Monday, February 28, 2011

Great writeup of Turing Test

Here's a great writeup of an annual Turing Test competition from the perspective of one of the human confederates:
In two hours, I will sit down at a computer and have a series of five-minute instant-message chats with several strangers. At the other end of these chats will be a psychologist, a linguist, a computer scientist, and the host of a popular British technology show. Together they form a judging panel, evaluating my ability to do one of the strangest things I’ve ever been asked to do.

I must convince them that I’m human.

Fortunately, I am human; unfortunately, it’s not clear how much that will help.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Yay: Obama administration no longer defending DOMA

Politico 44 via Sullivan:
SHIFT ON GAY MARRIAGE: President Obama has decided that he won’t “defend the constitutionality” of a part of the Defense of Marriage Act that seeks to bar gays from marrying, the Justice Department announced.

The change in the White House’s position means that the administration will no longer argue for that part of the law in two lawsuits filed in the Second Circuit challenging it.

Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement Wednesday that Obama “has concluded that given a number of factors, including a documented history of discrimination, classifications based on sexual orientation should be subject to a more heightened standard of scrutiny.”

“The President has also concluded that Section 3 of DOMA, as applied to legally married same-sex couples, fails to meet that standard and is therefore unconstitutional,” Holder said. “Given that conclusion, the President has instructed the Department not to defend the statute in such cases.”.

Monday, February 21, 2011

How Pete Stark became the only openly non-theist member of Congress

Here's the story from his own website:
My most recent accident was becoming a well-known humanist. Somewhere along the line a nice group of people, the Secular Coalition for America, sent a form requesting information from those of us who support separation of church and state. In response to a question about belief you could check one of three boxes. I checked the one that said I didn’t believe in a supreme being. Then there was a blank to answer the question, “What religion do you associate with?” I wrote, “Unitarian” and sent it back to them. (What I didn’t know is that there was a reward offered to find high-ranking nontheist politicians and that some guy out in Hayward, California, was hustling to make $1,000 by turning me in. I met him later at one of my town hall meetings, and he wouldn’t share the money with me. I told him, “That’s not fair!”)
I love his story about how he became involved with the Starr-King Unitarian Seminary:
Returning to accidents, I then became an accidental religious leader. We had a fellowship, as Unitarians do, in Walnut Creek, California. We raised a little money and hired a minister, Aron Gilmartin, who was a great guy. One day he asked if I would like to help out a little school in Berkeley called the Starr King School for the Ministry, which was a Unitarian seminary. They owned their own building, had a $30,000 endowment, two faculty, and eight students, and they were going broke. When I arrived there they asked, “Will you be the treasurer?” I said yes. “Well, then you have got to be on the board of trustees,” they urged. “Can you come to the first meeting?” At that first meeting they put my name in nomination to be chairman of the board. And I knew I was being set up, but I became the chairman, a position I held for ten years and which exposed me to some of the most interesting people I have ever known.
Gotta watch out for those Unitarians: they lure you into a dark alley, hit you over the head, and when you wake up you're chair of the Steering Committee.

I have the enormous good fortune to live on Broadway and on Highway 61 (they're the same street here) and be represented by someone who matches my denomination and stance on theism exactly. No wonder we picked this house!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Quote of the Day

"Being in a good relationship is a risk factor for becoming a parent."

-Thomas Bradbury, a father of two and professor of psychology at UCLA

From this article: http://nymag.com/news/features/67024/index3.html

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Normalizing murder of abortion providers

This is pretty sick:
A law under consideration in South Dakota would expand the definition of "justifiable homicide" to include killings that are intended to prevent harm to a fetus—a move that could make it legal to kill doctors who perform abortions. The Republican-backed legislation, House Bill 1171, has passed out of committee on a nine-to-three party-line vote, and is expected to face a floor vote in the state's GOP-dominated House of Representatives soon.
The gulf is wide. I don't know how to bridge it.

Thought of the Day:

In our employer-based health care system, we give bosses the power to take away the health care of their worker's children. That's hardly conducive to an equitable power relationship between workers and employers. It's positively Dickensian. I hope future generations shudder in horror at the barbarity and inequity of our practices.

Two guys think there's a massive planet hiding in the Oort cloud

According to this brief article, two astrophysicists think they found evidence of a gas giant in our solar system much bigger than Jupiter:
The name of the planet is Tyche. The scientists are John Matese and Daniel Whitmire, from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. According to them, this colossus is hiding in the Oort Cloud—the asteroid beehive that forms the outer shell of our home system, one light-year in radius. They claim that data already captured by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer proves its existence. It only needs to be analyzed... over the next two years.

Just in case you thought Obama was a progressive

I present for you digby's reaction to Obama's proposed budget:
The main problem with all this, of course, is that he willingly signed a tax cut extension for the wealthiest people on the planet just two months ago even as they are making money hand over fist as it is, so any talk about "shared sacrifice" rings just a little bit hollow now. If he wants to be honest about this and admit that he's catering to spoiled plutocrats and Wall Street Demi-Gods because he truly believes that he needs to sacrifice ordinary Americans on the alter of their egos, that's one thing. But blowing smoke about how this hurts him just as much as the college kid who has to drop out in a terrible labor market --- but he's willing to make the sacrifice and so should we --- well, it is too cynically cheap for words.
It is pretty sick that even the Democratic budget proposals involve requiring so much sacrifice from people who haven't gotten a good deal recently. And of course social services are not where the big money is anyway: defense and health care spending are the big drivers of the deficit, but their political defenders are more powerful. And getting any revenue increases through seems to have fallen off the realm of possibility.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

How come the audio quality on phone calls sucks so much?

One thing that's always bothered me on radio phone-in shows and radio interviews is the difference in audio quality between those in the studio and those talking on the phone. The audio quality on phone connections is really awful. How come Moore's Law doesn't apply here? A quick Google search is unsatisfying: I find a bunch of posts basically say that better quality takes more bandwidth and is therefore more expensive. Duh! But if you look at the bandwidth per dollar I get from my Internet/data connection, and graph it over the last 30 years, you'll see a nice improvement. Not as nice as I feel it ought to be, but probably the right O(n). Phone service? Flat as far as I can tell. Certainly the fact that my phone is mobile now makes it better than phones I had in 1990, but audio quality seems worse due to the compression algorithms now used.

The other day, I was listening to an interview NPR was doing with an Iranian activist who was avoiding phone use to remain anonymous. So the interview was over Skype, and the quality was much better than a phone line. I wish they'd do all their phone interviews over Skype instead. In five years is Skype going to eat all the phone companies? Or will the phone companies just refuse to transmit Skype data with the necessary speed to make it work as a phone replacement?

Moral of the story: Telcom companies (at least in the US) are lame dinosaurs, and I can't wait for some combination of Google, Skype, Twitter, Apple, the government (free wireless broadband for all!), and some companies we don't yet know to kill them off.

How to foil the Egyptian riot police

(via Anthony on Facebook) Here's great WSJ article on the elaborate lengths protesters had to go not to be stymied by the hated Egyptian internal security forces:

They chose 20 protest sites, usually connected to mosques, in densely populated working-class neighborhoods around Cairo. They hoped that such a large number of scattered rallies would strain security forces, draw larger numbers and increase the likelihood that some protesters would be able to break out and link up in Tahrir Square.

The group publicly called for protests at those sites for Jan. 25, a national holiday celebrating the country's widely reviled police force. They announced the sites of the demonstrations on the Internet and called for protests to begin at each one after prayers at about 2 p.m.

But that wasn't all.

"The 21st site, no one knew about," Mr. Kamel said.

I didn't know the game was so elaborate, and that the security forces were so good at preventing demonstrations from spreading. It took a lot of thought and planning to outwit them.

Oh great, Mississipi SCV wants Klan leader License Plates

UPDATE: Mississippi governor and potential Republican presidential candidate Haley Barbour won't denounce this effort.

This is not the first time Confederate general and early KKK leader Nathan Bedford Forrest has appeared on Internal Monologue. Now a group wants Mississipi to make available Nathan Bedford Forrest license plates.

Dear Sons of Confederate Veterans (the group putting this forward): Please don't do this. Please don't ask to do this. This is a really bad idea. How do your black neighbors feel about this? Why would you want to do that to them? Do you know what the KKK means to people? What kind of hatred and murder and terror it perpetrated? Egad, are you trying to justify all the negative stereotypes people have about The South? Are there not plenty of other ways to honor your heritage and your ancestors? Even if you're just trying to piss off people like me, can you do it in a way that doesn't evoke lynchings and lend a patina of approval to racist terror?

Friday, February 11, 2011

Mubarak resigns

Well, we should mark this day: a nation rose up and (mostly) peacefully threw out its dictator. Or caused such a ruckus that the army forced him out. Or prompted the vice-president to tell the people he resigned (we haven't actually heard Mubarak himself say he's resigning. We got the news from his vice-president). Anyway, everyone agrees he's gone, which effectively means it's true.

People in Egypt are ecstatic. Time to celebrate. And time for the US to stop backing his ilk. Let's hope this is the first step to something much much better. But even this step is so important: the idea that if you infuriate the people so much, you can be removed from office. So so so important to have that baseline level of accountability. Even dictators, monarchs, and theocrats who aren't replaced by something better will have to spend some of their energy keeping people happy, if only to preserve their own power.

I had no idea that such possibilities were available to Tunisia and Egypt. I think many of us didn't. Happy liberation, Egypt.

Who's next?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Against stupidity...

...the gods themselves contend in vain. Internal Monologue's Quote of the Day is Adam Gopnik via Daily Dish on the stubbornness of stupidity:

In a practical, immediate way, one sees the limits of the so-called “extended mind” clearly in the mob-made Wikipedia, the perfect product of that new vast, supersized cognition: when there’s easy agreement, it’s fine, and when there’s widespread disagreement on values or facts, as with, say, the origins of capitalism, it’s fine, too; you get both sides. The trouble comes when one side is right and the other side is wrong and doesn’t know it.

The Shakespeare authorship page and the Shroud of Turin page are scenes of constant conflict and are packed with unreliable information. Creationists crowd cyberspace every bit as effectively as evolutionists, and extend their minds just as fully. Our trouble is not the over-all absence of smartness but the intractable power of pure stupidity, and no machine, or mind, seems extended enough to cure that.


From the same New Yorker piece:
If all you have is a hammer, the saying goes, everything looks like a nail; and, if you think the world is broken, every machine looks like the hammer that broke it.


Wednesday, February 09, 2011

"Storyteller Dice Roller" gets 5-star review in app store

Since I can't cut-and-paste text from iTunes App Store reveiws, I'm posting a screenshot. Click to enlarge. Thanks, Scott! I'm so glad you find it useful.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Al Jazeera, please!

Note to US cable companies: Could you please carry Al Jazeera English? All the blogs I'm reading say it's got very good coverage of Egypt. I probably still won't buy your product, but there's a lot of demand for it at the moment. You shouldn't have let the Bush administration's vilification of it prevent you from carrying it.

Galvinizing my inner social conservative

Here's an article on teen pregnancy in an urban school in Connecticut that made me react from a position of social conservatism (something which I am prone to do on occasion):
Urban teachers face an intractable problem, one that we cannot spend or even teach our way out of: teen pregnancy. This year, all of my favorite girls are pregnant, four in all, future unwed mothers every one. There will be no innovation in this quarter, no race to the top. Personal moral accountability is the electrified rail that no politician wants to touch.
I hasten to add that American teen pregnancy rates are actually down in recent years (though higher than those of our peer nations), according to this post and other statistics I remember hearing. So let's keep that in mind before getting into a moral panic around young women's sexuality. But I'm going to do so anyway.

I guess it's the normality of it that is shocking to me. There are cultures, right next door to my privileged little world, in which a fifteen year-old unmarried mom is not scandalous. That seems very wrong to me. Even a generous and well-run welfare state (which we aren't--have you seen California's budget cuts?) can't mitigate those circumstances. I don't know how to reach that culture of casual pregnancy or change it. I'm so far away I might as well be on Mars, it seems. But it is wrong and we should use what social engineering tools we have at our disposal to change it.

I'm a libertarian when it comes to people's sex lives; I certainly have opinions about how people should comport themselves, but I'm reluctant to get on a moral high-horse about it because it's such a fraught subject and I don't claim any particular overriding knowledge. But when it comes to bringing children into this world, I'm staunchly conservative: you should be independently established, financially stable, securely pair-bonded, and in general have your shit together before engaging in activities that have a high probability of making you responsible for raising a human being to be a member of our society. If you don't fit these criteria, then use birth control vigilantly or don't have vaginal intercourse. There are plenty of varieties of the former and plenty of alternatives to the latter. Take advantage of them, kids. Please.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

D&D meets hip-hop

I just finished reading The Beautiful Struggle by Ta-Nehisi Coates. He's one of my favorite bloggers, and inspired my recent interest in the American Civil War. It's a great memoir of a spacey black kid growing up in West Baltimore with a complicated family. His dad is a former black panther librarian and publisher hell-bent on keeping his many children from being swallowed by the perils of the street. The memoir is saturated with hip-hop references, which I mostly completely miss, and classic Dungeons & Dragons references, which of course I get completely. He's a great writer and blends street and geek as well as anyone I've read. I highly recommend it.

People nerdier than you


I think for most people, the preview of this movie will be enough. But it's on Netflix streaming. Just saw it. A bit long, but often riveting. And hilarious.

However nerdy you are, there are probably people nerdier than you. And this movie is about those people: live-action fantasy role-players with real armor and foam swords. With mass battles and an entire political system. They make this D&D player feel downright conventional. But I share all their impulses. Game on, dudes.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Aphorism of the Day

Any sufficiently advanced advertising is indistinguishable from content.

-me, riffing on Arthur C. Clarke

Alas, Shawn came up with it first.

Just say no to urban density phobia

Ed Glaeser via Friedersdorf:
The sad fact from an environmental point of view is that building in the San Francisco Bay is a great thing to do. There's an incredibly temperate climate, which means that the carbon emissions for households there are among the lowest in the country. It's got plenty of access to great public transportation. This is the area that should be building a great deal of housing. But when you make it difficult to build there, you make sure that there's housing being built instead in the suburbs of Houston, where you'd need a lot of energy to create a pleasant manmade environment, and there's a lot of driving.
I don't see what's "sad" about this fact. And I suspect zoning laws and people's desire to keep their neighborhood as close to a suburban ideal as possible are more responsible than environmental regulations for lack of density. But I'm not familiar with the development landscape here in the Bay Area. I do know that there's a huge, mostly-derelict former naval base right in Alameda where I live. It's prime Bay Area real estate worth an enormous amount of money, but has been woefully under-utilized as the city and various developers fight over terms.

People seem to love to live in nice, dense, walkable, urban neighborhoods, if housing prices are any indication of people's living preferences. I certainly have paid a lot of money throughout my life to be able to live in such an area, and will continue to do so. But oftimes zoning laws, parking requirements, and density restrictions make the creation of new such areas actually illegal. This seems very silly to me.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Time for United States to publicly cut Mubarak loose

I think Obama has been right to be circumspect about commenting on the demonstrations in Egypt until now. Forceful statements by the US could be used by Mubarak to paint the opposition as agents of a foreign power. Sometimes the best move is just to shut up and let things take their course. We should remember that we can't control events everywhere all the time anyway.

But since the violence against the protesters has increased, I think the time has come for the US to publicly throw Mubarak under the bus, or at least let him know publicly that we are willing to do so. Now that it appears as though gangs of pro-government thugs are being unleashed on demonstrators, our reticence is looking less like deference to Egypt's internal political processes and more like looking the other way while "our guy" oppresses his people to stay in power.

Obama should also let the Egyptian military know that if it values its cozy relationship with the United States (and all that military aid we give them), it had better play a constructive role in easing Mubarak into exile and ushering in political reforms.

It's deeply embarrassing that the United States has been backing this guy, and it should prompt us to examine who we're backing throughout the world, and in what way, and to what ends. Those "MADE IN USA" tear gas canisters will be remembered.

I'm certainly aware that there were advantages to working with Mubarak, and that some of the alternatives (chaos, another dictator, radical theocracy) may be worse for both Egypt and the world. But I think the short-term gains we get from backing convenient dictators (and I'm dubious even about those gains: I certainly don't see what I get out of it) are being outweighed by the medium- and longer-term losses we suffer. American collusion with oppressive dictators in the region is both wrong and a significant source of legitimate anti-American sentiment. Let's hope we can play a more constructive role going forward.

Quote of the Day

Conor Friedersdorf:
There is no way to win the War on Drugs. There never has been. There never will be, short of becoming an authoritarian state. We can face up to that fact, or continue ceding liberties and conveniences one by one, for nothing.
Down with authoritarianism. Liberation is not just for Egyptians. When it comes to controlling substances, our state's willingness to use violence in support of puritanism is galling. Regulate it. Tax it. Punitively tax it, if necessary. Discourage its use. Offer treatment programs. But let's stop funding drug lords and the prison industrial complex, please. Especially since none of this violence and intrusion seems to put a dent in addiction rates, or even lower the prices all that much. Decriminalization won't be perfect. It may even suck. But I bet it will suck less than the status quo.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Quote of the Day

Ta-Nehisi Coates:
Well-meaning neophytes often suggest that if people of different "races" screwed each other, we'd all look the same, and our problems would disappear. Unfortunately, such magical thinking underestimates the abiding complexity of human thought.In fact people of different "races," have been screwing for over two millenia. Our response--over the past 500 years--has been to invent more races.