Tuesday, May 25, 2010

One of my favorite later Dylan songs

"Not Dark Yet," from Time Out of Mind (1997) is one of my favorite examples of latter day Dylan. It's sad, morose, majestic, weary and dark. If you've shied away from late Dylan (and much of his post glory days work is bafflingly bad) I invite you to give this song a listen.

Dialogue of the day

She: You said you worshiped me!
He: I do. But I'm a polytheist.

I picture this as a New Yorker cartoon.

What's actually gonna kill ya

An interesting if somewhat morbid chart. Make that very morbid. What I didn't know is what a big killer suicide is among the young.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Quote of the day

"I recently told a friend of mine who was boldly contemplating single parenthood at the age of 49 that I thought the appropriate parent to child ratio was actually 3 to 1[...]"

-Sir Charles on Cogitamus

Term of the Day: The Bechdel Test

The Bechdel Test is a heuristic for determining whether a movie has any awareness of women as people. There are three criteria a movie must meet in order to pass this test:
  1. The movie must have at least two named female characters.
  2. These two female characters must talk to each other.
  3. The conversation must be about something other than a man.
Here's a video explaining the test and presenting a montage of movies that don't pass it (HT: Karawynn):

Thursday, May 20, 2010

What is Arlen Specter really like?

I guess we're going to find out, because he's now a lame duck senator with 8 months left in office (I don't think he can pull a Lieberman and run as an independent; Pennsylvania's laws are different). For the first time ever, we'll see how he votes and acts when he has no incentive to cater to any particular interest or voting bloc. Of course, he may still want to "play nice" with certain powers, but those powers no longer influence whether he gets to keep his job or not.

[I sent this from my iPhone, so please excuse any excessive brevity or typographical errors.]
--Zachary Drake

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Unemployment at 10.2% and nobody in DC seems riled

This Brad DeLong quote has been getting a lot of play on the blogs today, and rightfully so:
The most astonishing and surprising thing I find about Washington DC today is the contrast in mood between DC today and what DC was thinking a generation ago, in 1983, the last time the unemployment rate was kissing 10%. Back then it was a genuine national emergency that unemployment was so high--real policies like massive monetary ease and the eruption of the Reagan deficits were put in place to reduce unemployment quickly, and everybody whose policies wouldn't have much of an effect on jobs was nevertheless claiming that their projects were the magic unemployment-reducing bullet.

Today.... nobody much in DC seems to care. A decade of widening wealth inequality that has created a chattering class of reporters, pundits, and lobbyists who have no connection with mainstream America? The collapse of the union movement and thus of the political voice of America's sellers of labor power? I don't know what the cause is. But it does astonish me.
One reason might be that the Fed as already lowered interest rates to essentially zero and the government is already running a large deficit. But obviously these measures are not working, at least not in the near term. Is 10% unemployment the new normal? Does anyone in power think this is a crisis? Or are they all so intimidated by deficit scolds that they're afraid to do anything about the problem? Seems people are still willing to lend money to Uncle Sam at 3.56% as of May 12th, 2010. Maybe they should put the country back to work. It's not like there isn't stuff for people to do: infrastructure, schools, research, green energy (or if you're a conservative, border security, crime prevention, re-tooling the military). I think there are plenty of places the US Government could get more than a 4% return on its money.

Obviously, I have a personal stake in this: I'm seeking a job, and I'd be fine if inflation went up a bit in order to bring unemployment down to reasonable levels.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Oh my God, so many homeowners are so screwed

According to this graph, 70% of Nevada homeowners have negative equity in their houses. About one-third of California ones do. How can we pull out of a recession with realities like that in place?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Ta-Nahesi on the dangers of ageing

His biggest fear about getting older is that he'll become comfortable with being ignorant about new things:
Age, like all power constructs, (race, gender, class) encourages it's own ignorance. To not know is a luxury of power. You don't have to know Their Eyes Were Watching God. But I damn sure better know The Scarlet Letter. (It's bad enough I'm slipping on Twain.) Age turns ignorance into a luxury, and worse, if you don't recognize it as a luxury you start to think everyone is as clueless as you. And of course you're clueless that any of this is even going on. It's just a bad look all around.
Sarah and I have this fear as well, and we've promised not to let each other sink into it. I think this relates to the backlash against Obama's recent disparagement of some new electronic devices:
With iPods and iPads and Xboxes and PlayStations--none of which I know how to work--information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation.
Not knowing how to work these devices is understandable. But it's nothing to brag about. And it sounds rather odd coming from a notorious Blackberry addict like Obama.

So, what do I need to get hip too? Good new music is probably one of those things. It's hard for me to expand my taste. I just bought tickets to see Roger Waters perform The Wall, fer cryin' out loud. That album came out in 1979. I was five years old.

Interesting 1860 review of Origin of Species

Via Yglesias, I came across this 1860 New York Times review of Darwin's On the Origin of Species. Clearly, the reviewer understands the importance of the book:
Meanwhile, Mr. DARWIN, as the fruit of a quarter of a century of patient observation and experiment, throws out, in a book whose title at least has by this time become familiar to the reading public, a series of arguments and inferences so revolutionary as, if established, to necessitate a radical reconstruction of the fundamental doctrines of natural history.
But does the reviewer actually agree with Darwin's central thesis? No:

Ten times the space given to this article would not suffice for any adequate treatment of this vast and complicated subject. In a very general way, though, we may touch on a few topics. To this and every hypothesis which assumes the gradual transition from species to species, from genus to genus, geology opposes the irrefragable fact of the utter absence of all transitional links, and the clean and clear identity of specific forma. As on Mr. DARWIN's theory an interminable number of intermediate forms must have existed, linking together all the species in each group by gradations as fine as our present varieties, we have a perfect right to ask, why do we not see these linking forms all around us? Why are not all organic beings blended together in an inextricable chaos?

Mr. DARWIN answers this difficulty by urging the extreme imperfection of the geological record. That the geological record is imperfect all will admit; but few will be inclined to admit that it is imperfect to the degree Mr. DARWIN's doctrine requires.

Not enough transitional organisms in the fossil record. Sounds familiar, actually. Opponents of natural selection cling to this objection to this day.

Despite disagreeing with Darwin's central thesis, the reviewer correctly predicts that Darwin's ideas will provoke a revolution in taxonomy (the classification of organisms into groups):
And in respect of the great spinal thought of Mr. DARWIN's theory, we are persuaded that the doctrine of progressive modification by Natural Selection, will give a new direction to [???]ry into the real genetic relationship of species, existing and extinct, -- will, in fact, make a revolution in Natural History.

It will give a new and sure basis of classification. Indeed, this grand fact of the grouping of all organic beings seems inexplicable on any other theory. Read the interminable disputes of the naturalists as to what are species and what varieties, and you will see what a scientific chaos classification up to this day is. How the cumbersome catalogues of species increase ! Meanwhile the difficulties increase, also, instead of diminishing with the extension of their researches.
The reviewer also sees the revolutionary philosophical and metaphysical implications of what Dennet calls "Darwin's Dangerous Idea":
DARWIN puts himself abreast these same tendencies. And just as LYELL has banished from Geology the notion of sudden cataclysms, DARWIN threatens to banish from Zoology the notion of sudden creations. Together, we feel justified in saying, they have laid the foundation of one of the mightiest changes in philosophical thought.
Some reactions:
  • I thought this was a pretty good review. It lays out the ideas in the book quite clearly.
  • I like the archaic feel of the capitalization of names.
  • I love reading this kind of prose: the elevated diction, flowery vocabulary, complex sentence structure. It feels like writing for grown ups. So much of what I read these days seems hastened, dumbed down. It feels refreshing to go back to that kind of writing. How much better would blogs, Facebook, and Twitter be if people knew how to write? If they struggled to write better, to compete to see who could craft the most beautiful prose? Not everyone will be a great writer. But we can certainly be better writers. Maybe we should critique each other or something. But what a public service it would be if we could but raise the bar a little, or better yet, help people to see that raising the bar will make the world more beautiful and is worthy of at least some small effort.

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Dorky awesomeness

Maybe I should get one of these at GenCon and post a video of myself hacking carcasses with it:

Zac & Quinn in the backyard

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Guy who notified police about Times Square dud was Muslim, too

Think Progress:
[O]ne fact being ignored in the American media’s sensationalist narrative about the failed bombing is that the man who was responsible for police finding the bomb was Muslim. The UK’s Times Online reports that Aliou Niasse, a Senagalese Muslim immigrant who works as a photograph vendor on Times Square, was the first to bring the smoking car to the police’s attention[...]

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Quote of the Day

"Sigh. I'm not that old but I can remember a time when there was nothing but suspicious activity in Times Square. And that's why it was such a glorious, hideous, amazing place - and not the Disney shopping mall it is today."

-Andrew Sullivan

Did he also work for BP and sleep with Tiger Woods?

Apparently, the very unsuccessful Times Square bomber suspect is a homeowner in the midst of foreclosure:
The suspect in the Times Square bombing attempt defaulted on a $200,000 mortgage on a Connecticut home and the Shelton property is now in foreclosure, according to court records.

The foreclosure records show that Faisal Shahzad took out the mortgage in 2004 and that he co-owned the home with a woman named Huma Mian.

Chase Home Finance LLC sued Shahzad, 30, in September to force the foreclosure. The case is pending in Milford Superior Court.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Fantasticus the Wizard Explains Derivatives

Ta-Nehisi Coates on The Atlantic was asking people to explain derivatives in a way people could understand. Here's the beginning of my crack at it:
See this scrap of paper? It's not worth anything, right? Right. It's just a scrap of paper. But I'm a financial wizard. I'm going to cast a financial spell. I'm going write some magic words on the paper. Those words are:

"If the price of gold drops a lot, I, Fantasticus the Wizard, will pay the owner of this scrap of paper a bunch of money."

Using magic, I have just turned this useless scrap of paper into a derivative!


Don't tell me BP is going to be shielded from liability

Apparently, they are only on the hook for $75 million in liability!?!?!?
Under the law that established the reserve, called the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, the operators of the offshore rig face no more than $75 million in liability for the damages that might be claimed by individuals, companies or the government, although they are responsible for the cost of containing and cleaning up the spill.
This spill will probably cause tens, if not hundreds of billions of dollars in losses for businesses, individuals, and governments, to say nothing of the unpriceable ecological damage. It had better cost BP every penny it has. I hope there's some legal way around this $75 million nonsense.

One thing's for sure: I'm not buying any BP gas ever again if I can help it.

UPDATE: More on this issue here. Looks like there's an effort in Congress to remove the $75 million dollar cap. And if BP is found "grossly negligent" then the cap is removed without any changes to the law. I really hope BP has to pay for the full impact of this spill, and not just for cleanup costs.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Can we figure out a way of acknowledging Israel's nuclear weapons?

It seems to me that in order to proceed with any reality-based nuclear non-proliferation strategy, the United States must figure out a way to publicly acknowledge what everyone already knows: Israel has nuclear weapons. Pretending this is not the case makes us look like doofuses or hypocrites and severely undercuts any moral authority we have to persuade other countries not to acquire them or to give them up.

Here's something from the Washington Times that I didn't know:
It is illegal in Israel for newspapers to print that the country has nuclear arms.
What?!?!? How can there be any serious discussion of Israel's military or geopolitical situation in Israel's newspapers if they can't state such a fundamental reality? It would be like trying to talk about the Viking's offense without mentioning that Favre is quarterback. It makes all such discussions laughably silly.

No wonder forging peace is so difficult: the taboos and weirdness are so deep that we can't even talk about obvious things. Can we please figure out a way to acknowledge basic realities in public?