August 31, 2005

Thoughts on religious tax-exemption... with twist ending!

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:06 PM

You know an article is flamebait when it begins with a sentence like, "Thank God for child-molesting priests, I always say." That piece from last week's East Bay Express seems to have been written as an entry in a hate mail collection competition. The topic: why we should collect property tax from churches.

Now, my gut response is generally that of course churches should be subject to the same taxes as other non-profit organizations. But while reading this article, a couple of caveats occurred to me. Maybe this isn't such a good idea...

For one thing, this wouldn't really be a tax on churches, but a tax on church parishioners passed on by collection plate and fundraiser. I seem to recall that church attendance decreases with increased socioeconomic status (if anyone has statistics supporting or rebutting this let me know), so this tax would be highly regressive. This alone might be reason to continue the tax-exempt status. Meanwhile, I would guess that most secular non-profits draw more donations from higher-income donors, so the same argument wouldn't apply. [The relevant statistics for determining whether the tax is in fact regressive would be donations by socioeconomic status; if donation amounts increase faster with income than church attendance decreases, which is plausible, it might not be so bad. These statistics are probably harder to come by.]

Another factor is that churches will streamline operations so as to mitigate the amount of additional funding necessary. This will lead inevitably to the Wal-Martization of churches in the US, with smaller congregations either closing shop or being absorbed into increasingly large numbers of those scary megachurches that meet in sports stadiums with tacky laser shows and bad Christian rock. (I suppose "bad Christian rock" is redundant.)

So this atheist says: don't tax the churches. However, I would like to request tax-exempt status for my own Cathedral of His Noodliness the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Backgrounds [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:20 PM

Another late open thread, it seems I've been spending my blogging energy on other topics. Generally I was pretty wiped out on Monday and early Tuesday following a busy weekend, but I seem to have recovered. It looks like I'm about to have another busy weekend, but at least this one will be spread out over three days.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin: Surprisingly, this movie was really very funny. It initially sounded like this would be another formula comedy in which the characters find themselves in increasingly wacky situations, and hilarity is supposed to ensue. This is indeed the structure of the movie, but most of the humor actually derives from the interactions between the characters, who are very well written and acted. The movie is surprisingly sympathetic and realistic in its depictions of shyness, which is only one of several factors contributing to the main character's romantic difficulties. One of the central jokes is that the male supporting characters are just as dysfunctional in their relationships, even if they have more sexual success, and the mockery is hence pretty egalitarian. The major flaw in this movie comes from the sappier elements, which become more and more prominent towards the end, leading to a finale that played according to genre conventions—but the genre was romantic comedy, when I thought I was watching a sex farce. Maybe that was to attract a broader audience, I don't know.

The Life and Times: Suburban Hymns: I get kind of a late 90's alt-rock feel from this album. Lots of distortion and incomprehensible vocals. This is the kind of album that works well in the background, the tracks blend together and individual songs don't call much attention to themselves. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but makes it a bit frustrating to review when I've owned the CD for two weeks and still can't tell the songs apart. Selecting somewhat randomly, I'm uploading "Coat of Arms".

I need to get my hands on this track-by-track remix of Bloc Party's debut album Silent Alarm. Check out that list of contributors...

August 30, 2005

Hurricane relief info

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:52 PM

For a more rational and compassionate response to the hurricane than the one in the previous post, see this list of relief organizations.

I just discovered that my three months living in Britain no longer disqualify me from giving blood, so I'm going to see about making a donation soon.

Divine wrath, illustrated with cloud pictures

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:47 PM

Via Pandagon: I pretty much expected something like this, although I had no idea it would be so over-the-top crazy:

The image of the hurricane above with its eye already ashore at 12:32 PM Monday, August 29 looks like a fetus (unborn human baby) facing to the left (west) in the womb, in the early weeks of gestation (approx. 6 weeks). Even the orange color of the image is reminiscent of a commonly used pro-life picture of early prenatal development (see sign with picture of 8-week pre-born human child below). In this picture, and in another picture in today's on-line edition of USA Today*, this hurricane looks like an unborn human child.

Louisiana has 10 child-murder-by-abortion centers - FIVE are in New Orleans ('Find an Abortion Clinic [sic]')

Baby-murder state # 1 - California (125 abortion centers) - land of earthquakes, forest fires, and mudslides
Baby-murder state # 2 - New York (78 abortion centers) - 9-11 Ground Zero
Baby-murder state # 3 - Florida (73 abortion centers) - Hurricanes Bonnie, Charley, Frances, Ivan, Jeanne in 2004; and now, Hurricane Katrina in 2005

God's message: REPENT AMERICA !

If we still don't get it, presumably God will make the next hurricane actually spell out the letters "REPENT AMERICA". Kind of like really destructive skywriting. I can't wait to see what these dudes say when the Big One wrecks San Francisco and/or Berkeley. Um, assuming I survive.

In which I decline a meme, verbosely.

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:58 PM

There's this meme going around where you go here, type the year of your high school graduation into the search box, and get the list of top 100 songs that year. Then you indicate the ones you liked and hated. Given music tastes of the other bloggers I read, this meme tends to devolve into a claim that the list in question is a milestone in unbelievably crappy music. My only participation here is to note that 1997 distinguishes itself with an especially bad top ten, and when #11 and #12 are included you pretty much have songs that are on heavy rotation in hell itself. After that the list is mostly just mediocre with some actual good songs mixed in.

Anyway, it seems like the three categories (liked/hated/don't care) in most implementations of this meme are insufficient. Were I to mark up the entire list (which I'm not, because I'm lazy busy! At work!), I would use the following four classifications:

  1. Songs I haven't heard, don't care about, or don't recognize from the title/artist.
  2. Songs I might have liked, except everyone was playing them my freshman year at college and I got really sick of them.
  3. Songs I dislike.
  4. Songs I hate with the intensity of a thousand burning suns. A single strikethrough line is insufficient for something like R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly;" I need something like a mushroom cloud I can superimpose on the list.

I can't argue that 1997 was the worst year, as Scott Lemieux's list from 1990 clearly trumps mine in awfulness. I did start to wonder if every year would, taken on its own, look especially bad, since we forget about all these mass-produced songs that are ubiquitous for a few months and then (thankfully) vanish forever. To prove this theory, I decided to look at a year from an era that supposedly produced a lot of great music: The Top 100 Songs of 1968.

Wow. Those... those are actually pretty good. Damn.

Permalink | Tags: Lists, Music

"Yawning gaps in basic knowledge"

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 12:00 PM

See those dents in my desk? There's one for every time I see the results of a survey like this:

Dr. Miller's data reveal some yawning gaps in basic knowledge. American adults in general do not understand what molecules are (other than that they are really small). Fewer than a third can identify DNA as a key to heredity. Only about 10 percent know what radiation is. One adult American in five thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth, an idea science had abandoned by the 17th century.

Excuse me a minute... [bangs head on desk, labels new dent "2005"]

I should figure out what I, as a scientist, can/should be doing to improve basic science education. At least no one is trying to argue that science classes should "teach both sides" of the Earth-Sun orbit controversy... on the other hand, Biblical literalism demands a geocentric system just as much as it demands creationism, and the current Pope considers the Inquisition's persecution of Galileo to have been "reasonable and just", so maybe this is next once Intelligent Design gets established.

August 26, 2005

Friday Catblogging: Departure

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:49 PM

catblogging: departure

I haven't seen Omen in six weeks... maybe he's found better-tasting cat treats elsewhere?

ID and Kuhn

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:38 PM

The other day I saw a commenter at Brad DeLong's blog assert that Intelligent Design was a scientific revolution of the kind described by Thomas Kuhn. Once I stopped laughing, I began to wonder whether this was a common belief among ID proponents.

I guess it is, since Matt Yglesias devotes a long post to rebutting this notion. I usually enjoy Yglesias' more philosophy-oriented posts, and this one is particularly good. Key paragraph:

Similarly, the brute fact that ID has a lot of problems doesn't refute it. The problem with ID is that, unlike real revolutionary science, it doesn't lead to any normal science. There are no ID-based research programs. Nothing has never been accomplished by applying the ID paradigm to a question in biology. All ID's scholarly (and "scholarly") proponents do is try to offer half-assed refutations of Darwin. You can quote Kuhn all you like, but you're not doing revolutionary science unless your purported revolution leads to some normal science. Intelligent design does not.

August 25, 2005

Coincidentally, I am eating their research subject as I post this.

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 9:30 PM

In high school physics class we watched a video about Richard Feynman, and in one scene he talked about a problem that occurred to him while cooking dinner with a friend one evening. The problem: why do strands of dried spaghetti break into more than two pieces? He and his friend became utterly distracted from their dinner, instead spending the evening snapping spaghetti in half and trying to understand the process. They never solved the problem.

It was reported last week that the answer has been found. It turns out that the initial break in the spaghetti sends waves down the strand, and these waves increase the stress as they pass by, creating additional breaks.

Supposedly this is actually useful:

The team points out that the motivation for this research extends far beyond the kitchen. The brittle steel struts in skyscrapers, buildings and bridges can fragment by similar mechanisms, so this research can have practical implications in helping to make structures safer.

"The physical process of fragmentation is relevant to many areas of science and technology," they declare.

The experimenters' website is here (with video!). Their paper came out today in PRL; it can be found here.

Permalink | Tags: Physics

August 24, 2005

That popping sound was my lingering respect for McCain finally evaporating.

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:49 PM

Hey, remember in 2000 when John McCain said this:

We are the party of Ronald Reagan not Pat Robertson. We are the party of Theodore Roosevelt not the party of special interests. We are the party of Abraham Lincoln not Bob Jones.

He's changed his mind.
On Tuesday, though, he sided with the president on two issues that have made headlines recently: teaching intelligent design in schools and Cindy Sheehan, the grieving mother who has come to personify the anti-war movement.

McCain told the Star that, like Bush, he believes "all points of view" should be available to students studying the origins of mankind.

I had thought that McCain was one of the better Republicans on science issues, but I guess he, too, has decided he wants to live in the 1800's. To welcome you to Team Ignorance, your complimentary Leeches 'N Bloodletting Home Medical Kit will be arriving shortly! (Via Pharyngula.)

I put the CD in OCD

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:46 PM

I remember being shocked back in May when Amanda at Pandagon said, "A mix CD takes like half an hour, tops, which means that you can pretty much arrange it, drop the disc in and by the time you've finished making your sandwich, it's done." My procedure for mix CDs takes about a week and goes like this:

  1. Open iTunes and start a new playlist dedicated to the mix CD. Create a text file with the same title.
  2. Go through my master playlist looking for songs that fit the theme and intended recipient of the CD, which are added to the new playlist.
  3. Switch to the new playlist. Select the leadoff song, and start arranging the subsequent tracks based on what songs will go well together. Sometimes I'll choose the closing song right away too. There are probably more than 80 minutes worth of songs on the playlist, so I leave the extra ones at the bottom (in case I want to switch them in later) and make a note of where the 80-minute cutoff is.
  4. Note the current tracklist in the text file.
  5. Listen to the playlist all the way through to the 80-minute mark. While listening, make notes in the text file on the overall flow of the CD and the feel of each track in context. I usually mark songs with + or - signs based on whether I like their current position, along with more specific thoughts when appropriate.
  6. Revise the playlist based on my notes, both rearranging the order and replacing songs entirely. Usually the original ordering gets heavily revised, as there will be lots of song pairings that I thought would sound good but sound terrible in actuality.
  7. Repeat steps 4-6 until satisfied. This usually means three or four times. I tend to do one iteration per day so I don't get too sick of the songs.
  8. Burn a disc from iTunes and play the whole thing through on good speakers to get a sense of overall flow. Usually I have done the previous steps on headphones, so this allows me to listen to it in another context. I tend to be pretty happy with it at this stage. Almost done...
  9. Wait! While walking to work in the morning, my iPod shuffles up a song that has to be on the mix. I don't know how I overlooked it! Since the CD is already 79 minutes and 53 seconds, I have to pick a song to drop to fit the new one, and this introduces a perturbation into the (unstable!) tracklist equilibrium. Go through another iteration or two of arranging.
  10. With the final tracklist in hand, go to my music shelves and track down the original CD for each song. I buy most of my music on CD rather than through iTunes or otherwise, so I usually have the albums I need.
  11. Rip the tracks off the original albums in an uncompressed format.
  12. Burn a master copy of the mix from the CD-quality files.
  13. Listen to the master once to make sure no glitches were introduced in the rip/burn process.
  14. Make copies directly from the master for each recipient.
  15. Distribute copies appropriately, file master in personal archives.

Amanda's right that the mix CD is too convenient (compared to the mix tape), but in the sense that it's too convenient to tweak the mix endlessly. With a tape it's much more of a pain in the ass to go back and change things once you've done the recording. My advisor has the same complaint about how computers have changed the way scientific papers are written.

In fact, it just occurred to me that parts of this process are strikingly analogous to the process of editing a paper for submission to a peer-reviewed journal. Just substitute figures and equations for songs, and a limit of four pages instead of 80 minutes. Somehow the mix CD version is a lot more fun, though.

Permalink | Tags: Music

August 23, 2005

Notes on Spam

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:10 PM

1. What kind of comment spammer only posts links to Google? Someone was seriously posting these all over some recent threads this morning. Testing out new spamming software maybe? I'm mystified.

2. Even my UC Berkeley spam is now advertising Texas Hold 'em. Next they'll be trying to sell me herbal viagra.

3. I worry about the search engine traffic I'm going to get once Google indexes this post.

Parallels and Patterns [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:47 PM

Man, actual science blogging is fun but difficult. There may be more of it in the future, since people seem to like it. If I'm lucky, I'll get some crackpots to populate the comment threads for extra entertainment!

Meanwhile, I have no intention of neglecting the cultural aspect of this blog. Although the open threads seem to be migrating to Tuesdays...

J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: This is Rowling's most anti-statist book yet. The wizard arm of the government continues its slide into fascism, as it covers up intelligence failures, suppresses dissent, employs the press as a propaganda arm, scapegoats minorities and political opponents, dismisses expert teachers at Hogwarts and replaces them with ideology-based curricula of no practical value, ignores real threats while pursuing a completely imaginary terrorist plot, and tortures suspects for information. Wait a minute, this sounds familiar.

Harry continued to be a dick throughout the book, but it turned out Voldemort has good reason just to try to kill him off rather than turn him to the dark side. He still might turn evil without Voldemort's help, but I'm not holding out much hope for this. At least we'll be spared the passage in which Harry gets up off the operating table in his new magical suit of armor and shouts, "NOOOOOOO!"

I'm going to import the sixth book from Britain, as I've read the British editions of the previous five, but while I wait for it to show up I am reading Freakonomics, which is terrific so far. It's a much easier read than I expected and the findings described are tremendously interesting. I'll post a full review once I finish.

Four Tet: Everything Ecstatic: I first encountered Four Tet on that Snow Patrol mix CD that came out earlier this year. I'd heard them classified as "folktronica" but this (their latest album) doesn't sound very folky. (Pretty much my only point of comparison on this is the Caribou album I reviewed recently, which does sound like what I would expect folktronica to sound like.) Regardless of the proper classification, it's a fun CD with an experimental feel. I like "And Then Patterns".

Some of you may be interested to know that Bruce Springsteen is using a Four Tet song as his walk-out music on his Devils & Dust tour.

In other music news, The New Pornographers' new album (Twin Cinema) is out today. I went to lunch near the record store so I could pick it up right away. I'm still getting used to the fact that it sounds different from Electric Version, but it's good nonetheless. I'll review this in a week or two after I've had a chance to meditate on it.

August 22, 2005

Follow-up on decoherence

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:14 PM

One of the comments on the flux qubit post asked an important question: where does the decoherence come from? I dealt with this a bit in the thread itself, but this post will be a less technical treatment.

In general, decoherence is a result of the fact that the qubit under study isn't in isolation, but interacts with some larger environment. Through this interaction, information that starts out concentrated in the qubit dissipates out into the environment, and likewise information in the environment mixes into the qubit. Of course, the state of the environment isn't known beforehand so the information that mixes in just looks random, and averages out over a large number of experiments.

In the case of our qubit, what matters is the electromagnetic environment—the electric and magnetic fields that act on the qubit. Any fluctuations in these fields can produce decoherence, and just about everything produces some level of field noise.

Continue reading "Follow-up on decoherence"

Bart Gets an Elephant

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:58 AM

I meant to post this last Thursday but a number of things distracted me. Anyway, the lunchtime conversation that day concerned the latest issue of Nature, which contains a commentary piece proposing that endangered African megafauna (e.g. cheetah, elephants, lions) be "restored" to the American Great Plains (where similar species lived before the arrival of humans). (Slate posted a version of this piece the same day, for those of you without access to Nature.)

This idea is very appealing to the 10-year-old boy in me, but otherwise it sounds like a recipe for disaster. Transplanting species across continents is the sort of thing prone to unintended consequences. And the human inhabitants may not be too excited about this; there's already been one death-by-tiger in the midwestern U.S. without shipping them en masse.

The authors have to some degree already considered this, as they included a plot illustrating "potential economic/cultural value" vs. "potential economic/cultural conflict" by species. About this I only wish to say that someday I hope to publish a paper in which my data points are represented by little animal-cracker-like pictures of lions and elephants.

August 18, 2005

Publication: Flux qubits and readout device with two independent flux lines

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 7:36 PM

This paper contains the major results of my graduate research so far, compressed into four pages. Instead of the abstract I'm posting something closer to a layman's explanation, which is below the fold since it got a bit long.

Flux qubits and readout device with two independent flux lines
B. L. T. Plourde, T. L. Robertson, P. A. Reichardt, T. Hime, S. Linzen, C.-E. Wu, and John Clarke
Phys. Rev. B 72, 060506(R) (2005)

Continue reading "Publication: Flux qubits and readout device with two independent flux lines"

August 17, 2005

Outsourced Astroturf Blogging

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:25 PM

Via Marginal Revolution, this is either a well-done hoax, or an earnest attempt to start a business selling blog posts which are outsourced to China. In their own words,

Our general business model is a two tiered effort to hire Chinese citizens to write blogs en masse for us at a valued wage. The first tier is to create original blogs. These blogs will pop up in various areas of the net and appear to the unknowing reader to be written by your standard American. Our short term goal for these original blogs is to generate a steady stream of revenue through traditional blog advertising like google adwords. We estimate that our current blogforce of 25 can support around 500 unrelated blogs. Hopefully a few of those will be hits. The long term goal is to generate a large untraceable astroturfing mechanism for launching of various products. When a vendor needs to promote a new product to the internet demographic we will be able to create a believable buzz across hundreds of ‘reputable’ blogs and countless message boards. We can offer a legitimacy to advertisers that doesen’t exist anywhere else.

This is hilarious enough, but there's lots more comedy gold to be mined from that site. This post, for example (all emphasis mine):
On the blog creation front I have been working hard trying to help Jeff make our product more believable. Our initial results have been a little bit below what we expected. To increase our authenticity we are trying to isolate and remedy problem groups. Our design process centers around 3 general groups. They are:

1. Teenage girls
2. Normal Bloggers (yuppies, moms, average college students)
3. Super Bloggers (bipolars, cynics, liberals, outcasts, super-hip)


The biggest problem spot right now is Group 3. Group 3 is the most difficult to reach through traditional media so it has the potential to be our biggest astroturfing area. To create convincing Group 3 product we need to have extensive faux-archives (to give the illusion of a faithfully updated blog) and we need to drop a lot of obscure pop-culture references. The key to good Group 3 is to spend 80% being negative about certain areas of culture and 15% excessively positive. The last 5% should be used for self-loathing because the blogger likes certain ‘un-hip’ culture. Currently I am trying to isolate some popular music to provide to our bloggers for source material. Right now I have:

Group 3 Music Source Material:

Insult: Coldplay, John Mayer, Neptunes, American Idol-related bands, Good Charlotte

Praise: Neutral Milk Hotel, Handsome Boy Modeling School, The Kleptones, Gwen Stefani

Anyway, regular blog readers for the most part already have the ability to filter out crap and find the quality sites among the millions of existing blogs, so (if this isn't a joke) I'm not too worried that this will reduce the signal/noise ratio. Besides, they've got a long way to go if they're putting Gwen Stefani in the wrong column. (Or maybe they've found a client already...)

August 16, 2005

Bad Science of the Week: Ev Psych

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:05 PM

Slate has a nice piece up today pointing out flaws in evolutionary psychology. Long-time readers may remember that ev psych annoys me to no end, as it is usually someone making up some just-so story about life on the savanna to justify preconcieved notions about human behavior. All too often this is in service of some sexist claim or double standard. Hence I always love finding pieces that debunk ev psych. Here's an excerpt from the Slate article:

EP claims that our minds contain hundreds or thousands of "mental organs" or "modules," which come with innate information on how to solve particular problems—how to interpret nuanced facial expressions, how to tell when someone's lying or cheating. These problem-solving modules evolved between 1.8 million and 10,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene epoch. And there the selection story ends. There has not been enough time in the intervening millenia, EP-ers say, for natural selection to have further resculpted our psyches. "Our modern skulls house a Stone Age mind," as Cosmides' and Tooby's primer on evolutionary psychology puts it. The way forward for research is to generate hypotheses about the urges that would have been helpful to Stone Age baby-making and then try to test whether these tendencies are widespread today.

What's wrong with this approach? To begin with, we know very little about the specific adaptive problems faced by our distant forebears. As Buller points out, "We don't even know the number of species in the genus Homo"—our direct ancestors—"let alone details about the lifestyles led by those species." This makes it hard to generate good hypotheses. Some EP-ers have suggested looking to modern-day hunter-gatherers as proxies, studying them for clues about our ancestors. But this doesn't get them far. For instance, in some contemporary African groups, men gather the bulk of the food; in other groups, women do. Which groups are representative of our ancestors? Surely there's a whole lot of guesswork involved when evolutionary psychologists hypothesize about the human brain's supposedly formative years.

Now I am aware that a small fraction of ev psych research is actually worthwhile. But the stuff that gets media attention is almost always total bullshit.

On the March [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:38 PM

I have a lot of energy lately! Fortunately I've been able to keep myself busy.

The Aristocrats: This is a very funny and relentlessly obscene documentary on the infamous dirty joke. I laughed until it hurt. It's not for the squeamish, as the various comedians will violate (and I do mean violate) every taboo subject they can think of. If you can stand it, though it's well worth it. Highlights: George Carlin, Gilbert Gottfried, Eric Cartman.

Pelican: The Fire in Our Throats Will Beckon the Thaw: Long crashing epic songs that sound like they should be the soundtrack for an army of orcs on the march, driven by hard-rock electric guitar riffs (but acoustic guitar is used as well to great effect). Well, there aren't actually vocals (despite the album's title!), so I guess "songs" isn't the right term. Terrific instrumental rock, though. I'm uploading one of the shorter tracks to save bandwidth: "Sirius"

The senator I don't like to talk about

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:57 AM

I meant to post this yesterday, but somehow it slipped my mind. Anyway, I've often posted kind words for California's excellent junior senator. However, I rarely mention our other senator, Dianne Feinstein. Generally she just doesn't get my attention as often as Boxer, but when she does I get the impression that... she kind of sucks. It was a post on Eschaton that brought this to mind:

Andrew Raisiej, who's running for New York City Public Advocate, writes about a response he recieved when he gave a technology presentation to the Senate Democratic Caucus:
First Senator Dianne Feinstein raised her hand and said, "Senator Daschle, the Internet is full of pornography and pedophilia, and until that's clean up, I don't think the Senate should be on the Internet." (And she represents Silicon Valley!)

After banging my head on the desk, I wondered what the chances are we could get a primary challenger. Probably not so good. Sigh...

Shrillblog returns, shambling and oozing.

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:37 AM

Brad DeLong, using dark and forbidden magicks, has singlehandedly resurrected the Shrillblog, which hosts the best Lovecraftian political commentary on the internets. I promptly failed a sanity roll, took a point in Cthulhu Mythos, and bookmarked its RSS feed.

August 12, 2005

Friday Random Political Rankings

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:35 PM

Via Kevin Drum, the Bay Area Center for Voting Research has ranked US cities from most liberal to most conservative. No one here will be surprised that this fine city of Berkeley comes in at #3 most liberal, although I'm a bit impressed we beat out Cambridge, MA. (Go team! Or something.) Pasadena is #52 on the liberal list, which was a surprise—I'd have thought they were a bit more conservative. (They're ahead of Eugene, OR!) Also surprising: Dallas more liberal than Austin, and Atlanta to the left of both cities. (Mason, you want to dispute that?)

Friday Not-blogging

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:57 PM

Gremlins in the physics department took the network down, so this site was unavailable all day. Obviously we're back up, although it's not clear how stable this is. In times like this I think about moving the site to Typepad, but it's nice having my own server even if the network is flaky.

Permalink | Tags: Website

August 11, 2005

Newly Bookmarked

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 10:03 PM

My friend Lemming, who once guest blogged here, has started his own blog: /dev/shm. Lemming's perspective is always unique and entertaining, so I encourage everyone to check it out. And I'm not saying that just because he can blackmail me with embarrassing stories from my college years.

Now, do I put it on the blogroll under "d" or under "/"?

Lessons of the School Bus

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 7:11 PM

Becky at Learning Curves rode the geekiest school buses ever. Here's what I learned on the school bus:

Elementary school: This was my introduction to the Hobbesian state of nature. Sort of an immersion program in that regard. The younger and weaker kids, trapped on the bus with no refuge or higher authority to call on, were captive toys for the budding sadists to kick around. Fortunately, one eventually gets old enough to be passed over in favor of smaller targets. Ah, the innocence of youth.

Middle School: I found myself on a relatively far-flung but unpopulated route during this period, and it became dedicated reading time. I learned that the quality of the Dune series falls off extremely rapidly, and that one could spend quite a long time working through Anne McCaffrey's countless thousands of Pern novels. The bits of either series that I have retained in memory seem mostly to be sex scenes.

High School: One can bypass the intrigues of high school politics and annoy the shit out of people by reverting to a younger mindset and breaking into a rousing round of "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" during long bus trips. The true joy, however, is seeing the horror of your audience when you reach the end of the song and promptly being counting up again from zero.

Permalink | Tags: Life

The Classics

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 6:10 PM

Is the university bell tower seriously playing Green Day's "Basket Case" right now?

Yes, it is. At least it's not "Good Riddance".

Boring Movies for Jesus

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:23 PM

Oh, this is so lame. The producers of the Da Vinci Code movie don't want to upset anybody:

Studio officials have consulted with Catholic and other Christian specialists on how they might alter the plot of the novel to avoid offending the devout. In doing so, the studio has been asked to consider such measures as making the central premise - that Jesus had a child with Mary Magdalene - more ambiguous, and removing the name of Opus Dei.

"The question I was asked was, 'Can you give them some things they can do to change it, to make it not offensive to the Christian audience?' " said Barbara Nicolosi, executive director of Act One, an organization that coaches Christians on making it in Hollywood. She said she was approached by Jonathan Bock, a marketing expert hired by Sony for his knowledge of Christian sensibilities, and included in the discussions Amy Welborn, who has published a refutation of "The Da Vinci Code" titled "De-Coding Da Vinci."

"We came up with three things," Nicolosi said: the more ambiguous approach to the central premise, the removal of Opus Dei and amending errors in the book's description of religious elements in art.

What, exactly, do the studio officials think is the source of the book's popularity? It certainly wasn't the writing; it was the controversy and the twist on church doctrine. The people who were going to be offended aren't going to see it anyway, and the people who might actually be interested will be turned off by the "ambiguous" version. And who are these Christians who are so sensitive as to get worked up over this? It's a bad sign if you think that the plausibility of your dogma can be undermined by a Tom Hanks film.

Fortunately, most the of the Christians I know personally are unperturbed by such things, but sadly there's a long tradition of this kind of overreaction in Christianity. This goes back through the church's list of banned books and persecution of heretics, all the way to the founder himself:

Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. (Mt. 12:31)

So Jesus is only encouraging this sort of thing. Why couldn't he instead have said "Lighten up, it's only a movie"?

Eno's Most Popular Work

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 2:48 PM

I had no idea that the Windows Startup Sound was written by Brian Eno. (Via 43 Folders.)

Imagine if he got royalties each time it played... at least the famed instability of Windows would be good for someone.

Permalink | Tags: Music

August 10, 2005


Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:56 PM

Via everywhere (e.g. James Wolcott): can this possibly be right?


WASHINGTON - The Pentagon will hold a massive march and country music concert to mark the fourth anniversary of 9/11, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in an unusual announcement tucked into an Iraq war briefing yesterday.

'This year the Department of Defense will initiate an America Supports You Freedom Walk,' Rumsfeld said, adding that the march would remind people of 'the sacrifices of this generation and of each previous generation.'

The march will start at the Pentagon, where nearly 200 people died on 9/11, and end at the National Mall with a show by country star Clint Black.

Maybe it's just my elitist coastal attitudes, but a fucking country music concert does not strike me as a solemn observation of the anniversary of a horrific terrorist attack. It's so inappropriate as to be incredibly offensive.

Obviously, this has nothing to do with respecting the victims of terrorism, but is a transparent attempt to boost militaristic sentiments when the public is becoming disillusioned with the war, as well as further propagate the bogus link between Iraq and 9/11. But expecting guys like Rumsfeld to exhibit any shame or sense of decency is too much at this point.

August 9, 2005

Rampant Consumerism

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:07 PM

It's hard to avoid encountering amusing and interesting t-shirt designs on the web, but never before have I instantly bought one. I could not, however, resist the tentacled pull of this pirate vs. squid shirt. (Via Pharyngula.) Apparently my work with SQUIDs has caused me to develop an appreciation for actual cephalopods.

Another instant purchase will be the Scary Go Round playing cards, as soon as they go on sale.

Advantages of Sleeplessness [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:13 PM

Insomnia is striking this week, inexplicably, but at least it's giving me a chance to catch up on my reading.

Richard K. Morgan: Market Forces: [Follow-up] Basically I remained unimpressed by this book. The plot did pick up near the end, but the writing was very plain throughout compared to Morgan's other works. The characters continued to baffle me, and entire thematic elements disappeared unexpectedly. Throughout the book I kept thinking of Chekhov's dictum, which Morgan follows very well when it comes to physical objects (e.g. the baseball bat) but fails to apply to more abstract elements. Anyway, I think a talented director could make a spectacular anime series out of this, but the novel was a bit disappointing.

Now I have finally started the fifth Harry Potter (Order of the Phoenix) and it seems that Harry has become a nasty, moody adolescent with a case of PTSD and some serious self-absorption. Which makes perfect sense given his past experiences. Now if Voldemort doesn't at least make an attempt to turn this guy to the dark side, he should just turn in his supervillain badge. (I confess that my dream is a seventh book in which Harry turns evil and is the primary villain. But this seems unlikely.)

The Lucksmiths: Warmer Corners: This is a pretty solid indie-pop album that reminds me of Belle & Sebastian and (especially with the jangly guitars) Teenage Fanclub. The standout track is "Sunlight in a Jar".

August 8, 2005

More Twain, and Jon Stewart

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:38 PM

It occurred to me, after writing the previous post, that most quotes incorrectly attributed to Mark Twain are less eloquent and not as funny as the stuff Twain actually wrote. That reminded me of the last time I posted a Twain quote, which began with "If science exterminates a disease which has been working for God, it is God that gets the credit, and all the pulpits break into grateful advertising-raptures and call attention to how good he is!" and continues on this subject.

This in turn reminded me of a Daily Show segment from last week in which Jon Stewart questions the application of the term "miracle" to the survival of the passengers in the Air France accident. It's one of the funniest Daily Show pieces I've seen—the clip is online here (the one called "It's a Miracle"). As a bonus, it contains Stewart's reaction to Bob Novak's on-air meltdown.

We may not have Mark Twain to comment on today's Gilded Age, but at least we've got Jon Stewart.

Summer is here

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:57 AM

Finally, typical summer weather has arrived in Berkeley: 57°F and overcast. When I was in Italy I tried to explain this to the Europeans, and they didn't believe me—I did the conversion to Celsius in my head and they assured me I must have made a mistake.

I attempted to bolster my claim by bringing out the famous Mark Twain quote, "The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco." Later I found out that there's no source for this quote; he did write something along these lines, but about Paris:

...anywhere is better than Paris. Paris the cold, Paris the drizzly, Paris the rainy, Paris the damnable. More than a hundred years ago somebody asked Quin, "Did you ever see such a winter in all your life before?" "Yes," said he, "Last summer." I judge he spent his summer in Paris. Let us change the proverb; Let us say all bad Americans go to Paris when they die. No, let us not say it for this adds a new horror to Immortality.

I see however that it is 68°F and sunny in Paris right now. Well, the sun came out while I was writing this so maybe we'll get up to Paris levels by afternoon, and I can quit lamenting the fact that I didn't bring a jacket today.

August 7, 2005

Weekend Silliness (because I was busy Friday)

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 5:45 PM
I ran the front page of the blog through Rob's Amazing Poem Generator. All my memes come from Sean, apparently...

It did pick up a timestamp which I have replaced with an empty line.

Arcane Gazebo at an
empty table and other hand,
my memory of
dumbassery as
a hotel
room, often a GR
course? of
sleep paralysis.

Bush, supports
it seems more I have remarked
that explains the false impression that could potentially
replace it: Photo back in the
Dance is from the dream which
upon dreaming of Buffy,
but now naturally
I order Earl Grey, Hot The phone.
What this can
only three weeks late.
with this: week. The instructions on a
profound description In Italy.

More poems should use words like "dumbassery".

August 4, 2005

Strategies toward childfree gatherings

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 4:48 PM

I don't normally read Slate's advice column, but the headline caught my attention this week. The first letter is 90% a defense of the author's aversion to children, and 10% about her actual problem, which is that she tells people not to bring their kids to her parties and they bring them anyway: For example, last time I had a BBQ at home, I said "no kids" on the invitation. But some people did bring their kids.

There's nothing wrong with defending your childfree lifestyle, but all that is unnecessary; there's absolutely no reason why she should have to justify not wanting kids at her parties. The simple fact is that the presence of children changes the atmosphere at a social gathering, and regardless of whether one likes kids as a general rule, when hosting a party one has a certain ambience in mind which might not allow for children to be running around underfoot. So there's no need for the writer of the letter to be so defensive about it.

Prudence's response is typically lame; if the parents ignored the instructions on the invitations they're probably also going to ignore what you tell them on the phone. What you really have to do is deter them from bringing kids. The easiest way is to make the party totally inappropriate for children. When the minivan pulls up to see that you are projecting hardcore pornography onto the screen you've set up in the backyard, you can bet they'll take the kids home. Instead of putting "no kids" on the invitation, note that "prizes will be awarded for the best telling of The Aristocrats". You get the idea. As a side effect your parties will become much more popular.

A disclaimer like "Due to state and federal regulations, no one under 21 will be admitted" may be effective, but your guests will then be expecting something special and you will have to be sure not to disappoint them.

Permalink | Tags: Life

August 3, 2005

Fun with ID (and pasta)

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:55 PM

I missed this when it was on BoingBoing (while I was in Italy), but have now been enlightened by PZ Myers: a competing theory of Intelligent Design based around Flying Spaghetti Monsterism is demanding its place in science classes. The best part is this picture:

Also notable for their theory of global warming which involves pirates.

More Bush vs. Darwin

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:06 AM

Kevin Drum makes some of the same points I did on Bush and evolution, but actually looks up the old Bush quotes that I was too lazy to find. That's why they pay him the big bucks, I guess.

August 2, 2005

Bush, ID, and Republican scientists

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 3:58 PM

There's a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth over the Bush's statement that Intelligent Design should be taught in schools. Now, naturally I agree with the many commenters who have remarked that ID is not a scientific theory, and teaching it will only degrade the state of US science education.

On the other hand, my reaction is less outrage than a sigh of resignation. What, Bush rejected science in favor of an ideological and religious position? The same Bush who opposes stem-cell research, promotes abstinence-only sex education, ignores climate change, and suppresses inconvenient scientific findings by government agencies? We knew we were getting this back in November when Bush won the election. Certainly anyone who voted for Bush should have been prepared to accept this kind of dumbassery as a consequence. And didn't Bush say that "the jury is still out" on evolution back in, like, 2000?

Of course, we should vigorously oppose attempts to insert ID into actual curricula, but the mere fact that Bush supports it doesn't exactly seem new.

Matt Yglesias points out that Bush's view is very widespread among the American public. Some of you may recall a poll result that I blogged last November showing 45% support for young Earth creationism.

Meanwhile, Brad DeLong remarks,

I believe I can now safely say without fear of contradiction that any scientist or academic (outside of fundamentalist seminaries, of course) who is a Republican is in serious need of help: professional help.

I think this is overstating things. I know a number of Republican scientists (in Berkeley, even!) and they are sane and intelligent people—they just vote based on factors other than science and education policy. Specifically, many of them are quite vocally anti-tax, anti-union, etc. and seem to vote predominantly on economic issues. I certainly don't agree with their economic views, but I can't blame them for prioritizing those issues over scientific ones.

I'm appalled by Republican science policy, but if the Republicans were a lot better on other issues and the Democrats a lot worse, I could concievably be convinced to vote Republican anyway. But science policy isn't the only problem—in fact it's a nice synecdoche for the way the GOP sticks to ideology in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence on nearly every issue. This frightening disconnection from reality is a deal-breaker for me. The Republican scientists that I know, whatever they may think about science policy, disagree about whether there's a larger pattern of ignoring evidence. I think they're wrong, but I don't think they need professional help.

August 1, 2005

Hypnopompia and other disturbances

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 11:25 PM

So: sleep paralysis. A condition in which, upon waking, a person is aware of the surroundings but is unable to move. Anyone here experienced this?

I ask because I had an experience like this last night that has a lot of the characteristics of sleep paralysis. I (apparently) woke up, lying on my side, and realized that I couldn't move. I remember the sense of trying to move and being locked in place was very vivid and not dreamlike. I thought to myself, "Oh, this must be sleep paralysis." Then I remembered that sleep-paralyzed people usually feel another presence in the room, often a malevolent one, and I should expect this. At that point my experience got much more dreamlike. I had an awareness of my surroundings, but it wasn't my actual surroundings—instead I dreamed I was in a hotel room, and there was a dresser with a TV across from the bed. So I'm expecting a malevolent presence to show up, and, well, remember in Ghostbusters when Gozer is going to take the first form they think of? Yeah. Upon dreaming of the TV, I immediately think of Samara from The Ring, and right away I get the sense that Samara is indeed in the room with me (although I can't see her) and I get absolutely terrified—a wave of total mind-numbing fear that also wasn't very dreamlike. At some point thereafter all this dissipated and I realized that I wasn't in a hotel room, but in my own bedroom, and I could move again.

Going down the list in the Wikipedia entry it seems likely that this really was sleep paralysis. Apparently the dream can continue through the experience. Also, the mechanism where the dream generates explanations for what's happening, i.e. Samara and the TV, is similar to my experiences with hypnic jerks: when my leg undergoes a hypnic jerk, I almost always have a very short dream in which I am tripping over something or slipping on ice, in a way that explains the motion. (Annoyingly, the motion itself wakes me up.)

Something else that occurred to me while thinking about this is that, while I haven't experienced the paralysis before, it's not uncommon for me to get the fear and sense of presence without the paralysis: specifically I will wake up already out of bed and standing up, and filled with a sense of absolutely imminent doom, that I need to escape right now. It usually takes a few minutes before I realize that nothing's wrong, except that I'm standing in the middle of the bedroom at 4:30 in the morning with my heart running at 120 beats per minute. This seems to happen maybe once every few months (that I remember). (This happened the night before I left Caltech for Berkeley, and I actually jumped out of the loft, waking up approximately when I hit the ground. I'm amazed I didn't break anything.) I always figured I was waking up from some nightmare (that I never seem to recall) but now I wonder if it's related to sleep paralysis.

Retro Style [Open Thread]

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at 1:39 PM

The poll is still garnering votes (I think it stays open for a week) so I won't change the picture in the sidebar just yet. In the meantime, here's a music review and an open thread.

The Go! Team: Thunder Lightning Strike: I have no idea what this is, but it's great. Like someone made a kickass rock band based around the soundtracks to cheesy 70's action movies. This is good music for getting psyched up for some difficult task. Try "Bottle Rocket"; it's all like that.