May 31, 2004

Insomniac Quote Post

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:36 AM

Last week: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

This week's difficulty: Severe; 5 points.

May 27, 2004

When SUVs are outlawed...

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:53 PM

I'm reading about Kerry's speech today and the Republican response. Is this the best they've got?

Kerry outlines global mission for U.S.

Republicans also complained that if Kerry wants to end America's dependence on Mideast oil, he should support opening Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, which he opposes.

"His solution is to make families drive around in small, unsafe cars," Virginia Sen. George Allen said on a Republican conference call to respond to Kerry's speech in Seattle.

Right. The USGS estimates 5.25 billion barrels of economically recoverable oil in ANWR. That's enough to end our dependence on foreign oil for almost an entire year. But I guess that's the sort of long term planning one should expect from the party that brought you the current budget deficit.

And which is the more ridiculous implication of Sen. Allen's statement: that Kerry is somehow going to force families to drive small cars, or that small cars are intrinsically unsafe (as compared, presumably, with SUVs, whose poor handling, high center of gravity, and tendency to roll over make them paragons of safety)?

In the California energy crisis a few years back the residents of our great state voluntarily reduced our energy consumption by ten percent. Perhaps Sen. Allen feels that his constituents are insufficiently patriotic to make similar sacrifices for the cause of our nation's energy independence, leading him to believe that Kerry would have to "make" them conserve. How sad.

Well, I've been to one world fair, a picnic, and a rodeo, and that's the stupidest thing I ever heard come over a set of earphones.

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:54 PM

Can this be true?

Armageddon Almost Not Averted

To launch a Minuteman in those days, one had to "unlock" the missile by dialing in a code -- the equivalent of a safety catch on a handgun. However, Blair reports, the U.S. Strategic Air Command was worried that a bunch of sissy safety features might slow things down. It ordered all locks set to 00000000 -- and in launch checklists, reminded all launch officers like Blair to keep the codes there. "So the 'secret unlock code' during the height of the nuclear crises of the Cold War," Blair says, "remained constant at 00000000."

Someone contact Dark Helmet; "12345" is no longer the stupidest combination I've ever heard in my life. How did we, as a species, survive the 70's? (via Fark)

May 25, 2004

CNN Tackles a Complex Math Problem

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:22 PM

CNN brings us the cutting-edge in political science:

Database predicts July 21 for Kerry VP announcement

(CNN) -- Whom and when presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry will announce as his running mate for the 2004 presidential race is still anyone's guess, but one leading database has dug deep into its memory and arrived at a "historical" prediction.

LexisNexis, a provider of legal, news and business information services, conducted a comprehensive search of more than 32,000 historical sources.

It concluded that if Kerry chooses to announce his running mate before the Democratic National Convention in Boston, he will most likely announce his decision July 21 -- five days before the convention begins.

32,000 sources! Must be a complicated algorithm they're employing:
The LexisNexis search discovered that in the last 48 years, only four Democratic candidates for president named their running mates before the national convention -- Al Gore in 2000, seven days before; Bill Clinton in 1992, four days before; Michael Dukakis in 1988, six days before; and Walter Mondale in 1984, four days before. Clinton was the only person of that group elected.

So in the last 20 years, every non-incumbent Dem candidate named his running mate before the convention. But anyway, on to the science:
To calculate the date, LexisNexis added the total days that each of the four candidates announced ahead, then divided that number by four.

Hey! I hear there's a mathematical name for this technique.
The result: 5.25, according to LexisNexis's Manager of Public Relations Randy Dunham.

"According to..."? Does CNN not have the computing power to check the calculation? This isn't the Iowa Electronic Market, guys - he averaged some one-digit numbers.

The Slayage Conference

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:45 PM
Scholars plan to espouse merits of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'

A total of 190 academic papers from around the globe will be presented at The Slayage Conference on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It begins Friday morning. Physicists, philosophers, theologians and other academicians will present their takes on Buffy and its themes of redemption, mortality, evil and what it means to be human.

I can't decide whether attending this would be really cool or really horrifying.

May 24, 2004

Vanity Post #2

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:48 PM

At Unfogged, Ogged considers the disadvantages of bloggers posting pictures of themselves. Of course, most of my readers know me personally, and therefore have no illusions about what I look like. This is convenient, because it allows me to post the following query: It was recently suggested* that I resemble Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now. Having never seen said movie myself**, I have no way to verify this claim other than to ask you guys (in nifty poll format):

For reference***:

Arcane GazeboMartin Sheen

*By some dude in a bar, so I'm skeptical.

**It's been on my list of "movies I really ought to see" for a while.

***I promise not to post any more pictures of myself unless absolutely necessary.

The Bright Side of Life

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:51 AM

Easy quotes lately... Last week was Life of Brian. This week's difficulty: Easy; 1 point.

May 22, 2004

Rest in Peace

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:43 PM

The Millikan Man is no more.

May 21, 2004

Promotional items

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:35 PM

Waiting for Life of Brian to start... They are handing out prayer cards at concessions; must be left over from The Passion. Also, in the lobby you can get your picture taken in front of a crucifixion backdrop under the words "Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life". I assume that's not left over from The Passion.

Photographic Evidence

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:47 PM

A gratuitous vanity post: here's my race photo from Bay to Breakers, shamelessly downloaded from the photo company's website (hence the watermark).

Notice that I am outrunning Superman (and therefore, any speeding bullets).

And now for something completely different.

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:19 PM

Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ has inspired many people, including Monty Python, who were moved to re-release Life of Brian as a kind of antidote. It opens in Berkeley today.

Concidentally, it was brought to my attention today (via Atrios) that Eric Idle has written a new song (click on "Download Here") about the FCC and certain other government agencies. I bet you they won't play this song on the radio, either.

(Eric Idle is, of course, a member of Monty Python, and the writer and lead singer of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life".)

May 20, 2004

West Contra Costa special election endorsements

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 8:18 PM

Yes and yes.

[Two ballot measures, both property tax hikes; one is to prevent the local hospital from closing and the other to fund the disastrously underfunded school district, which has had to end sports programs and close libraries.]

I suspect the school measure is doomed to failure like its predecessor on March 3; if they had managed to attach it as a rider to the hospital measure on the other hand...

Look to your left.

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:52 PM

A while back I noticed my blogroll didn't match up very well to my collection of RSS feeds, but I had been putting off sidebar adjustments until I could figure out how to classify some of the new additions. Eventually I gave up, decided some blogs defy categorization, and lumped all the blogs into one section. Most but not all are political in nature, but they're all recommended.

I took the opportunity to perform some other sidebar renovations:

"Connections" are links to (a) websites of people I know personally (but blogs go in the blog section) or (b) websites of groups of which I am a member.

The "lore" section should help with my more obscure references, and I figured if I'm going to have lore I should also have data.

The Media Room is not intended to be a list of endorsements (except of course for the shameless plug!), but rather a sampling of my recent media intake.

The sidebar is longer as a result, so I will have to post more often to make sure it doesn't outrun the blog like it's doing now. (Or I could just have older entries show up on the main page.)

May 19, 2004

Ye Shall Be As Gods

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:05 AM

Slate investigates the possibility that the universe was created by a physicist.

"What my theoretical argument shows—and Alan Guth and others who have looked at this matter have come to the same conclusion—is that we can't rule out the possibility that our own universe was created in a lab by someone in another universe who just felt like doing it."

This illustrates a valuable lesson: just because someone can create a universe does not mean he is worthy of being worshipped. I also found this line amusing:
More orthodox believers, on the other hand, will seek refuge in the question, "But who created the physicist hacker?"

I'm not sure they'll find much refuge there -- not when a similar question can be posed for the more orthodox beliefs...

May 18, 2004

On "The Jesus Landing Pad"

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:22 PM

I was going to post on this Village Voice article, but after reading the Slacktivist's take I decided to just link to him instead. (I was planning to link his Buffy metaphor anyway.)

The good news is that our Middle East policy is not being dictated by the Left Behind novels; the bad news is that the administration wants some people to believe that it is.

May 17, 2004

Bay to Breakers

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 7:45 PM

I ran in San Francisco's famous Bay to Breakers race yesterday. The Examiner has some coverage that conveys a bit of the flavor of the race, although they do have an interest in promoting it. Assorted thoughts:

  • A disadvantage of being tall is that one's head is a prime target for airborne tortillas.
  • The tiki hut was indeed quite impressive.
  • The East Bay hills were excellent training for Hayes St. That hill wasn't bad at all.
  • Stopping to use the bathroom at mile 4 must have added at least 15 minutes to my time (the line was that long). Next year, less water beforehand.
  • On the other hand, running with the rest of the Kerry group prevented me from running for time, so it's not a big deal.
  • The utility of associating with the Kerry group in fact exceeded any utility I might gain from finishing earlier, so I made the rational choice in this regard. This event further confirmed my hypothesis about the non-political value of involvement in the campaign.
  • Angel: The quiet, reserved thing -- don't you think that makes me kind of, I don't know, cool?
    Cordelia: [indicating Wesley] He was cooler.
  • Another note for next year: wake up a little earlier so I have time to put on sunscreen.

Dusting off the keyboard

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 7:32 PM

Where have I been lately? As it happens, any single one of Ninja Gaiden, Angel on DVD, or Quicksilver is addictive, but the three in combination is highly dangerous. It's a wonder I've been making it to lab at all. On the other hand, I dreamed last night that I was debating Abu Ghraib with several people who read this page (though the debate was in person), which I take as a clear sign that I need to return to blogging.

Anyway, last week's quote was from The Big Lebowski; I'm rating this week's Moderate (2 points) though it may be more like 1.5.

May 10, 2004

The meritocratic margin of error

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:50 PM

The Caltech discussion board on orkut has a thread running on affirmative action. I'm crossposting here the argument I made in favor of "affirmative action within the margin of error". Feel free to punch holes in it so that I can refine the argument (or discard it if it's just flat-out wrong). (I think in a strict sense I am misusing the term "meritocratic" which is supposed to refer to government.)

Some [participants in the orkut discussion] seem to be arguing for a totally meritocratic admissions process. One could imagine a process in which the admissions committee distills each application into some single metric of qualification, something like a "predicted GPA". Then they could just take the top N applicants.

This hypothetical process has its appeal, but the obvious practical problem is the uncertainty associated with any particular metric that might be chosen. Since the college application provides very incomplete information about the applicant, this uncertainty will be rather large.

The University of California found that a linear combination of high school GPA and SAT II scores was the best predictor of freshman GPA, but it's still not very good, explaining only 20% of the variance. The College Board's own data (pdf) shows a .69 correlation for their metric (a combination of SAT I and HS GPA) in the category relevant to Tech. The point is that there is information about a student's qualifications which is not in the application, and this leads to substantial uncertainty in any ranking by admissions.

Which raises the issue of tie-breakers. A "tie", after all, isn't a pair of identical applications, but two students who both appear to be qualified within the margin of error. The margin of error being rather large, a certain number of ties are certain to occur in any admissions cycle, and admissions has to choose some non-meritocratic way of resolving them. I don't have a problem with their choosing affirmative action as this method.

To add a bit (based on feedback I got in the original discussion), actual colleges obviously do use a lot of information in the application apart from the SAT/GPA numbers. My sense is that the additional data doesn't add much to the determination of which applicants are qualified to attend the school, but are useful to admissions in other ways. I didn't address these things because the concern of the affirmative action opponents seemed to be that applicants were being held to different standards based on gender or ethnicity, and I'm pretty sure they mean things like SAT scores and not community service.

Am I wrong?

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:11 PM

Last week's quote was from Richard Kelly's teen-angst film Donnie Darko. This week's is difficulty: Easy; 1 point.

May 7, 2004

Van Helsing

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:36 PM
Buffy: A guy like you should think about going electric. Seriously.
Dracula took that advice a little too far in this movie. It had its moments, but didn't meet my standard for Dracula movies, which is that they should be at least as good as "Buffy vs. Dracula". Admittedly this is not a low bar. Anyway, Van Helsing: action scenes were competent but not exceptional, and I never got the sense that the characters were in any actual danger; dialogue was typically pretty lame, but who really cares about dialogue in this sort of movie; Van Helsing's sidekick was pretty amusing and his secret society at the Vatican was intriguing, wish there was a bit more about it (maybe in the sequel); Kate Beckinsale is hot (time to go rent Underworld, I think). That's pretty much it.

Stream of consciousness preview blogging

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 7:56 PM

This is an experiment. I haven't actually had any beer, so it shouldn't be too weird. Insipid pre-show ads. Spooky ghost movie by Sixth Sense guy. Metal, leather - Catwoman! Car chase, Matt Damon in Bourne sequel. Weird-ass Riddick preview. Could actually be cool.

It can't be that bad...

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:35 AM

Van Helsing's 20% tomatometer rating will not deter me! Based on the few positive reviews like this and this (both contain spoilers) I have developed a strategy for enjoying this movie that basically consists of drinking a few beers beforehand. I'll let you all know how it goes.

May 6, 2004

Experts = Window Dressing

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 7:18 PM

War on science? War on women? War on sex? All of the above?

FDA Blocks Over-the-Counter Plan B Sales
WASHINGTON -- The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday rejected over-the-counter sale of the emergency contraceptive Plan B, saying that the distributor had not proven that young teens can take the drug safely without a doctor's guidance.

The decision was an unusual repudiation of the the lopsided recommendation of the agency's own expert advisory panel, which voted 23-4 late last year in favor of the switch and 27-0 that the drug could be safely sold as an over-the-counter medication.

Question for the FDA: What the fuck is the point of having an expert advisory panel if you're just going to ignore it?
(via Kos)

I'm Pious. I'm Damn Pious.

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:55 PM

Speaking of religion, it's the National Day of Prayer. Needless to say, I did not pass up such an opportunity for spiritual fulfillment.

I was actually standing on that altar at the time, but it's not National Day of Offerings.

I bet Ollie North didn't get any shimmering lights with his prayer. Unless he was struck by lightning. That'd get me back into church.

This is important, when you're about to go slaughter gnomes in his name.

Methodists Just Following Orders

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:44 PM

The Methodist church (my former denomination) has been debating their official stance on homosexuality. Methodists are notorious fence-sitters, and on this issue they have compromised with language that allows them to be intolerant without making a moral judgement: they have decided on the assertion that homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching".

They don't want to say that it's "wrong" or "immoral" or "sinful", so they choose "incompatible" -- the implication being that they don't really know why the Bible prohibits it, but they're going to follow it anyway. It's the kind of language you'd expect if they'd decided to enforce the biblical prohibition on mixed fabrics (Lev. 19:19). "Wearing a cotton/polyester blend is incompatible with Christian teachings."

Now maybe I should be congratulating the Methodists for the implicit recognition that nothing is intrinsically wrong with homosexuality, but the fact is that in spite of this they continue to prohibit it, with what amounts to the old "I was just following orders" excuse. Pretty lame, really.

The theological problem with suggesting that there are some acts which are prohibited by God but not immoral is that it implies some standard of morality external to God. And if one then goes and applies such a moral standard uniformly to the Bible, one might well come to the conclusion that Christian teachings have very little moral authority at all. Naturally I wholeheartedly approve of this conclusion, but it may not be the message that the Methodist church wants to be sending.

Ninja Gaiden as Literature

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:01 PM

This piece on Slate compares playing Ninja Gaiden to reading The Odyssey, but also manages to approximate the reason it's fun. I will mention that hours of training in Soul Caliber and Dynasty Warriors has prepared me to fare somewhat better than the author of that piece, although I am currently getting demolished on the (sub-?)boss of Chapter 10. I've been surprised by how many times I've been "stuck" in this game and yet have managed to move on after a little bit of practice. It's well-paced in that regard.

May 5, 2004

Halo of Bullets

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:53 AM

Here's an interesting (and scary) paper from two UCSC physicists on a disastrous consequence of fighting wars in low earth-orbit:

Abstract: Many philosophers argue that one cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”, but sometimes science tells us things that should lead most people to the same conclusion about what ought to be done. The current debate over missile defense has failed to emphasize a crucial point: even one war in space will create a battlefield that will last forever, encasing the entire planet in a shell of whizzing debris that will thereafter make space near the earth highly hazardous for peaceful as well as military purposes. With enough orbiting debris, pieces will begin to hit other pieces, whose fragments will in turn hit more pieces, setting off a chain reaction of destruction that will leave a lethal halo around the Earth. No actual space war even has to be fought to create this catastrophe; any country that felt threatened by America’s starting to place lasers or other weapons into space would only have to launch the equivalent of gravel to destroy the sophisticated weaponry. Wise people have pointed out that missile defense will waste hundreds of billions of dollars that could be spent combating the real threats in the modern world. Short term political interests pale before the overwhelming, eternal immorality of imprisoning Earth for all future generations in a halo of bullets. This horrible crime would dishonor our ancestors, plant and animal alike, who bequeathed this beautiful blue planet to us, and cripple our descendents, who would never forgive us.

(via Prometheus)

May 4, 2004

Dancing Queen

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 8:54 PM
It's possible some of the singers got a head start on the alcohol before arriving.

Live from Kerry-oke

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 8:31 PM
None of you slackers contributed a song for Kerry-oke, and shockingly I didn't get around to writing something myself. I could always adapt Eric Cartman's method for writing Christian rock to this occasion should it become necessary...


Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 7:33 PM

Blondie's Pizza has hiked the price of the pepperoni special* by fifty cents. I suspect this is evidence of a profound economic trend which I am not sufficiently trained to identify. I believe this brings the price of this particular combination** to the same level as at the other Telegraph Ave. pizza joints***. Someone should track the prices at Greg's and Fat Slice to see if similar increases occur.

Since a similar price hike does not**** appear to have been applied to the pizza sans soda, this may be a good opportunity to reduce my soda consumption.

*i.e. a slice of pepperoni and a 16 oz tap soda

**About which it is no longer clear that there is anything "special".

***La Val's is cheaper, but this is because their pizza tastes like cardboard dipped in axle grease.


Strategic Considerations of Nader Voters

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:20 PM

A common argument from Nader supporters is that by voting for Nader (or announcing intent to vote for Nader) they put pressure on Democratic candidates to adopt more liberal positions. I have lately been wondering whether this makes any sense.

Taking a simplistic one-dimensional model of policy space, suppose that a potential Kerry voter expresses a preference for Nader, and this causes John Kerry to consider a shift in his own positions to make up for this lost vote. He can move incrementally to the left in an attempt to win back this Nader voter, but by doing so he'll alienate moderate voters, and since the voter density is higher in the center of the spectrum than at the Naderite fringe, he'll end up losing votes overall with this policy shift. On the other hand, he can try to compensate for the Nader voter by moving slightly rightward to gain the support of a right-leaning moderate. Again because of the higher voter density, Kerry needs a smaller policy step to accomplish this. An even bigger advantage is that winning a moderate vote takes a vote away from Bush, and therefore puts him two votes ahead of his only realistic competitor while recovering the Naderite's vote only gains him one. This seems to imply that if declaring a preference for Nader will affect a Democratic candidate's position, it will move it rightward.

Ok, but the other way this argument is usually phrased is that the Kerry shouldn't take the left wing for granted, and this seems to hold up under the same line of reasoning: if a liberal voter declares support for Kerry regardless of whether third-party candidates who are closer to his preferences enter the race, Kerry is again free to move slightly rightward to pick up valuable swing votes.

So now it looks like no matter what the liberal voter does, he can only move Kerry's position to the right. Which in turn suggests that Kerry (if he is motivated purely by political calculation) will take the rightmost position he can. In other words, I've just reinvented the Median Voter Theorem. There's normally no equilibrium in the three-candidate case, but presumably if one candidate takes a fixed position at one end of the spectrum (as Nader has) an equilibrium may arise for the remaining two candidates, and if so it will certainly be to the right of the median voter. Therefore Nader's entry into the race moves both parties to the right. Thanks, Ralph!

I think there are two lessons here:

  1. Don't vote for Nader! (But you knew that.)
  2. Rather than attempting to change the Democratic Party's positions by threatening to vote for a third-party candidate, it is more effective to attempt to convince moderate voters of the virtues of liberalism, thereby moving the median voter to the left and forcing the Democratic Party (and the GOP!) to become more liberal in response.

But this also raises a question: if the Median Voter Theorem applies to American politics, how does the Bush administration get away with such a right-wing agenda on so many issues?

May 3, 2004

Selective Service proposes expanded registration

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:00 PM

A new advance in gender equality!

Selective Service eyes women's draft
The chief of the Selective Service System has proposed registering women for the military draft and requiring that young Americans regularly inform the government about whether they have training in niche specialties needed in the armed services.

On the other hand, I may have to postpone that "No Longer Eligible for the Draft" party I was planning for November:
The proposal, which the agency's acting Director Lewis Brodsky presented to senior Pentagon officials just before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, also seeks to extend the age of draft registration to 34 years old, up from 25.

Another Monday

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 7:42 AM

This week's quote was Josh's suggestion. Difficulty: Moderate; 2 points

May 2, 2004

Globalizing Science

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 8:58 PM

In tomorrow's New York Times:

U.S. Is Losing Its Dominance in the Sciences
The United States has started to lose its worldwide dominance in critical areas of science and innovation, according to federal and private experts who point to strong evidence like prizes awarded to Americans and the number of papers in major professional journals.

Foreign advances in basic science now often rival or even exceed America's, apparently with little public awareness of the trend or its implications for jobs, industry, national security or the vigor of the nation's intellectual and cultural life.

"The rest of the world is catching up," said John E. Jankowski, a senior analyst at the National Science Foundation, the federal agency that tracks science trends. "Science excellence is no longer the domain of just the U.S."

If it's just that the world is catching up, i.e. other countries are devoting increasing resources to scientific research, I have a hard time seeing much that's bad about this. More publicly available science benefits everybody (and if we're talking at published articles and prizes, we're talking about publicly available science).

On the other hand, factors that decrease (or slow) America's scientific output in absolute terms could be worrisome.

Shirley Ann Jackson, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told the recent forum audience that the drop in foreign students, the apparently declining interest of young Americans in science careers and the aging of the technical work force were, taken together, a perilous combination of developments.
Apparently declining interest of young Americans? This is barely mentioned in the article. I'd rather read more about this, which really is cause for concern, rather than this odd "How horrible, China's doing science!" angle.

Referrers and References

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:11 PM

I have returned to the Bay Area. I would like to thank Continental Airlines for providing an edible meal this time (as opposed to my flight to New York).

If my alcohol-influenced thoughts on the Edgars were insufficient, check out this detailed rundown by Sarah Weinman, a blogger who happened to be sitting to my immediate left at the ceremony. I must confess (although most of you know this) that mystery is not a genre with which I am very familiar, and therefore her account is rather opaque to me, but presumably all this means more to certain of my readers. Also, I can produce this link as evidence that I do, occasionally, talk to people (or at least crack jokes* at them).

*Sarah does not, however, make any claim** that my jokes are funny.

**While I'm over-parsing, I am curious in what sense Berkeley is "thereabouts" of Texas.