I have no doubt that some lenders did lend to people the lenders knew wouldn't be able to repay, but proving that is a tough job.)

However, the idea of glossing over the lenders' failure to comply with the law is offensive. Lenders are the ones foreclosing on homeowners using the full force of the law: it's elementary justice that those lenders should be held fully responsible for following the law themselves. The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency is simply flat-out wrong in attempting to paper over their misdeeds. Since, according to the Times article, jail time for anyone involved is off the table, it's time to hit lenders in the only other way they'll understand: we need to soak them, and soak them well.

"A Declaration of Cyber-War," Michael Joseph Gross

The April issue of Vanity Fair will include a lengthy piece on what is known and suspected about the Stuxnet worm.

Subject matter experts will find parts of the article a little irksome (what exactly is a "stolen" digital signature, for instance? Does it refer to a document signed with a stolen private key?), but if cops and doctors can cope with the absurdities of how their lives are dumbed down for the rest of us on TV, well, infosec types can develop coping strategies too.

Much of what is "known" about Stuxnet is actually informed speculation, the product of analysts' suspicions as to how Stuxnet's construction and behavior fit the supposed goals of certain nations. (That the worm must have been the product of a government rather than a band of crackers seems to be the consensus.) Informed speculation, a step above wild-ass guessing, to use a favorite colloquialism of a former colleague, makes for an entertaining read, but it's a dangerous guide to the future, whether it's the future to fear or the future to embrace.

Putting it less nebulously, Gross tells a good story, but it behooves us to remember that much of what he's telling us is guesswork. The experts whose insights he shares might be right in every detail, but we don't know that (yet). We would do well to remind ourselves of this if Stuxnet is used to sell us on some exotic strategy to combat information warfare, or whatever they're calling it these days.

That said, I do agree with one of Gross's conclusions.
In the end, the most important thing now publicly known about Stuxnet is that Stuxnet is now publicly known. That knowledge is, on the simplest level, a warning: America’s own critical infrastructure is a sitting target for attacks like this.
I've said as much before. And note that it didn't require a Stuxnet to trigger a lot of trouble in that critical infrastructure in 2003.

Recycling fracking water is not without risks

So you heard your natural-gas driller was recycling its wastewater. Sounds like a great idea. One company is so giddy at the thought, in fact, it's ignoring common sense and the laws of physics:
“Water recycling is a win-win,” one drilling company, Range Resources, says on its Web site. “It reduces fresh water demand and eliminates the need to dispose of the water.”
No, eventually the water does need to be disposed of by someone, somewhere. Perhaps Range Resources' Webmeister should check with one or two of the company's engineers before making stupid proclamations like that.

Still, reusing the wastewater can only help reduce the operation's impact on the environment, right?
But drilling experts say that virtually all forms of recycling still result in liquid waste that can be more toxic than it was after the first use.

“The wastewater that comes up from the well will likely increase to some degree in many contaminants such as salts and possibly radium and other radionuclides with each new fracking, but the data is very limited on this issue so not much is known,” said Radisav Vidic, an environmental engineering professor and drilling expert at the University of Pittsburgh. “There needs to be more data on this.”
As Homer Simpson would say, "D'oh!"

Unfortunately the natural gas drillers have been extraordinarily successful at keeping government regulations and monitoring off their back.
In late 2009, for example, officials from an industry trade group, the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Association, wrote to regulators to confirm that drilling waste, regardless of how it was handled, would remain exempt from the federal law governing hazardous materials. The association said it was asking in case companies sought to distill the waste into salts for de-icing roads.

... [F]ederal regulators informed the industry that their exemption remained intact, a decision that association officials quickly passed on to their members. State regulators declined to comment on the exchange because it concerns a federal, not state, exemption. Federal officials said the salts were regulated by the states.
Drilling waste being exempted from hazardous-waste legislation ... that's crazy enough. Then we have the risible image of state and federal regulators pointing at one another in a game of hot-potato. No, wait, "risible" is not the right word: there is nothing in the least funny about this situation. We're back to "crazy."

UPDATE: What happens to the fracking water when the driller finally wants to dispose of it? I wrote an entry about that. The bottom line: nobody is interested in regulating disposal, either.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Frank Rich leaving the New York Times

The New Tork Times is losing columnist Frank Rich to New York Magazine, according to the Times' own Media Decoder.
Mr. Rich will write a column once a month and become editor at large of a new section built around his column. The magazine said he would also be a commentator on its Web site,, “engaging in regular dialogues on the news of the week.”
It sounds like they rolled out the red carpet for Rich. Well, good for him. He became my favorite Times columnist because he knows how to pull seemingly disparate threads together to tell important stories. Just as importantly, he doesn't parrot anybody's party line.

The Times needed more columnists like Rich: now they have none. I only hope that Rich's voice continues to have the same impact on the national debate. The Times is a pretty wonderful platform from which to be seen; I don't know if New York Magazine has as large or as national an audience.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

R.I.P. Peter J. Gomes

With a twinge of sadness I read of the passing of the Reverend Peter J. Gomes.

At Harvard, he was the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at the School of Divinity and the Pusey Minister of Memorial Church, a nondenominational center of Christian life on campus. For decades, he was among the first and the last to address undergraduates, greeting arriving freshman [sic] with a sermon on hallowed traditions, and advising graduating seniors about the world beyond the sheltering Harvard Yard.

I was lucky enough to be one of those seniors a number of years ago. Being irreligious even then, I wasn't inclined to attend Rev. Gomes's Senior Class Chapel Service, as it is called today (I could swear the address went by a different title back then, but my memory could be playing tricks on me). A friend convinced me to make the trek to Memorial Church, pointing out that I'd never get a second chance to experience anything commencement-related.

It was a masterful performance. Even then Rev. Gomes had performed such services often enough that he knew how to hold his audience in the palm of his hand.

The heart of his address was an admonition to his proud, confident audience. Harvard graduates, he reminded us, had been trying their hardest for over three centuries to make the world a better, kinder, gentler place. Look around you, he added dryly, it doesn't seem to have made much of a difference. He urged us to take a different tack: instead of striving to understand the world (implicit in his words was the addendum, "and conquer it"), we should strive to have a heart full of understanding. Intellectual understanding should make room for emotional (and perhaps in Rev. Gomes's mind, spiritual) understanding.

I have never forgotten that admonition. I must admit that I've never lived up to it, either, but at least I have never stopped trying.

It seems Rev. Gomes was in the habit of toning down the grandiose ambitions of his soon-to-be-graduated audiences. According to the Harvard Gazette's coverage of the 2010 commencement exercises:

He cautioned the students against striving for the kind of greatness that is too often tied to a drive simply to achieve. Instead, Gomes urged the graduating class to aim, above all, for goodness.

Gomes acknowledged that some listeners may perform great deeds, such as finding a cure for cancer or a “sensible way of explaining the economy,” and that he would be grateful for their successes. But he suggested that most of the graduates would simply be “called upon to do small and ordinary things as well as possible.”

Gomes added, “If you do that well, you will have remade our world and your little corner of it, you will have justified our high hopes in you, and you will have given substance to the ancient vision for a new heaven and a new Earth.”

I have forgotten much from my college days, but Rev. Gomes's advice lingers. Perhaps that is only natural, for where most of my education touched on matters of the mind which no longer are relevant to my daily life, his words were about the human heart.

Brief thoughts about Libya

The sitations are in no way parallel, but for some reason I keep imagining Muammar el-Qaddafi winding up just like Benito Mussolini. Couldn't happen to a more deserving fellow.

While Libya's turmoil is a tragedy, non-Arabic readers can at least derive a moment of levity contemplating the many ways of transliterating the Libyan dictator's name.