October 31, 2009

Twitter evolution

Filed under: Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:12

When I first heard of Twitter, I didn’t get it. The benefits were not clear, and the drawbacks — following everyone else’s dinner menus, lunch dates, appointments, and daily routine — seemed like a minor purgatory for me.

At the last company I was working for as a full-time employee, it was mandated that managers join Twitter and (at a minimum) follow the other managers/team leads. After a few weeks, I branched out from the mandate and started following other, non-work related, Twitterers. It’s been a great source of potential blogging material, providing me with useful and interesting links. 140 characters doesn’t seem so limiting, now that I’ve discovered how useful even that short a string can be.

What Wired characterizes as “mob rule” is actually a very useful service. I now wonder how I managed to find blogworthy material without it.

Last August, the people who putatively run Twitter — the small crew that three years ago launched the world’s fastest-growing communications medium — announced a relatively minor change in the way the site functions. The tweak would have a small effect on retweeting, the convention by which Twitter users repost someone else’s informative or amusing message to their own Twitter followers. Retweets start with RT, for “retweet,” and usually cite the first author by user ID. And, importantly, retweeters often add a word or two of commentary about the repeated content.

But there was a problem: Twitter itself didn’t invent retweeting; it was created by Twitter users. In a blog post explaining the changes to retweets, the company’s second-in-command, Biz Stone, called them “a great example of Twitter teaching us what it wants to be.” The good news, he said, was that Twitter was building retweets right into the site’s architecture. The bad news was that Project Retweet didn’t make any provision for the commentary that users might like to add.

It didn’t take long for Twitter users to respond: How dare Twitter mess with . . . Twitter. A self-described “social, search, and viral marketing scientist” named Dan Zarrella posted a passionate cri de coeur, writing that Twitter was about to “completely eviscerate most of the value out of retweets.” That night, Zarrella created a Twitter hashtag — another grassroots Twitter convention, which lets users group their conversations — called #saveretweets. A few tweeters liked the plan, but the general consensus was summed up by one user skilled in Twitter’s uncompromising brevity: “Very bad plan we hates it.”

Bosworth Field located, finally

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:06

It may be surprising, but the actual location of Bosworth Field, “one of the four most important battles in English history” was only definitely identifed this year:

Just after midday yesterday, Glenn Foard stood on Ambion Hill in Leicestershire, next to the award-winning Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre, pointed at the distant church spire of Stoke Golding and declared an end to 500 years of arguments over the location.

“It’s over there, two miles away,” he said, beyond and below the church, off to the right a bit and spread over 250 acres of what is now flat farmland, crisscrossed by hedgerows, pasture and autumnal trees.

Mr Foard, a battlefield archaeologist who has led a four-year, £1.3 million investigation into the whereabouts of the fighting, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Leicestershire County Council, is convinced that he has unearthed the proof.

In an unexpected and thrilling development for the archaeologists, that proof is in the form of 22 lead cannon and musket balls that dramatically reshape thinking about late medieval combat.

October 30, 2009

“Then we seize Canadian power plants near Niagara Falls, so they freeze in the dark”

Filed under: Cancon, History, Military, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 13:53

OMG! US invasion plans target Halifax, Montreal, Winnipeg . . . and Sudbury?

The United States government does have a plan to invade Canada. It’s a 94-page document called “Joint Army and Navy Basic War Plan — Red,” with the word SECRET stamped on the cover. It’s a bold plan, a bodacious plan, a step-by-step plan to invade, seize and annex our neighbor to the north. It goes like this:

First, we send a joint Army-Navy overseas force to capture the port city of Halifax, cutting the Canadians off from their British allies.

Then we seize Canadian power plants near Niagara Falls, so they freeze in the dark.

Then the U.S. Army invades on three fronts — marching from Vermont to take Montreal and Quebec, charging out of North Dakota to grab the railroad center at Winnipeg, and storming out of the Midwest to capture the strategic nickel mines of Ontario.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy seizes the Great Lakes and blockades Canada’s Atlantic and Pacific ports.

At that point, it’s only a matter of time before we bring these Molson-swigging, maple-mongering Zamboni drivers to their knees! Or, as the official planners wrote, stating their objective in bold capital letters: “ULTIMATELY TO GAIN COMPLETE CONTROL.”

Old news indeed, but still of historical interest. The plans in the other direction were held in Defence Scheme No. 1:

Lt. Colonel Brown himself did reconnaissance for the plan, along with other lieutenant-colonels, all in plainclothes. These missions took place from 1921 and 1926. As historian Pierre Berton noted in his book Marching as to War, these investigations had “a zany flavour about it, reminiscent of the silent comedies of the day.” To illustrate this, Berton quoted from Brown’s reports, in which Brown recorded, among other things, that in Burlington, Vermont the people were “affable” and thus unusual for Americans; that Americans drink significantly less alcohol than Canadians (this was during Prohibition), and that upon pointing out that to Americans, one responded “My God! I’d go for a glass of beer. I’m going to ‘Canady’ to get some more”; that the people of Vermont would only be serious soldiers “if aroused”; and that many Americans might be sympathetic with the British cause.

Even CBS News has difficulty with the “jobs saved or created” claims

Filed under: Economics, Government, Politics, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 13:02

The formula for deciding how many jobs are created or saved doesn’t come close to passing the giggle test:

When the WH demanded that those who received Spendulus money “report” back on how many jobs were “saved or created,” they insisted upon a nonsensical rule: If a single dollar of Spendulus was spent on an employee’s salary, whether that employee was a new employee or an old one, that gets counted as a job “saved or created.” If he’s a new employee, that job was created. If he’s an existing employee, that job was saved.

For $1.

Yes, $1. Because the nonsensical rules the White House told these people to count “saved or created” jobs by simply stated: If any employee’s salary is paid, in whole or in part (any part!), count that as a job “saved or created” by the spending.

And then report that number back to us.

Note that the White House’s rules do not seek to discover which jobs really were “saved or created.” To come to that conclusion, one would need a set of more rigorous rules — which excluded some jobs from the “saved or created” category, rather than attempting to include them all under that rubric.

The criteria for deciding are so unrealistic that it would be possible to claim that 787 billion jobs were saved or created . . . and it would be valid under the reporting formula.

Cory Doctorow on Britain’s ill-advised ‘3 strikes’ move

Filed under: Britain, Law, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 12:39

Cory Doctorow would have the British government do something other than their idiotic ill-advised move to enforce the “three strikes” rule:

Peter Mandelson’s proposal to disconnect the families of internet users who have been accused of file sharing will do great violence to British justice without delivering any reduction in copyright infringement. We’ve had 15 years of dotty entertainment industry proposals designed to make computers worse at copying. It’s time that we stopped listening to big content and started listening to reason.

Since 1995 — the year of the WIPO copyright treaties — the entertainment industry has won extrajudicial powers to enforce its rights without the need to prove a case in court. “Notice and takedown”, as the system was called, was supposed to stop copyright infringement on the web. It gave rights holders the power to compel internet service providers to take down material simply by stating that it infringed their rights, and obliged those providers to act or face liability.

A decade and a half later there is no indication that this has reduced copyright infringement online (certainly there is more today than there was in 1995). And, predictably, a system that allows for legalised censorship without penalties for abuse has itself been abused.

We are already at the point where it is a reasonable and sensible thing to say that access to the internet is a human right (at least in the west). Mandelson’s three strikes provision will deny innocent people access to the internet (for all it will take is accusations that do not need to have proof), which for more and more people will be the practical equivalent of being exiled from the country. No internet access would mean children can’t get access to school work, parents can’t get access to their bank accounts, and everyone will be cut off from large parts of their social circle (more and more people depend on email, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media to stay in touch).

Due process? That seems to have been lost in the rush. Proportionality? That’s been gone for years.

Tweet of the day: Expensive food

Filed under: Economics, Humour — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 12:25

Stephen Fry: A spoonful of paté de campagne Ardéchois à l’ancienne is not really that far distant from a spoonful of catfood. Just notably more expensive

Justice is (belatedly) served

Filed under: Law, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 12:07

A short summary from The Guardian:

The Pennsylvania supreme court has dismissed thousands of juvenile convictions issued by a judge charged in a corruption scandal.

The high court today threw out more than five years worth of cases heard by former Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella. He is charged with accepting millions of dollars in kickbacks to send youths to private detention centres.

The court says that all the convictions are tainted and that the youths may not be retried.

This is very good news for the young people who were railroaded . . . one wonders if a class action lawsuit can now be prepared against the state for the wrongful imprisonment?

Green Berets to combat-test latest wearable military computer gear

Filed under: Military, Technology — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 09:05

Although the Land Warrior program was officially cancelled in 2007, the US Army is still actively working on making better technology available to troops in the field. The next phase will be equipping a Special Forces unit:

In the US military, the term “Special Forces” isn’t generic as it is in the UK — it refers specifically to US Army Special Forces, aka the Green Berets (as distinct from Navy SEALs, Delta Force, Rangers, Marine Force Recon etc etc, all generically grouped as “special operations forces”). If the report is accurate, then, it’s Army Special Forces who will get the new Land Warrior.

The Green Berets, while undeniably frightfully elite, are “Tier Two” specwar people, not “Tier One” like Delta Force, the best of the best. The Berets are the rest of the best, as it were.

For supertrooper use, the Land Warrior’s ordinary radio networking will apparently be upgraded to include satellite comms. Every operator will carry it, rather than just team leaders as in line units, and reportedly there will be a new and improved GUI as well. The kit is expected to weigh about the same as the 7lb sets now in use by the 5th SBCT.

October 29, 2009

Rand’s cultural impact

Filed under: Economics, Liberty, Media — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 14:31

Andrew Corsello tries to exorcise the ghost of Ayn Rand:

A weirdly specific thing happens with the books of Ayn Rand. It’s not just the what of the books, but when a reader discovers them — almost always during the first or second year of college. Rand grabs a reader at a time of maximum vulnerability and malleability, when he’s getting his first accurate sense of how he measures up in the world in terms of intellect and talent. The longing to regard oneself as misunderstood and underrated can be powerful; the temptation to project oneself as such, irresistible. But how? How to stand above and apart?

Enter Howard Roark, the heroic and misunderstood architect, square of jaw and Asperger-ish of mien, who at the end of The Fountainhead blows up his own masterpiece after a bunch of sniveling “parasites” and “second-handers” tinker with the blueprints.


Then enter Atlas Shrugged‘s John Galt, the heroic and misunderstood engineer, square of jaw and Asperger-ish of mien, who, after persuading “men of talent” to retreat to his Colorado aerie while the country goes to seed (in order to show the “mediocrities” left behind what life is like without their betters), delivers a 35,000-word speech decrying bureaucrats and regulators.


Finally, enter Objectivism, the name Rand gave to her moral defense of “reason,” individualism, and unfettered capitalism.


And hats off to Nick Gillespie for the best quote in the article:

“In terms of literary influence, only Kerouac compares,” says Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of Reason.com and Reason.tv (offshoots of Reason, the libertarian magazine founded in 1968 by a Randian). Pointing out that Atlas Shrugged and On the Road were both published in 1957, he adds, “Kerouac has had a more diffuse influence on American culture. He created a broad-based conception of what was cool and hip. Rand hasn’t brushed the culture as widely. She touches individuals — immensely and deeply. It’s useful to think about her impact in terms of Catcher in the Rye, another novel of individuation. Everyone agrees it’s beautifully written, but it’s losing its grasp on the public imagination. Same with Catch-22. Yossarian was a perfect antihero for the ’60s generation, but does anybody give a shit about him now? Or about Portnoy? A few days ago, I was watching an old clip of Andrew Dice Clay’s stand-up act from 1987. He made a joke about jerking off into a liver, and no one in the audience knew what he was talking about. Think about that. You can still make Howard Roark jokes that play, but it’s been at least twenty years since you could do that with Portnoy. Portnoy’s dead. Philip Roth is a great writer, but his signature character has had far less purchase on the collective imagination than Galt or Roark. No matter what you think of Rand, there’s no denying that the woman just swings a really big dick.”

Amtrak: still losing $32 per passenger on every trip

Filed under: Economics, Government, Railways, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 12:52

Amtrak would not survive without federal government subsidy, as most people already know. What you may not have realized is just how much taxpayers subsidize every rider:

The Pew Charitable Trusts SubsidyScope Project has just released a new report that finds 41 out of Amtrak’s 44 routes lose money. The losses ranged from nearly $5 to $462 per passenger, depending upon the line, and averaged $32 per passenger. According to the report:

The line with the highest per passenger subsidy — the Sunset Limited, which runs from New Orleans to Los Angeles — carried almost 72,000 passengers last year. The California Zephyr, which runs from Chicago to San Francisco, had the second-highest per passenger subsidy of $193 and carried nearly 353,000 passengers in 2008. Pew’s analysis indicates that the average loss per passenger on all 44 of Amtrak’s lines was $32, about four times what the loss would be using Amtrak’s figures: only $8 per passenger. (Amtrak uses a different method for calculating route performance).

The Northeast Corridor has the highest passenger volume of any Amtrak route, carrying nearly 10.9 million people in 2008. The corridor’s high-speed Acela Express made a profit of about $41 per passenger. But the more heavily utilized Northeast Regional, with more than twice as many riders as the Acela, lost almost $5 per passenger.

An appreciation of Norm Abrams . . . and a hearty damnation of ‘Reality TV’

Filed under: Media, Woodworking — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 12:19

By way of a Twitter update from Gerard van der Leun, an entertaining post from Sippican that combines a farewell to TV woodworking great Norm Abrams and a nicely judged condemnation of that modern atrocity called “Reality Television”.

Norm Abram is the penultimate example of true “Reality TV.” He made real things, and encouraged others to do so. No pretense. Not a scam. The balloon boy’s father will get his 15 minutes, but being part of Katie Couric’s nightly geeks and freaks sideshow act is a virtual reality, it’s not real real. He’ll get a book deal or an ankle bracelet, maybe both, but he literally contributes nothing to the sum total of the world’s worth. If you count up just the Twitter time he wasted, which is all waste anyway, he was the most destructive force on planet Earth for a week. But you didn’t have to look. I didn’t. You can’t even dissect him as an example of a media frenzy, because there’s no rhyme or reason to it. It’s all just stupid.

“Reality TV” is an absurd concept to people that live in the real world of work and worry. They get reality every day, they don’t need a faux one to amuse themselves. Cubicle-bound endomorphs think a contest that looks like figuring out a subway map, a bus schedule, and an airport tote board is an “Amazing Race.” Catching a trolley is not a bloodsport, no matter how heavy your backpack full of energy bars is. Adults going camping while participating in activities too silly and sedentary for an overweight child’s summer camp, with office politics thrown in, hardly makes them a “Survivor.” I’m told that when you’re all done watching all this onTV, you’re going to weave your own clothes and barter with your next-door neighbor, the grizzly bear, with Kruggerands. Sure you are.

There actually is one hint of unreality to Norm. The workshop isn’t his; not many people know that. It belongs to the producer of the show. Norm, as successful as he is, has been dragging his ass to the factory every day as if he was just another schlub.

Another non-surprise development in Britain

Filed under: Britain, Bureaucracy, Law — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 07:58

You can’t be a proper Nanny State without properly trained nannies:

Only council-vetted “play rangers” are now allowed to monitor youngsters in two adventure areas in Watford while parents must watch from outside a perimeter fence.

The Watford Borough Council policy has been attacked as insulting and a disgrace by furious relatives who say they are being labelled as potential paedophiles.

Of course, like all such idiotic measures, it’s intended to “protect the children”, so no rational thought is welcome on the subject. All across Britain today, local councils are suddenly wondering if they should adopt the same kind of policy for fear of being held responsible should anything happen.

The Daily Telegraph disclosed on Tuesday how employers will come under pressure to register staff with the Government’s anti-paedophile database even if they have little contact with children

Sir Roger Singleton, the chairman of the Independent Safeguarding Authority, said the scope of the planned database could increase significantly because companies would fear losing business if they did not have their employees vetted.

Last month, he was asked by the Government to look again at the complex definitions of “frequent” and “intensive” contact following concerns that the scheme would lead to state supervision of all relationships between adults and children.

It may not be the intent, but it will almost certainly be the final result.

Property overgrown? Send in the goats

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Economics, Environment — Tags: — Nicholas @ 07:48

Mark Frauenfelder looks at an old-fashioned way to cut back the undergrowth — rent a flock of goats:

GOOD reports on the Seattle-based Rent-a-Ruminant organization that hires out goats to people who want to clear brush on their property.

[R]ather than spending tons of money and time on diesel-powered machines, filing the proper permits, and administering dangerous herbicides, the Seattle-based Rent-a-Ruminant organization will loan your a team of 100 goats for all your brush-clearing needs — all at a very modest rates. As Serious Eats explains, the benefits of goats are numerous: they eat just about anything, they can work on uneven ground, you don’t need permits to use them, and they can clear a quarter-acre in about three days.

There are many ways to destroy a neighbourhood

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, Law — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 07:36

Chicago is contemplating one of the more effective ones:

Breaking down communities by creating incentives for friends and neighbors to betray one another is a much more effective tool in developed nations with less salient cultural cleavages a ruler can exploit. Creating distrust in society increases the public’s demand for government and reduces our ability to create (market and non-market) voluntary institutions to compete with government. If we think our neighbors are out to get us, we’re less likely to want to deal with them on a voluntary basis and more likely to demand they be controlled by government. Destroying community is good for government.

The Chicago city government seems to have realized this. It is considering a “Tax Whistleblower Program” which would pay people to rat on “tax cheats.” Grassers will most likely be paid a percentage of back taxes collected. The city officials are claiming that it’s “just another way of bringing people into compliance.” No doubt it will be an effective one too, since community can be a fragile thing.

All it takes is one neighbourhood busybody being financially rewarded for squealing on the guy down the street. Everything tends to snowball as trust evaporates and everyone starts to view their neighbours as potential threats.

Sometimes better technology can lead to trouble

Filed under: Middle East, Military, Politics — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 07:20

In this case, along the not-fully-marked borders of Saudi Arabia:

In the last few weeks, tensions have been rising between Saudi Arabian border guards and Yemeni tribesmen who live along the border. The source of the tension is a fence that the Saudis are building. The problem is that neither country has agreed on exactly where the border is. Moreover, the tribesmen do not want a fence blocking their way, as the border has never been recognized by the tribes that live astride it. The big problem is that Saudi Arabia’s land borders are mostly sand. The dunes keep moving as the winds blow this way and that. Historically, the local warlords used the few obvious landmarks to establish a vague border. But now there is GPS, and most countries in Arabia are ready to establish precise borders. The problem is that each country has a different idea of where the real border, as precisely marked by GPS, is.

The negotiations proceed, but the tribesmen living astride the border are often not willing to negotiate. In that case, force must be used. But first, both nations involved have to agree to apply force. That is not a problem on the Yemen border, because those Yemeni tribesmen that have been shooting at the Saudi fence builders, are already at war with the Yemeni army. But throughout Arabia, there will be more disputes like this, probably for decades, until all the borders are agreed on.

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