September 30, 2010

QotD: Unintended consequences

Filed under: Economics, Media, Politics, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 13:42

Sometimes I think of the political blogosphere as a huge commons. An individual blogger can gain in readership or influence by attacking or ridiculing some enemy, but at the cost of making that enemy stronger in the world as a whole.

I also believe that every time the words “stimulus” or “fiscal policy” are blogged it helps the electoral prospects of the Republican Party, no matter what the content of the blog post.

Tyler Cowen, “Department of Unintended Consequences”, Marginal Revolution, 2010-09-28

It’s Banned Books week

Filed under: Books, Liberty, Media, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 12:53

Patricia Wrede had some disturbing discoveries when she tried to look up book banning incidents for a panel discussion:

[. . .] I told them about the teacher who almost got fired when a parent objected to her reading Calling on Dragons in her classroom, because “it taught witchcraft!” I mentioned the fellow YA author who was disinvited from a school visit (these are day-long programs where an author talks to several classes worth of kids and usually has lunch with the teachers, and for some YA authors, they contribute a goodly chunk to their income) because a parent noticed a title on her extensive bibliography that “sounded occult” (it was a mystery, with not a whiff of the supernatural anywhere in the text). I pointed out the well-publicized attempts to suppress the Harry Potter books (the series is #1 on the ALA’s top ten most challenged books of the decade for 2000-2009), and a few less-well-publicized attempts to remove from school shelves things like The Wizard of Oz (because Dorothy is too independent and solves her own problems), The Lord of the Rings (because it is “Satanic”), and Grimm’s Fairy Tales (because the stories are “too violent”).

None of this was, I thought, stop-the-presses news — certainly not to anyone who writes fantasy. But the other writers at the table were shocked all over again. One of them happened to be on the program committee for the regional conference, and she went home and put the panel together.

When she asked me to be on the panel, I immediately said yes, and then I went off to the internet to do some research. I wanted some examples that would hit closer to home. I found quite a lot, but as I looked through the web sites, I noticed something interesting. I live in Minnesota. All of the descriptions of book-banning incidents in Minnesota were from the websites of organizations based in distant states: Florida, Texas, Washington D.C., Georgia.

So I poked a little more. There were quite a few local web sites publicizing Banned Books Week, and all of them did indeed have descriptions of surprising book-banning incidents. Incidents that took place in other states, like Texas, Georgia, and California.

Even rustlers are going vegetarian

Filed under: Europe, France, Law, Wine — Tags: — Nicholas @ 08:01

The scourge of the old west (at least in TV and movie representations) were cattle rustlers. Their modern counterparts are apparently grape rustlers:

Thieves in France have broken into a vineyard and stolen an entire crop of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, say police.

They struck in Villeneuve-les-Beziers on Sunday night, taking advantage of a full moon and using a harvesting machine to seize 30 tonnes of the crop.

Farmer Roland Cavaille said similar crimes had taken place before in the Languedoc-Roussillon, one of France’s best-known wine growing regions.

He said the theft amounted to a year’s work and about 15,000 euro (£12,900).

“They used a harvesting machine to gather grapes. This means there was no need to have lots of people, two people would have been enough,” Mr Cavaille told Le Parisien newspaper.

“The area was quite isolated, it is a a few kilometres from the village and near a river. So the thieves were able to work safely.”

I’m sure there’s a joke in there about sour grapes, but I’m not clever enough to put it together.

Inter-service rivalry now compromising SAS training

Filed under: Britain, Bureaucracy, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 07:50

Of all the various famous units the British have to boast of, surely the Special Air Service (SAS) is the top of the list. That status still doesn’t exempt the SAS from being a pawn in the ongoing battle between the Army and the RAF:

For five years now, the Royal Air Force (RAF), and the British Army have been feuding over the lack of aircraft for parachute training. The latest row involves Britain’s SAS (Special Air Service) commandos, who have been unable to train all their operators in complex parachuting techniques, because the RAF has been unable to provide transports to carry the SAS personnel into the air. This is considered a more serious matter than previous problems with not having enough transports to train members of the Parachute Regiment. The SAS threatens to send their operators to the United States for training, relying on long standing ties with their American counterparts (the U.S. Army Special Forces and SOCOM). This would be embarrassing for the RAF, and that would be the point.

This sort of feud has been going on for a long time. For example, four years ago it was revealed that the British Army had to decide between supplying its troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and providing aircraft for its paratroopers to complete their training. As a result of this shortage, in 2005, only about 25 percent of paratroop trainees were able to make the required jumps, to become qualified parachutists. Back in 2003, 93 percent were able to successfully make their jumps. In addition to the morale boost, being a qualified paratrooper also gets you an extra $3,000 a year in bonus pay.

The RAF, rather like the US Air Force, has different priorities than the other services, and clearly doesn’t value their inter-operational harmony as highly as controlling the equipment and doctrine to support their own mission (as defined by air force commanders). This isn’t a new thing: it’s been going on since the first world war. It also shows a failure of leadership on the civilian side — the civilian bosses should be much more insistent on getting the overall mission done properly than in allowing these turf wars (cloud wars?) to interfere.

Censorship and blocking ineffective, says AK Zensur

Filed under: Britain, Europe, Germany, Law, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:41

Attempts to block websites showing child pornography don’t appear to be as effective as direct action, according to a press release from the German Working Group against Access Blocking and Censorship (AK Zensur):

Internet blocking is advocated as an allegedly effective measure against the proliferation of child abuse images. Countries such as the United Kingdom, Sweden and Denmark have been using this technology for years. But a practical test by the German Working Group against Access Blocking and Censorship (AK Zensur) in cooperation with European civil rights advocacy groups has shown: Internet blocking does not fight abuse, in practice it only serves to conceal the failures of politics and police. Websites can remain on blocking lists for years even though they have either been deleted or could be deleted easily and quickly.

How is this possible, and what could be done against illegal sites? Answers are given by a new analysis of current blocking lists from Sweden and Denmark by the Working Group against Access Blocking and Censorship. The group developed software to select, categorise and geo-locate 167 blocked Internet domains as a representative sample of websites blocked in Denmark at the time of the investigation. “The result is a smack in the face of law enforcement authorities”, says Alvar Freude of the Working Group. “Of the 167 listed sites, only three contained material that could be regarded as child pornography.” Two of these three sites had been blocked in Denmark since 2008, and these are, or least were, blocked in Sweden, Norway and Finland as well. These sites were therefore known for at least two years in several countries, and apparently law enforcement authorities did nothing to try and get this illegal content removed.

This is even more disturbing because the Working Group managed to take down the remaining sites just by sending a few emails. Two of the sites were hosted in the USA, and even during the weekend (Friday, ca. 10 p.m. EDT) they were removed by the hosters within 30 minutes. On the following Tuesday, the third website was taken down by its registry in India, three hours after notification. The content was stored on a server in the Netherlands. “The removal of this dehumanising content and the pursuit of the perpetrators must have absolute priority. Internet Blocking leads to the exact opposite”, says Alvar Freude, who sent the take-down requests.

H/T to BoingBoing for the link.

Chopping off the “long tail” of Google searches?

Filed under: Economics, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 07:29

For your daily contrarian view of the wonderfulness of Google’s new Instant Search feature, we turn to SmoothSpan:

The Internet is a Mighty Echo Chamber, and with one fell swoop, Google Instant Search has added a big ole’ Marshall Stack to turn the Echo levels all the way up to 11.

Google reports that Instant Search will save 350 million hours of user time per year. What isn’t reported is how it will cut off the Long Tail where it starts by promoting banal sameness for searchers. This is great for Google. After all, keeping up with every last oddball search someone may want to do costs them more infrastructure money. At their scale, it is significant. So, corralling everyone into fewer more common searches is a good thing.

[. . .]

How does Google Instant Search contribute to the Echo Chamber? Well anyone who has bothered to look through keyword information on their website will see that people find sites through a bewildering array of queries. Some might even say much of it is accidental, but looking over these lists gives a wonderful window onto how your content is found and perceived by others. How often do we get to commit such telepathy with our followers? Rarely. Yet, Instant Search will substitute popular searches for those individually created. More people will be driven off the back roads search trails and onto the superhighways that lead to whomever controls the first few search results connected to the Instant Searches Google is recommending at the time.

Oddly enough, I was talking about Google searches the other day with DarkWaterMuse (whose blog is offline at the moment), but it was more in the context of “how often are the sponsored links actually useful to you?” We both agreed that the correct answer fell somewhere in the range of “rarely” to “never”.

September 29, 2010

QotD: “Never attribute to malice that which can be explained by malice and incompetence”

Filed under: Media, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 13:11

I used to publish in the National Post back in the day Conrad Black ran the show. It was a business run with integrity. The last time I had a call from their editorial board I had to explain the Post paid me 40 cents a word. The man was genuinely scandalized — I mean audibly taken aback and offended — when I told him I would not hand my work over to him for free (btw, Adam, how did selling your integrity work out for you? Looks like you got what it was worth).

These days they don’t bother to call. Last week, they took my Margaret Atwood story and ran with it uncredited. They lacked the decency to do something that would have cost them nothing.

[. . .]

I am a writer. I don’t expect to get paid much. But I do expect to get paid. If this country aspired to be something more than a grasping, pissant kleptocracy celebrating third-raters and UCC school ties my work — this blog and others like it — would be understood as part of the real Canadian cultural establishment.

Fortunately, I don’t require their acknowledgement.

Nicholas Packwood, “Neither honour nor courage: The National Post”, Ghost of a Flea, 2010-09-29

Taser shotgun shell

Filed under: Randomness — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 12:15

In a word, YIKES!

That is something nobody wants to be hit with, especially fired out of a shotgun.

The “X12” Taser shotgun is made by Taser International of Scottsdale, Arizona and fires a battery-packed 12-bore shell with forward-facing barbs that deliver a debilitating electric shock.

In August last year, New Scientist revealed research that showed an early version of the weapon was both difficult to aim accurately, putting victims’ eyes at risk, and sometimes delivered a shock for more than five minutes, rather than 20 seconds.

A five minute jolt rather blurs the line between non-lethal and kinda-sorta-lethal, doesn’t it?

Transformer TX project initial funding awarded to AAI Corporation

Filed under: Military, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 12:14

Remember the “Flying Jeep” proposal? It’s still being pursued, as the initial funding for a flying gyrocopter/SUV has been awarded by DARPA:

Transformer TX, as we have previously reported, is intended to produce a vehicle able to drive on the ground with similar performance to a Humvee or other offroad vehicle. It must also be able to take off vertically with 1,000lb of passengers and payload aboard and fly about at altitudes up to 10,000 feet at speeds equivalent to normal light aircraft.

Perhaps best of all, the Transformer TX is also intended to be fully automated, capable of flying itself with only the most basic guidance from its human operator — who would not, therefore, need to be a highly trained pilot.

Admittedly, I know almost nothing about flying, but this sounds like getting something for nothing (that is, aren’t there laws of physics against this?):

The SR/C idea is basically a winged, propellor-driven light aeroplane with a set of free-spinning autogyro rotors on top. It’s not a helicopter: the engine can’t drive the rotors in flight, and a sustained hover isn’t possible. Nonetheless, though, the CarterCopter can take off vertically as required by Transformer TX rules.

It does this by having weighted rotor tips, meaning that a lot of energy can be stored in the spinning blades (rather as in a flywheel). Sitting on the ground, a small engine-driven “pre-rotator” assembly can gradually spin the rotors up to high speed. The pre-rotator, pleasingly, doesn’t have to transmit a lot of power — thus it is lightweight, cheap and simple compared to a helicopter’s transmission. Nor is the engine required to deliver the massive grunt required to keep chopper blades spinning hard enough to support the aircraft.

Once the rotors are at takeoff speed, the pre-rotator is declutched, the prop engaged and the pitch of the rotors pulled in so that they start to bite air. As they slow down, the energy stored in their whirling weighted tips blasts air down through the disc and the aircraft leaps vertically into the air in a “jump takeoff”.

Sounds amazingly like pulling yourself into the air by your own bootstraps . . .

Still, I’d like to eventually get that flying car I was promised all those years ago.

Austin Bay summarizes the demographic problems China is facing

Filed under: China, Economics, Environment — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 09:11

This is all old hat if you’ve been reading the blog for a while, but it’s always good to see a good summary of key points, like this list by Austin Bay:

Internal Disorder: China’s primary threat is not the United States, or any other foreign power, but internal disorder. There are more angry people in China every day, and the government knows that this could blossom into widespread uprisings. It has happened so many times before in Chinese history. Protesting factory workers are an indicator.

Corruption: Corruption is the biggest complaint among China’s discontented; government officials, who are more interested in enriching themselves than in taking care of “the people” are particular targets. Many of the demonstrations and labor disruptions are the result of corruption among local officials, including the police.

The Communications Dilemma: In 2007, Chinese Internet use grew to over 210 million users. Cell phones are also increasingly available. China is the world’s largest cell phone market. The Internet is an economic and educational tool. However, it also undermines an authoritarian government’s ability to control (deny and spin) information. China’s 2010 “war with Google.com” illustrated this dilemma.

Ethnic Minorities and Language: China has a population of 1.4 billion. Han Chinese (“ethnic Han”) constitute approximately 92 percent of China’s population. China also has 55 “minority nationalities,” however, amounting to 100 million people. The 2009 Uighur riots in Xinjiang province (western China) and resistance in Tibet are symptomatic of the problem. They are resisting “Hanicization.”

Pollution and Water: In early 2008, China began shutting down “high pollution” factories. The reason? To clear the air for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The growing wealth of the Chinese people is causing enormous pollution problems and water shortages. Effective pollution controls mean more expensive production methods. That makes Chinese goods less competitive.

The Marriage Gap: China’s “one child” policy crimped population growth, all right. More boys were born than girls; Chinese culture “favors” sons. As a result, there is a serious imbalance between men and women. In some places, there are 120 men per 100 women. Marriageable daughters are, reportedly, going largely to the upper social groups within each village or district. The sons of the poorest families are, to an extent, not finding wives. This is an indicator of future social trouble.

As I’ve said several times before, I’m not anti-Chinese: China has accomplished economic marvels in amazingly short time spans . . . but not without serious costs. Urban and coastal dwellers have benefitted disproportionally from the growth: rural and inland Chinese have suffered to provide the means for that growth. China is still not a free economy, and still represses dissent, imprisons critics, and controls far too much of the country’s economy both directly and indirectly. Corruption is rife, despite the savage punishment meted out to (some of) the (accused) perpetrators.

China’s miracle can’t continue for much longer unless the government starts to address these problems with the same kind of single-mindedness that they’ve brought to other problems. Introducing the rule of law would be an excellent first step, but it would directly challenge too many powerful men, some of whom (literally) have armies.

Cory Doctorow on what George Orwell got wrong

Filed under: Books, Liberty, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 08:03

September 28, 2010

Atheists and agnostics know more about religion than believers

Filed under: Religion, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 12:31

A report in the Los Angeles Times has set some tongues wagging:

Atheists, agnostics most knowledgeable about religion, survey says
Report says nonbelievers know more, on average, about religion than most faithful. Jews and Mormons also score high on the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey.

Apparently, this is some kind of surprise. I’m not sure how, unless a lot of people really don’t know any professed atheists or agnostics.

If you want to know about God, you might want to talk to an atheist.

Heresy? Perhaps. But a survey that measured Americans’ knowledge of religion found that atheists and agnostics knew more, on average, than followers of most major faiths. In fact, the gaps in knowledge among some of the faithful may give new meaning to the term “blind faith.”

A majority of Protestants, for instance, couldn’t identify Martin Luther as the driving force behind the Protestant Reformation

The cynic in me wonders how many of them thought the question was about Martin Luther King.

Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University and author of “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn’t,” served as an advisor on the survey. “I think in general the survey confirms what I argued in the book, which is that we know almost nothing about our own religions and even less about the religions of other people,” he said.

He said he found it significant that Mormons, who are not considered Christians by many fundamentalists, showed greater knowledge of the Bible than evangelical Christians.

[Going for the cheap laughs] That’s because most Mormons can read.

The Rev. Adam Hamilton, a Methodist minister from Leawood, Kan., and the author of “When Christians Get it Wrong,” said the survey’s results may reflect a reluctance by many people to dig deeply into their own beliefs and especially into those of others.

“I think that what happens for many Christians is, they accept their particular faith, they accept it to be true and they stop examining it. Consequently, because it’s already accepted to be true, they don’t examine other people’s faiths. . . . That, I think, is not healthy for a person of any faith,” he said.

I think it’s rather that people who are brought up in a faith rarely examine it at all — your parents tell you it’s true, the religious leaders tell you it’s true, and there’s rarely any advantage to be had from opposing or questioning authority early in life. By the time you’re ready to start examining things for yourself, your religious faith is “part of you”, not something external to you. It’s such a deeply rooted part of your view of the world that most people never even consider the possibility of questioning it.

For comparison purposes, the survey also asked some questions about general knowledge, which yielded the scariest finding: 4% of Americans believe that Stephen King, not Herman Melville, wrote “Moby Dick.”

I have to assume that the writer of this article hasn’t seen very many surveys of this type: in any large number of people you can usually find 5-10% who believe in far more amazing things than mis-attributed works of popular fiction.

H/T to Cory Doctorow for the link.

Most self-indulgent generation now also most suicidal?

Filed under: Britain, Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 12:06

Baby Boomers. It’s always about the frickin’ Baby Boomers isn’t it? Even if according to demographers I’m supposed to be one of them, while your prototypical Baby Boomer was indulging in free love, drugs, and all the other 60’s behavioural abberrations, I was in primary school. I have never identified with that group, and I’m often struck by how self-regarding members of that demographic can be.

Well, perhaps after a life of unparalleled opportunity, wealth, leisure, and general wallow-in-it-ness, Baby Boomers are starting to retire . . . and also killing themselves in numbers not seen in previous generations:

“As children, the baby boomers were the healthiest cohort that had ever lived, due to the availability of antibiotics and vaccines,” Idler says. “Chronic conditions could be more of a rude awakening for them in midlife than they were for earlier generations.”

Given the contrast between the Boomers’ passage through life and that experienced by their parents, one might suggest that they simply brace up a bit and get on with it. This might, however, be bad news financially for the following generations who are already saddled with the task of paying for the Boomers’ wastrel stewardship of the global finances, prolonged and luxurious retirements, hip replacements and various other costs and expenses.

It may be, as we look back from a more austere future in which the retirement age has been raised to 85 or so and the elderly — far from guzzling pina coladas on cruise ships whilst simultaneously occupying badly-needed residential property — are compulsorily relocated to robot-staffed retirement homes, that we will regard the Boomers as the jammiest generation ever to have lived. Their apparent propensity to top themselves out of drug-addled foolishness, in a tantrum at the “rude awakening” of middle age, or simply like mindless sheep because they have seen others do so, will be all the more puzzling.

The Guild, Season 4 Episode 11

Filed under: Gaming, Humour — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 07:46

<a href="http://video.msn.com/?mkt=en-us&#038;from=video_hub_the-guild&#038;fg=video_hub_the-guild&#038;vid=bc83c4e0-f9e4-49ca-a66e-6c3ce4c5753f" target="_new" title="Season 4 - Episode 11 - Hostile Takeovers">Video: Season 4 &#8211; Episode 11 &#8211; Hostile Takeovers</a>

Britain in the 70’s

Filed under: Books, Britain, Economics, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 07:38

A review of Dominic Sandbrook’s State of Emergency: The Way We Were. Britain, 1970–1974 sounds interesting:

As prime ministers, Edward Heath and Gordon Brown had quite a lot in common. Both were monstrously self-centred, permanently grumpy and capable of astonishing rudeness. Both of their relatively short-lived premierships ended in humiliating failure. In a recent poll of academics on Britain’s best and worst prime ministers since the second world war, Heath came ninth out of twelve and Mr Brown tenth. But that is where the similarities end. Whereas Mr Brown was largely the author of his own misfortunes (the banking crash apart), Heath, as Dominic Sandbrook reminds us in his splendidly readable new history of Britain during the four years from 1970, was faced with a set of problems whose intractability and nastiness would have overwhelmed even a far more gifted politician.

Heath both appals Mr Sandbrook and elicits his sympathy. Tory mythology still insists that many of Heath’s difficulties arose from his U-turn when he abandoned the free-market ideas with which he entered office and embraced an already discredited and peculiarly British form of corporatism the moment the going got rough. The truth is that although Heath had tried to present himself as the champion of ruthless neoliberalism, he was always at heart a “one nation” Tory with little appetite for the kind of confrontation his successor as Conservative Party leader, Margaret Thatcher, relished. His burning desire was to modernise Britain and to arrest its economic decline through efficiency, pragmatic problem-solving and, above all, by joining the European Community.

My family left Britain in 1967, which was a good time to go: the economy was still in post-war recovery, but opportunities abroad were still open to British workers. My first visit back was in 1979, which was a terrible shock to my system. I’d left, as a child, before the strikes-every-day era began, and my memories of the place were still golden-hued and happy. Going back to grey, dismal, cold, smelly, strike-bound Britain left me with a case of depression that lasted a long time. It didn’t help that the occasion of the visit was to attend my grandfather’s funeral: it was rather like the land itself had died and the only remaining activity was a form of national decomposition.

Some readers will find the way the author flits about tiresome, but given that he was born only in 1974 his almost pitch-perfect ability to recreate the mood and atmospherics of the time is remarkable. He does not lose sight of the fact that although the 1970s are now seen as a nadir in Britain’s post-war fortunes, for the majority of people it was nonetheless a time of growing affluence, widening horizons and personal liberation. Many of the positive developments that are associated with the supposedly wonderful 1960s did not gain traction until a decade later. Viewed from a distance, Britain in the 1970s looks ghastly — angry, decaying, on the skids. But that is not the whole story.

Mr Sandbrook compares this turbulent period with the four years between 1910 and 1914 described by George Dangerfield in “The Strange Death of Liberal England”. As he says: “Dangerfield’s story was one of political ferment and economic turmoil, of challenges to the moral order and rebellions against traditional gender roles, of Utopian socialism and Irish sectarianism — all rooted, like the challenges of the early 1970s, in profound historical trends that no government could possibly control.” Thankfully, the discontent of the 1970s did not end in world war, but continued, mostly unresolved, until the arrival of Lady Thatcher in 1979. That may pose a problem for Mr Sandbrook’s next book, which will be an account of the second half of the decade. In many ways it was more of the same, but without a central character as oddly compelling and sad as Heath.

I’m even more interested — in a grim sort of way — in the next book. It’ll be interesting to read an account of that time from a different perspective than my brief mid-winter visit provided.

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