February 29, 2004

Measure L won't be enough to stop them...

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:29 PM

I just watched Alien: Resurrection and it was about as lame as I'd heard. But the DVD extras include the first draft screenplay, by one Joss Whedon. It's much better so far, and includes this line about Weyland-Yutani:
Dr. Wren: Our Ripley's former employers. Terran Growth conglom, had some defense contracts under the military. Before your time, Gediman - they went under decades ago, bought out by Walmart.

Voter Dilemmas

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:59 PM

A few further questions about Tuesday's ballot:

  • Since it is highly likely that I will move out of Contra Costa county within a month or two, is it ethical for me to vote on county measure L and the school district measure J?

  • Is Tom McClintock's opposition to Prop 57 sufficient reason to vote for it?

  • Why do opponents of ballot measures always seem so enamored of the caps lock key when writing the "Argument Against" section of the voter guide?

  • Since it is almost thermodynamically unlikely that my vote on any of these issues will affect the outcome, why am I spending so much time thinking about them?

Adventures in Direct Democracy, or, Arcane Gazebo vs. The 2004 California Primary

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:19 PM

I have a free Sunday afternoon, so I am being a model citizen by reviewing the election-related material that has been mailed to me over the last few weeks. This consists of the following:

  • Sample Ballot, Democratic Party version, 4 pages

  • Official Voter Information Guide, 29 pages.

  • Official Voter Information Guide (Supplemental), 21 pages.

  • Candidate Statement for the state assembly member primary, 1 page. (She is running unopposed.)

  • Candidate Statements, Superior Court Judge, 2 pages.

  • Voter Information Pamphlet for Regional Measure 2, 6 pages.

  • Regional Measure 2 booklet, 22 pages.

  • Voter Information Pamphlet for Contra Costa County Measure L, 8 pages.

  • Voter Information Pamphlet for West Contra Costa Unified School District Measure J, 8 pages.

  • Some ads: one for Yes on Prop 56, four for No on Measure L.

Don't we elect people to figure this stuff out for us? Anyway, I've gone through most of it but I'm still undecided on Props 57 and 58 (these are from Arnold: a $15 billion bond measure to balance the budget and a balanced budget requirement) and Contra Costa Measure L (this is the Wal-Mart thing). Any insights from you Californian(s) in the audience?

February 28, 2004

But is there hope for Oklahoma?

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:51 PM

Apparently not.

UPDATE: I somehow missed this part of the article:

I think its very important for children to know, Graves said. If they just believe that they came from some slime in a swamp thats a whole lot different from being created in the image of God.

And I thought excessive concern for schoolchildren's self-esteem was supposed to be a liberal failing. It must have been very traumatic for Rep. Graves as a child to learn that he came from some slime in a swamp, but despite this he was able to find a place in the world... in the Oklahoma state legislature.

February 26, 2004

Let's get literary (and then, philosophical)

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:31 PM

I finished The Uplift War the other day. Overall it wasn't bad, but a step down from its predecessor (Startide Rising). There wasn't the same level of tension throughout, and I must confess I liked the dolphin characters of Startide much better than the chimpanzees of Uplift War. And there was a problem with suspension of disbelief.

I'll buy the extrapolations of chimpanzee behavior to a society of sentient beings. I'll accept that the alien race subjugating humanity basically consists of large chickens. (Actually, I tended to envision the Gubru as somewhere between Tiiba in demon form and the avian race of Legend of Mana.) I'll buy into hyperspace travel without major relativistic difficulties because it's necessary, and I'll believe the psi powers because it's done so well. I'll even accept that low-tech guerilla forces wielding crossbows can be effective against highly trained soldiers with ridiculously advanced technology (partly because I enjoy this RPG story so much). But, I'm sorry, the climactic scene piled on so many handy coincidences, and wrapped everything up so neatly, that it shot right past the boundary of believability. At ludicrous speed. David Brin writes "hard sci-fi", meaning the science is (mostly) realistic, but it seems sometimes like his plot defeats the purpose. You may recall that I had the same complaint about Sundiver, the first book in the series. Somehow the second book was better in this regard, though it too was pushing it at times.

So I'm off the David Brin for now, and have started Altered Carbon, which has been a lot of fun so far. This is a gritty, noir-ish sci-fi novel, but if it seems strange to describe such a thing as "fun", see the above paragraph. The premise of this one is that technology has been invented that digitizes a human mind so that it can be stored in a computer and downloaded later into another body. This effectively means death is no longer permanent, since someone who dies can be restored from backup, assuming a new body is available. Of course bodies aren't cheap, so only the rich are truly immortal, while those of lesser means go into storage, presumably on a big hard drive somewhere, renting out a "sleeve" for special occasions.

There's a lot of entertainment to be found in this, like in one of the early scenes where the protagonist, a private detective, is hired to investigate a murder -- hired, in fact, by the victim. (This setting is dying to be made into a role-playing game.) On top of that, there's a religious twist: Catholics believe that the digitization process does not include the soul, and refuse to be downloaded into a new body.

One of the characters in the book at one point delivers a short tirade of the sort that one might find on this site about religion obstructing scientific progress, but on this issue I wonder if these fictional Catholics don't have a point. I would never speak of "the soul" in any non-metaphorical sense, but there is something that bugs me about this process; I do not think it would comfort me to know that the information in my mind at the time of my death would be transferred to a new body afterwards, even if the body were an identical copy as well. I'm not convinced my identity carries over to the copy. My thread of consciousness is cut at my death, and a new thread begins that believes it is a continuation of mine, but is it really?

Imagine my brain is uploaded one minute before my death, and one minute afterwards it is downloaded into a clone body. There is no apparent distinction in this case between the clone and the original, had the original not died but merely blacked out for two minutes. But if the copy mind is downloaded into the clone one minute before the death of the original, in time to observe it, it will appear to the clone that a separate person has died, and to the original it will seem that it is a separate person that lives on, rather than a resurrection of the self. So doesn't this view apply as well to the case where the clone's creation is delayed a bit?

On the other hand, maybe I'm thinking about it the wrong way. When I fall asleep at night, that day's consciousness ends, in a sense. Dreams aside, the only difference between falling asleep and dying is whether I wake up in the morning. But isn't my next-morning-self a different consciousness than the previous-night-self? If I fell into a wormhole during the night, traveled back in time, and woke up to see myself falling asleep, it would seem to me that a different person is falling asleep, but it's really still me. Nevertheless, I don't worry about dying every night when I go to bed.

So the question is, if a copy of my mind were to be made and embodied after my death, would I, the person who died, "wake up" in the new body? Or would it just be a copy, a replica? Of course there's no way to tell, and it may not even be a real distinction. But I think, when one strips away the religious language, this is the same worry that the fictional Catholics of Altered Carbon are expressing.

Anyway, I'm enjoying the book.

The dreaded essay question

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 7:02 PM

For those of us who abhor standardized writing tests, the link of the day: Would Shakespeare Get Into Swarthmore? in The Atlantic Monthly, in which The Princeton Review subjects various literary works to the new SAT writing criteria. You can probably guess how this works out.

Is there hope for Georgia? Part III

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:32 PM

Georgia's House of Representatives voted down a (state) constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. Fundamentalist Christians will argue that this will in fact lead to the destruction of Georgia by an angry god, right after he gets around to laying waste to San Francisco. (A lightning strike knocked out the power to UC Berkeley last night, causing me to rush into lab to turn the pumps back on -- maybe God was aiming for SF City Hall, and missed? Maybe Satan's standing over God's shoulder, shouting Miss! right as He flings the lightning bolt.) On the other hand, the rest of us will suspect that there might be hope for Georgia after all.

The endless applications of physics

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:53 PM

When attempting to discern, based on subtle cues, whether a romantic prospect holds a favorable bias toward oneself, does anyone else find it helpful to think in terms of a two-particle correlation function? Or is it just me? (This is all purely hypothetical, of course.)

While we're on the subject of overanalyzing romance, check out this post by Kevin Drum on insights that can be obtained from reality shows.

Tough job, but the perks are great.

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:47 PM

I saw this image on Salon:

with the caption: San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom stands between newlyweds Cissie Bonini, left, and Lora Pertle during a reception at San Francisco City Hall Feb. 13.

Myself, I would have captioned it: It's good to be the mayor.

February 25, 2004

Just one question.

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:10 PM

Attention Wal-Mart:
If you have so much money lying around that you can afford to spam my mailbox every day with glossy four-page political ads opposing a local ordinance, why can't you afford to treat your employees better?

February 24, 2004

Where do I enlist for the culture war?

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:23 PM

I've been waiting all day to post on the news that President Bush has officially endorsed the Federal Marriage Amendment. For some reason they expect me to do work when I come into lab, so I only now have the opportunity.

First of all I find this unsurprising; he telegraphed this move in the State of the Union Address. On the other hand, he waited more than a week after San Francisco's issuing of marriage licenses to make this statement, which suggests that it wasn't intense anti-gay sentiment in the White House that prompted the move, but rather the concern that all those religious conservatives who used to believe Bush had God's personal endorsement were beginning to have second thoughts. (Which would have been a surprising number of thoughts for some of these people to have.) Is it worse to restrict the rights of millions of citizens because of fanatical hatred, or for votes? I'll leave that one to the philosophers. In any case, the "compassionate conservative" president is speaking out against love, against families, against commitment.

Oddly, CNN claims that the amendment Bush is endorsing allows for civil unions. This is not the case. I, obviously, am no lawyer, but "the legal incidents thereof" seems like pretty clear language banning civil unions as well.

Actually, now that I look at it closely, the second sentence is a bit odd. The most literal parsing appears to be that it is prohibiting laws that require that marital status be conferred on unmarried couples, whether they want it or not. In other words, Kang-style "gay marriages for all".

Announcer: Ladies and Gentlemen, 73-year-old candidate, Bob Dole.
Kang: Abortions for all.
[crowd boos]
Very well, no abortions for anyone.
[crowd boos]
Hmm... Abortions for some, miniature American flags for others.
[crowd cheers and waves miniature flags]
--"Treehouse of Horror VII"

Anyway, that's obviously not what they had in mind with this amendment. I suppose this is why I'm not a lawyer.

Perhaps John Kerry should try "Gay marriages for some, miniature American flags for others." I say that because his actual response was pretty damn weak. In fact, "I oppose gay marriages but won't vote for the FMA" is the weakest response he could possibly give that doesn't outright agree with Bush. Come on, let's see some leadership. His state is the leader in legalizing same-sex marriage; the Bush campaign is going to attack him from that angle anyway, so he might as well take a stand on the right side of the issue.

Personally, angry blogging isn't going to be enough for me on this. I want to take some action and help send this amendment back to hell from whence it came. It's not clear how much I can do, beyond writing to Sens. Boxer and Feinstein and Rep. Tauscher (and I imagine these three are already pretty solid "nay" votes on the amendment). Any suggestions about how I can join the fight are welcomed. (Keeping in mind that they don't pay me very much as a grad student, so generous contributions to the relevant organizations are not possible.)

If you'd like to contact your representatives in Congress, the ACLU will send a fax, letter, or e-mail for you with just a few clicks. (They'll also try to sign you up for their e-mail list, but you can opt out. If, you know, you don't care about your civil liberties.)

February 23, 2004

Restoration update

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:34 PM

Busy day in lab, so I may not be blogging much, but here's more on the "Constitution Restoration Act of 2004".

It seems to me after reading this that a sufficiently strong alliance between legislative and executive powers could allow this to go into effect, by immediately impeaching any judge who tries to review the act itself. This would quickly result in the courts being a mere rubber stamp for Congress (which is, apparently, the goal).

I can't imagine that the Supreme Court would take very well to being rendered powerless like this. It would be pretty ungrateful of Bush to support this bill after all the Court has done for him.

In conclusion, Christian Reconstructionists are really scary. (I know, I'm so insightful today.)

Is this one of your Earth jokes?

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:12 AM

By posting the new quote just after midnight, I allow a full six hours to pass before Tracy identifies it. (Difficulty: Slightly obscure, 2 points) I know I keep promising to post something truly difficult, but relevance has to take precedence.

I am told that The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra is the worst movie ever made. From the trailer that seemed entirely intentional. (I highly recommend the hilarious trailer, although it loses something when it's not on the big screen.) Anyway, this is on the agenda.

February 22, 2004

Minimally Interesting Update

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:07 PM

Holy shit! I updated the Minimally Useful Page! It has been made more accurate while remaining Minimally Useful. Also, there is a more prominent link to this page, as you either (a) discovered or (b) did not need to know.

Maybe I should restore the sidebar link to said page while I'm at it.

February 20, 2004

Atlanta: More dangerous than it looks

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:28 PM

In the latest installment of our continuing series, "Is There Hope for Georgia?", another entry in the "no" column.

UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention that the Washington Post is now requiring registration. Here's a different link (thanks Google News).

Questionable jurisdictions

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:50 PM

If this isn't a bill "respecting an establishment of religion", I don't know what one is. (via Atrios, who quotes the relevant section.)

Question: Why is Congress allowed to dictate what the Supreme Court is and isn't allowed to review? It seems like that would allow Congress to pass some arbitrarily unconstitutional law and forbid the Supreme Court to review it. My guess is that for this very reason Congress does not have the authority to restrict the Supreme Court's jurisdiction, and that therefore this bill is a big unconstitutional pile of shit. More knowledgable people should feel free to correct me.

Also, if God really is the sovereign source of liberty, why is he so damn stingy with it? You'd think he could spare a little more liberty for some of the more downtrodden peoples of the world. But really, I'm just restating the problem of evil here.

Oh yeah, it's amusing that they call this the "Constitution Restoration Act of 2004". Presumably they intend to restore the Constitution to its pre-1791 state.

Next recess appointment: Darth Vader

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:31 PM

Remember William Pryor, one of Bush's filibustered judicial appointments? The guy I once compared to Torquemada? Bush has gone around the Senate and put him on the bench in a recess appointment (as he did with Charles Pickering, on Martin Luther King Day just in case we weren't sure which part of the Republican base he was looking to with that one).

Maybe he saw the poll numbers and wants to get all his theocrats installed in the courts before we throw him out of office in November. There's a bright side to everything, right?

February 18, 2004

Need some scary correlations to go with the scary data.

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:51 PM

After a day's worth of measurements, I have concluded that our chip does not, in fact, work. This at least frees me up to go write the follow-up to Monday's scary poll numbers post.

First off, Polling Report has a nice summary of the data with the actual questions ("word-for-word", as it were). In my initial reaction to the results I wondered to what extent factors like quality of science education and anti-science attitudes contribute to the high rate of biblical literalism. It occurs to me that if the poll results included correlation data one could actually get some insight into this. Clearly some of the Bible stories in the poll have more plausibility in a literal interpretation than do others, and it could be revealing to look at how many people only believe some of the stories are literally true.

The results as presented are basically consistent with almost any set of correlation data; consider for example two populations:
(A) 60% are true biblical literalists, 30% are atheists, and 10% have no opinion, or
(B) 10% have no opinion, and the remaining 90% believe two of the three stories are true, but they are equally divided in which story they believe is false.
The results of the poll for both (A) and (B) would match each other and the actual results to within 5% in every number, but (B) doesn't have a single member who thinks the entire Bible is literally true while (A) has a majority.

It seems to me that a population like (B) is likely only if all three stories are equally plausible (or, I suppose, if respondents are answering essentially randomly). This doesn't appear to be the case to me, although I acknowledge that the very results of this poll are evidence that my standards of plausibility are very different from the average person's.

Anyway, the Noah's Ark story seems clearly to be the least plausible. All it takes is some common-sense thinking about any of the numbers involved to cast a whole lot of doubt on the idea. So this story rightfully gets the lowest number of responses, but only by one percent. This is pretty stunning. I would think that if one is willing to grant that at least some Bible stories may not be literally true, this would be the first one to go. And yet, far fewer people claim to be absolute Biblical literalists than think that the Noah's Ark story is true (see the poll just below this one on the Polling Report page).

By contrast, the creation story doesn't violate any rules of logic (except for the part where there are two creation stories and they contradict each other). If one were unaware of geology and paleontology and so forth, one could at least imagine that it might be true. So we would expect more people to believe this one than the flood story, and the difference perhaps due to lousy science education. We're right about the first part at least, but it's a small effect (that one percent).

Finally, Moses parting the Red Sea is the most plausible of the three (unless you look at a map, and realize that the Red Sea isn't between Egypt and Sinai, but we know how Americans are about geography). If one believes that divine intervention sometimes occurs, or used to occur, there's nothing about this particular miracle that makes it especially dubious. I would imagine that people who disbelieve this story are the sort who would disbelieve any supernatural occurrence chronicled in the Bible. On the other hand, it's hard to believe that 28% of Americans are this sort of person.

The actual results are in fact consistent with this ordering of plausibility, but the differences are small. One possible conclusion one could draw is that the spectrum of viewpoints from wholly literal to wholly metaphorical is not well populated in the middle -- most people are either one or the other. But it would be nice to have the actual correlation data.

Time for another war?

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:30 PM

Top Democrats lead Bush in poll

The poll, taken Feb. 16-17, indicates that if the election were held today, Kerry would be chosen by 55% of likely voters, compared to 43% for Bush. In the last polling, Feb. 6-8, Bush held a 49-48 advantage.

Edwards, Kerry's sole remaining major rival for the Democratic nomination, holds a 54%-44% advantage, the poll indicates. The question has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Wow. Is this just an outlier or are these numbers real? What's causing Bush's support to fall? I've been saying for months that I think Bush will win re-election, but if other polls confirm these numbers I'll be happy to suspect I was wrong.

The Union of Concerned Scientists on Bush

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:09 PM

The Union of Concerned Scientists has issued a statement condemning the Bush Administration's anti-science policies, signed by 20 Nobel laureates (including, I feel compelled to mention, Caltech president David Baltimore). So it's not just me that feels this way. (I say that because I raised this issue among some conservative, scientist friends, and they looked at me as if I had just asserted the flatness of the earth.)

The blogger I've linked to seems to think this is bad news for Bush. But in a country where 60% of the population believes the biblical creation story is literally true, how many people really care that much what scientists have to say, about anything?

February 17, 2004

Also, Google News Categorization

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:47 PM

Another problem with the Google News Sci/Tech section: I complained earlier about the preponderance of technology stories at the expense of science, but many of these aren't really stories about technology -- rather, they are stories about technology companies. "PeopleSoft to triple staff in India"? This stuff belongs in the Business section. Right now, I count:

  • 5 stories about science (although the distant galaxy story is listed twice)

  • 9 stories about technology

  • 2 stories about business actions by technology companies

  • 3 stories about legal actions by technology companies

  • 1 story about politics (a Chinese political dissident who used the Internet)

So maybe the problem isn't that they need more categories, but that they need to get better at assigning stories to the existing categories. This may not be Google's fault -- they may be dependent on the sources for categorization, and, e.g., the New York Times technology section has the same problem.

Google News Categories

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:58 AM

I've started using Google News lately. My only complaint is that it needs more categories. I'd like to see a "Politics" category rather than having to sift through the "US" section for politics stories, and similarly separate "Science" and "Technology" categories. It's easy to miss good science stories under the current setup; right now of the twenty stories under "Sci/Tech", sixteen are technology and only four are science (three of which are space science; this is also irritating).

On the other hand, my proposed scheme would take twice as long to browse.

Familiar Patterns

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:22 AM

Remind me again why this administration is considered strong on terrorism?

Prosecutor in Terror Case Sues Ashcroft

WASHINGTON - A federal prosecutor in a major terrorism case in Detroit has taken the rare step of suing Attorney General John Ashcroft, alleging the Justice Department interfered with the case, compromised a confidential informant and exaggerated results in the war on terrorism

Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Convertino of Detroit accused the Justice Department of "gross mismanagement" of the war on terrorism in a whistleblower lawsuit filed late Friday in federal court in Washington.

Gross mismanagement? By the Bush Administration? You must be joking.

The lawsuit states Convertino first complained to his superiors more than a year ago about Justice's interference in the Detroit terrorism trial, saying Washington supervisors "had continuously placed perception over reality to the serious detriment of the war on terror."

"Perception over reality..." Where have we heard this before? Apart from Iraq, the economy, the environment...

Convertino also accused Justice officials of intentionally divulging the name of one of his confidential terrorism informants (CI) to retaliate against him.

It worked so well against Joseph Wilson, after all.

And this is what they're supposed to be good at. I for one will be feeling a lot safer if Bush fails to win reelection.

February 16, 2004

I hang with the science celebrities.

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:31 PM

I keep seeing articles about this M&M-related physics discovery, but it took me a while to notice that I've actually met one of the scientists involved -- I talked to Paul Chaikin when I visited Princeton as a prospective grad student, and saw firsthand the huge barrel of M&Ms in his office. (I can't recall whether I ate any.) He was a Techer, incidentally; a Darb if I recall correctly. Certainly his was the most interesting lab I looked at during my Princeton tour.

Cutting-edge science commentary from Arcane Gazebo: "Hey, I know that guy!"

Return of scary poll numbers

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:01 PM

ABC News conducted a poll studying the prevalence of biblical literalism. The results are good news for tolerance and bad news for science: Americans overwhelmingly reject the idea that Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus, but a majority believe that "the" creation story is literally true. (Why the scare quotes? Within the first two chapters of Genesis are two creation stories, which contradict each other. At the very least one of them cannot be literally true.)

I remember commenting on a Nick Kristof column in which he stated that 72% of Americans disbelieve evolution -- a statistic I doubted at the time. It suddenly seems a lot more plausible given this result; you only need 11% to deny evolution on grounds other than biblical literalism. In light of these appalling numbers, I should be happy that evolution is taught at all, and ecstatic that it's surviving challenges in places like Georgia.

I wonder about the origin of these beliefs: is it a failure of education, or anti-science/anti-intellectual attitudes, or just religious fervor? (I'm sure it's a mixture of the three, but is there a dominant factor?) And what, if anything, can be done to improve the situation?

What day is it?

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:06 PM

The new quote will be instantly recognizable to some of you, but nevertheless it is Difficulty: Obscure; 3 points.

I'm back from a pretty good Festival of Solitude, followed by a gaming day in Santa Cruz. For Saturday's activities I did indeed manage to see Kill Bill vol. 1, which I followed up with a steak dinner and Gladiator. The latter film, while sufficiently violent, did not quite seem nihilistic enough for this holiday.

February 13, 2004

Was this review helpful to you?

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:13 PM

I'm in lab on a Friday night. I'm incredibly bored waiting on a calibration. So, I come across an article in tomorrow's Times: Amazon Glitch Unmasks War of Reviewers
Basically, a glitch on Amazon Canada revealed the names of people who posted anonymous reviews, and we were all shocked, shocked to learn that authors review their own books and get their friends and family to boost their ratings. This prompted me to go look at the Amazon page for The Night of the Dance, you know, just to see if any new reviews had been posted recently.

They had. This one was interesting:

[5 stars] Nominated for an Edgar!, February 9, 2004
Reviewer: A reader from Houston, TX
This fantastic book has recently been nominated for a Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Award in the category of Best First Novel by an American Author...an enormous honor, and one that is well deserved!

Hime's second book in the Jeremiah Spur series is expected this fall, so don't delay, read The Night of the Dance as soon as you can! You will NOT regret it.

[Emphasis mine.] Consider, by comparison, the following excerpt from an entry on this site, on February 1, 2004:
Today is also my father's birthday--I won't say how old he is, but it's a big, round number--and you can celebrate by buying a copy of The Night of the Dance, which has been nominated for a Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Award in the category of Best First Novel by an American Author.

[Emphasis, well, mine, but added for the current entry] All this is to say that despite the astonishing similarity and insider knowledge of future publication dates displayed by the reviewer, I am not reviewing my father's book on Amazon. I think I plug it enough on this site, despite the fact that it has slightly fewer readers.

On to the next review:

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful:

Really good debut novel...., January 28, 2004
[5 stars] Reviewer: A reader from San Diego, CA
Since I have little time to read popular fiction, I concentrate on debut novels...sort of a hobby. The cover caught my eye as I have a great love for the old (and new) West. What distracted me throughout this book was the use of "of" instead of "have," as in "could of," "should of," etc. At first, I thought it was just how these people talked...but, after ruminating on this problem, why not "should've" and "could've"? When the veterinarian 'talked' that way too, I was stumped. Here is an educated man who certainly would not WRITE 'could of' in a million years. Five stars for keeping my interest throughout.

Are you, sir, by any chance a middle school English teacher? I would suggest that this educated man seek a hobby, but as he claims this is his hobby, well, I'm stumped.

Late to the party

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:04 PM

Just a little too late for Darwin Day, Georgia reinstates evolution into their public school curriculum. Also back in the guidelines: the Big Bang, which I didn't know had been removed.

There might be some hope for Georgia after all...

Kerry/Bush timeline

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:14 PM

Turns out John Kerry's actually a pretty impressive guy. Also, recalling my Quake playing days, I have to be impressed with someone who will go to such lengths to pick up a rocket launcher.

Second Annual Festival of Solitude

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:57 PM

Yesterday I celebrated Darwin Day; tomorrow I celebrate Valentine's Day The Festival of Solitude.

The fundamental principle of the Festival of Solitude is that being single is a choice I make, and equally worth celebrating. (This seems especially true in light of recent events.) Last year I cooked a steak dinner for myself and watched my favorite movie, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. I intend to do something similar this year, but I want to involve Kill Bill vol. 1 in some way. It's a perfect choice for this occasion: lone heroine The Bride embodying the very essence of strength in solitude; no romance; and plenty of gratuitous violence to satisfy my residual bitterness about the holiday. Unfortunately I have to drive to Milpitas to see it, and it's not clear if there's a good way to fit that in to my other plans of eating red meat and drinking an entire bottle of wine. I'll figure something out.

In other Valentine's Day news:

Saudi Arabia bans the holiday, and fundamentalist Hindus aren't keen on the idea either. For that matter, they probably don't support my mode of celebration, what with the steak and all.

The Plastic Valentine's Day thread is once again a source of amusement.

February 12, 2004

Protest by Unconstitutionality

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 7:07 PM

A couple of news items:

South Dakota Lawmaker OKs Abortion Ban

Lesbian couple wedded at SF City Hall

The story on the first item is that the South Dakota state House has passed a near-total ban on abortions (it has yet to pass the Senate). Since Supreme Court precedent holds that such laws are unconstitutional, it is very likely to be thrown out in court.

The second item covers the same-sex marriages now being granted by the city of San Francisco. Such marriages are explicitly forbidden by the California state constitution, so this action also is not expected to survive a court ruling.

These two actions, from opposite ends of the political spectrum, are effectively the same tactic: one branch of government does something they know to be unconstitutional, with the full expectation that it will be blocked in the courts. It's basically just a form of protest. The question I'm interested in is: is this an acceptable tactic?

Ezra at Pandagon used pretty harsh language yesterday to condemn the South Dakota bill, saying:

So what we have here is a white male passing a bill good for nothing but political posturing while fully aware that it is unconstitutional. Absolutely disgusting.

Now, I don't like the idea of an abortion ban any more than he does, but I can't help but notice that the SF same-sex marriage certificates are also good for nothing but political posturing, issued by order of a white male (Mayor Newsom) who is fully aware that they are unconsitutional. Yet I can't imagine Ezra condemning that as "absolutely disgusting". So I suspect the problem isn't so much with the tactic as with the substance of the ban.

I'm generally tempted to say that while I sympathize with Newsom, this isn't appropriate for him or the South Dakota legislature. The rules imposed by the federal and state constitutions, and the protections they provide, are important enough that I feel like government officials should stay within the framework even if they disagree with particulars. Try to change things by proposing amendments, use the bully pulpit to advance the cause, but don't blatantly violate the rules and rely on checks and balances to keep the system going.

But then I think about the extreme cases. Couldn't a constitution contain sufficiently evil provisions that this kind of protest is justified? Suppose the federal constitution contained a provision protecting slavery - would we hold it against Lincoln if he issued the Emancipation Proclamation anyway, knowing that the courts would reject it? And if I'm willing to grant that, I have a hard time arguing that California's same-sex marriage ban isn't also bad enough to justify Newsom's actions. Certainly someone who believed abortion is murder would see the South Dakota case the same way.

In the case of largely symbolic acts like these, I'm inclined to stick with my original thought. Find another form of protest that doesn't show a lack of respect for the constitution -- even if some parts aren't worth your respect. That way you also avoid wasting the courts' time and the taxpayers' money. If the act could make a real difference that other forms of protest couldn't, it might be different.

Browser Evolution

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:11 PM

There's a new version of Mozilla Firebird Firefox available. (The name keeps getting worse, but presumably the browser is improving.) My extensions (Tabbrowser Extensions and RSS Reader) caused problems for the new version even when disabled, so I had to create a new profile. Unfortunately I've been unable to get the newer extensions; the server seems to be down on account of the high demand. So if you're thinking of upgrading, you might wait a few days...

Clones, Stems, and Poached Eggs

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:54 AM

In the Times today: Cloning Creates Human Embryos. They were able to extract embryonic stem cells, so I assume this is a big step for stem cell research as well as human cloning. Yay science!

However, in an attempt to ruin my Darwin Day, here come the champions of ignorance, the enemies of progress, the religious conservatives President's Council on Bioethics:

Dr. Leon R. Kass, chairman of the President's Council on Bioethics, called for federal legislation to stop human cloning for any purpose.

"The age of human cloning has apparently arrived: today, cloned blastocysts for research, tomorrow cloned blastocysts for babymaking," Dr. Kass wrote in an e-mail message. "In my opinion, and that of the majority of the Council, the only way to prevent this from happening here is for Congress to enact a comprehensive ban or moratorium on all human cloning."

This isn't terribly surprising coming from Dr. Kass; as I recall, he was chosen for the position precisely because he's a total ideologue on this subject. Nevertheless, the argument is astonishingly stupid: a classic slippery slope fallacy. Who really believes that the only way to prevent reproductive cloning is to ban therapeutic cloning as well? Leon Kass has a Ph.D., so surely he's smart enough to understand that one could draft legislation banning one and not the other -- especially since this is what South Korea (where the research was performed) has done! Is this the best argument he can make for banning all forms of cloning?

(I'm well aware that the real reason for his opposition is that he is representing pro-life groups that believe that a blastocyst has the same rights as a human being. Obviously he can't argue from that premise, but surely he could come up with a better substitute!)

But if we want to talk ethics, I had to wonder about this statement:

In South Korea, Dr. Moon said in a telephone interview, there was no advertising for egg donors and no payments. The 16 women who donated the 242 eggs were "personal contacts," he said, declining to elaborate.

My first twisted thought was that they used their graduate students. "You want to graduate? Give us some more eggs! And hurry up, we've barely got two hundred!"

February 11, 2004

Cleaning up the fonts

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:57 PM

Ah! A message from Microsoft:

Critical Update for Windows (KB833407)
This item updates the Bookshelf Symbol 7 font included in some Microsoft products. The font has been found to contain unacceptable symbols. After you install this item, you may have to restart your computer.

Well, now I want to know what they are. Icons of Janet Jackson perhaps?
[After viewing font] I'm guessing they mean the swastikas.
[After downloading update] The swastikas, but also the hexagram (Star of David). What's unacceptable about a hexagram?
Old Bookshelf Symbol 7:

New Bookshelf Symbol 7:

Also: I understand why Microsoft would, from a PR standpoint, want to make this change, but was it really a critical update? I would prefer their use of "critical" to apply to my priorities rather than theirs.


Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:19 AM

I have an orkut profile now, for what it's worth. I'm not sure I have any real use for it, but browsing was kind of fun. I'm not adding any connectivity, since all the profiles I'm linked to are also Tech alums who all know each other anyway.

UPDATE: One needs an invitation to join orkut; I am happy to give them out to interested parties (assuming you're actually my friend, and not some dude searching Google for "orkut invitation"). Send me a message or leave a comment.

February 9, 2004

Classic Caltech cuisine

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:06 PM

I logged into UGCS* and had the good, uh, fortune to draw the ramen recipe as my login message. Here it is, for the record:

Recipe for UGCS Ramen

Tip: Hungry, but have nothing available better than ramen? Remove the ramen brick from the package, and put it on a microwave safe plate. Cut a slice of cheese and cover the ramen. Microwave on high for 30-40 seconds. The end result is surprisingly not inedible. If you are feeling really brave, you can sprinkle on some of the flavor packet.

*UGCS is the undergraduate computer science cluster at Caltech.

Hot and bitter

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:25 AM

I'm pretty sure I came down with this cold the instant I agreed to give the group seminar (which is tomorrow). You may not hear much from me until I finish preparing this talk; in the meantime, enjoy the new quote. (Difficulty: slightly obscure, 2 points)

February 5, 2004

How do we know it's really you and not zombie Giles?

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:41 PM

The "non-drowsy" Claritin is making it very difficult for me to do physics, or make entries here, or remain upright for that matter. (It doesn't make you drowsy; it just turns you into a zombie.) I thought caffeine might be an antidote, but the Coke machine was empty. And so I find myself sitting in at my desk, eyes glazed, trying not to drool as I contemplate whether a total shutdown of brain function is preferable to the symptoms the antihystamine is suppressing. (Conclusion: yes, but it's not clear I'm in any condition to make such judgements.)

Perhaps I will feel better if I go home and eat a nice plate of brains pasta.

February 3, 2004

Visual adjustments

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:16 PM

I (obviously) worked on the style this evening, trying to restore at least a flavor of the previous look. (That's a mixed metaphor, isn't it.) Perhaps tomorrow I'll get to work on the sidebar.

Primary Thoughts between Ctrl-R's - Feb. 3 edition

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:25 PM

I'm watching today's primary results come in as I work this evening... Kerry is obviously doing well, but so is Edwards -- so far he's up by a full 15% in South Carolina where I was expecting more like 5%. Oklahoma looks like a Clark-Edwards tie at the moment with Kerry a close third, but this is at 38% of precincts reporting so the order could easily change. Other states are less exciting with big Kerry leads. Looks bad for Dean, who is under 15% everywhere (way under in many places). (Update: I spoke too soon; it's a Kerry/Dean/Clark tie in New Mexico now that they've got some numbers there; not that 1/3 of New Mexico's delegates will do Dean much good.)

I must say I like the proportional allocation of (at-large) delegates. I can think of my vote as contributing some tiny fraction of a delegate, rather than something that only makes a difference if the vote count is an exact tie. In the end since delegates are, well, quantized my vote still has to push the vote total over some threshhold to make a difference, but that's at least more probable. I like having delegates allocated by district (as opposed to winner-take-all) as well, for similar reasons. Still, under certain circumstances the leading candidate can take the entire state with 51% of the vote, as Kerry is currently doing with Delaware.

Anyway, I'm happy to see Edwards do well - as I've said before I think he's the candidate most likely to defeat Bush (based purely on a cynical style-over-substance view of the American swing voter), and for the less strategic reason that I'd prefer not to have my November ballot consist of a choice between two members of Skull and Bones.

February 2, 2004

Check it out!

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:43 PM

As you can see, Movable Type is up and running. Unfortunately I have to figure out why the old comments weren't carried over. Then I'll change the visual style from the default.

UPDATE: (10:19 PM) Yes! Solved the comment problem. Everything is carried over. I'm going home now.

More server craziness

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:28 PM
I'm taking the server down occasionally to test portions of the Movable Type install. You may get some strange results during this process. Of course, you won't see this message either (but I'm hoping you'll see it in between tests).


Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:35 PM
I don't know why the comment reading scripts are broken, except that I broke them Friday night when I was working on my import script. I'll fix it after lunch.

UPDATE: Seems to be fixed by restarting Apache. I have no idea.

Best ad: New Van Helsing trailer.

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:09 PM
The new quote is too easy; 0.5 bonus points for correctly identifying it. Wasn't I going to make it more difficult? Oh, well.

Earlier I suggested I might review Super Bowl ads, but I seem to have forgotten most of them already. (But the game was actually interesting!) Check out Slate's ad critic instead. I managed to miss the real highlight of the evening, Janet Jackson's, uh, revealing moment. (Just trying to avoid the disturbing search requests here.) Fortunately, within minutes a number of helpful websites were available to fill me in on what I missed.

February 1, 2004

Blogiversary, or something

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:24 PM
One year ago today, I made the first entry on this website, about the space shuttle accident. Somehow, after all that's happened in the world, I'm still updating the site rather than hiding in my closet waiting for the apocalypse. Thanks to all my readers, who inexplicably keep coming back.

Today is also my father's birthday--I won't say how old he is, but it's a big, round number--and you can celebrate by buying a copy of The Night of the Dance, which has been nominated for a Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe Award in the category of Best First Novel by an American Author. (Sadly, no link; the MWA hasn't posted the 2004 nominations on the web yet.) The full list of nominees is here.