June 2005 Archives

I'm pretty busy playing with helicopters... not that there's much news anyway. Gotta hit the sack and get ready for another full day tomorrow. Stay tuned!

It looks like Abu Gingy's suggestion is being tried in the real world as a developer goes after Justice Souter's house to build a hotel.

Weare, New Hampshire (PRWEB) Could a hotel be built on the land owned by Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter? A new ruling by the Supreme Court which was supported by Justice Souter himself itself might allow it. A private developer is seeking to use this very law to build a hotel on Souter's land. ...

The proposed development, called "The Lost Liberty Hotel" will feature the "Just Desserts Café" and include a museum, open to the public, featuring a permanent exhibit on the loss of freedom in America. Instead of a Gideon's Bible each guest will receive a free copy of Ayn Rand's novel "Atlas Shrugged."

Clements indicated that the hotel must be built on this particular piece of land because it is a unique site being the home of someone largely responsible for destroying property rights for all Americans.

"This is not a prank" said Clements, "The Towne of Weare has five people on the Board of Selectmen. If three of them vote to use the power of eminent domain to take this land from Mr. Souter we can begin our hotel development."

Love. It. Tell me where to donate.

The media complains that President Bush doesn't do enough press conferences, but then when he schedules a speech about Iraq most major broadcasters won't even cover it.

CBS, NBC and Fox all said they would decide sometime Tuesday whether to carry the speech. Concerns centered on the potential newsworthiness of the speech and the fact that it was being given not in the Oval Office but far from Washington.

"You want to be certain you are broadcasting something that is newsworthy and vitally important to the American people," said one network executive who asked not to be identified.

As "vitally important" as "Average Joe: The Joes Strike Back"? Gosh, it's just the leader of the free world talking about the future of the biggest American military deployment in 30 years.

"On the one hand, they recognize if the president actually is going to make substantial news on Iraq, they probably should cover it," Sabato said. "But on the other hand, they realize this White House is famous for constructing political rallies and convincing the networks to cover them with the sole beneficiary being the president, not the American people."

That doesn't even make sense. The only way the President can benefit is if the viewing public at least thinks it is benefitting also. So Larry Sabato is saying that people are idiots for thinking they're benefitting when really the President is taking advantage of their stupidity. But on the third hand, maybe Larry Sabato isn't qualified to tell the American people when they are and aren't benefitting -- after all, his Crystal Ball didn't do very well at predicting close races during the last election cycle.

I'm thinking of selling off my underperforming mutual funds and buying plain old index funds such as VFINX. I've read that only one-third of mutual funds outperform the market in any given year, and that it's never the same third, so index funds may be the way to go. Though, if you beat the market a third of the time you can still come out ahead if you beat it by a lot and then later lose to the market by only a little. I'm also looking at emerging market funds, like EOW which invests in Eastern Europe. Eh. I'm not sure what to do, and I don't trust any of the financial advisors I've talked to.

An article by Todd Zywicki reinforces my own thoughts about diversifying home equity... maybe I won't use my tuition reimbursement to pay down my home equity line of credit. Argh, the decisions....

Apparently criminals are undeterred by restraining orders and police have no obligation to enforce them. Duh. In case you didn't know, your local police have no legal obligation to protect you from any specific crime. This is why law-abiding, mentally healthy citizens should be allowed to carry concealed weapons. Otherwise, we're just victims-to-be.

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Supreme Court ruled Monday that police cannot be sued for how they enforce restraining orders, ending a lawsuit by a Colorado woman who claimed police did not do enough to prevent her estranged husband from killing her three young daughters. ...

City governments had feared that if the court ruled the other way, it would unleash a potentially devastating flood of cases that could bankrupt municipal governments.

Gonzales contended that police did not do enough to stop her estranged husband, who took the three daughters from the front yard of her home in June 1999 in violation of a restraining order.

Hours later Simon Gonzales died in a gun fight with officers outside a police station. The bodies of the three girls, ages 10, 9 and 7, were in his truck.

The city governments were right to be afraid, and I think this court decision was probably correct. I don't know enough about the case to say that a gun would have been helpful, but there are many circumstances in which one would be.

From Bernardo, here's a pretty cool picture of a real-life Eye of Sauron. Good thing it's pretty far away. If anyone else has good astronomy pics, why not post some links in the comments?

I know everyone's seen this by now, and I'm sure many people will have much more intelligent commentary on the matter than myself, but I'm astounded by a pair of Supreme Court rulings this morning that sound for all the world as if the Court is just making stuff up as it goes along.

WASHINGTON -- A sharply divided Supreme Court on Monday upheld the constitutionality of displaying the Ten Commandments on government land, but drew the line on displays inside courthouses, saying they violated the doctrine of separation of church and state.

Sending dual signals in ruling on this issue for the first time in a quarter-century, the high court said that displays of the Ten Commandments _ like their own courtroom frieze _ are not inherently unconstitutional. But each exhibit demands scrutiny to determine whether it goes too far in amounting to a governmental promotion of religion, the court said in a case involving Kentucky courthouse exhibits.

In effect, the court said it was taking the position that issues of Ten Commandments displays in courthouses should be resolved on a case-by-case basis.

By who? Apparently not legislatures or elected officials, since the courts have no respect for their discretion. So we need a federal judge to evaluate every display? Absurd. None of the other commentary I've seen appears to recognize the lunacy of these decisions. Maybe we should have the Supremes tour the country during their off-season and let them vote on everything they see.

As for the Commandments, it's not really a big deal to me if they're displayed or not... the presence or absence of the Commandments is not likely to win a single soul for Christ. My biggest complaint is that I think the matter should be left up to the states. The federal government needs to quit meddling with everything and let the smaller (and slightly more responsive) state governments deal with these issues. That's the whole point of the "federal" system.

Interestingly, Howard M. Friedman predicted this result last month. Referring to an article written by a reporter but based on an interview with him, Professor Friedman blogged:

As reported, I predicted that the Texas display would be upheld, partly because of the Justices concern about forcing bulldozers to tear down these displays around the country. But I also emphasized the peculiar history of the monuments that were furnished by the Fraternal Order of Eagles. Similarly, though not in the article, I predicted that the Kentucky display in the companion case before the Court would be struck down because of its different history. By the way, my record on accurately predicting Supreme Court results is not good.

Michelle Malkin links to other conservative commentators if you want more opinions... but isn't mine enough?

(More on the follies of foreign aid.)

Another illustration of why most foreign aid does more harm than good: "£220bn stolen by Nigeria's corrupt rulers".

Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, has spoken of a new Marshall Plan for Africa. But Nigeria's rulers have already pocketed the equivalent of six Marshall Plans. After that mass theft, two thirds of the country's 130 million people - one in seven of the total African population - live in abject poverty, a third is illiterate and 40 per cent have no safe water supply.

With more people and more natural resources than any other African country, Nigeria is the key to the continent's success.

Mallam Nuhu Ribadu, the chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, set up three years ago, said that £220 billion was "squandered" between independence from Britain in 1960 and the return of civilian rule in 1999.

Unless we get to control how the money is spent and distributed, we're fools to give the thugs that rule Africa another penny. Every cent we give them is used to further entrench their own power and to oppress the African people. Most foreign aid is a literal crime against humanity -- it's too bad that ridiculously ignorant celebrities can't see the effects of their bleeding hearts. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

I've never seen more detailed and extensive reporting from the frontlines of Iraq than what's written by Michael Yon. I can't stop reading it, it's unbelievable. (HT: Clayton Cramer again.)

Clayton Cramer alludes to an curious strategy for political victory during his discussion of "Why Democrats Should Support the Flag Amendment, and Republicans Should Sit On Their Hands".

If you think about it for a minute, the ways in which Democrats and Republicans have lined up on this amendment makes no sense politically. Flag burning discredits the leftists who do it, because of emotional reaction that it promotes. Democrats should want some way to stop the left-wing of their party from engaging in these antics, because it makes the Democrats look like they hate America. Republicans should sit back and allow flag burning because it causes a patriotic, jingoistic frenzy in a very large number of Americans--and makes them even more hostile to the Democratic Party because of the actions of a few spoiled rich kids. That Republicans and Democrats are taking positions contrary to their political interests inclines me to think that both sides are taking their positions out of genuine conviction--not simple political advantage.

Ignoring the issue he's addressing -- flag burning and amendments against it -- Mr. Cramer seems to think that the best strategy for long-term victory is to foster short-term defeat. Leftists burning flags motivates rightists to action, ergo the lack of an anti-burning amendment is a boon for the right; enacting an anti-burning amendment would motivate the left and placate the right, which would cause the right to fight less hard.

It's logical: the closer the world is to your ideal the less you care about changing it. But is a desire to maintain motivation a reason to purposefully avoid approaching the ideal? Isn't the whole point of having motivation to use it move you closer to your ideal? If you can't use your motivation for that, then what good is it? I suppose Mr. Cramer is saying that the right should "spend" its motivation on more worthwhile things, but if flag burning really does cause "a patriotic, jingoistic frenzy in a very large number of Americans", then mabye banning it is worthwhile.

Here's a question for any C# gurus out there. I've created a delegate in C# to pass out to unmanaged C as a function pointer. It works fine, but how can I explicitly make sure it doesn't get garbage collected? I can't use any Microsoft-specific interoperability stuff because the code needs to work with Mono. In fact, it does work with Mono because Mono must do garbage collection differently than Microsoft does; my main problem is preventing Microsoft from collecting the delegate before my unmanaged code is done with it. Right now I'm continually reassigning the callback function pointer in a loop in C#, but that's not very elegant.

"I apologized for accusing you of stealing me bike, so now you should apologize for accusing me of stealing your ball."

"But you did steal it!"

The "controversy" over Karl Rove's recent comments about Democrats not appreciating the full importance of the War on Terror is pretty amusing. They're pointing to Senator Durbin's weasel non-apology for calling American soldiers Nazis and claiming that Mr. Rove should now likewise apologize for his critical remarks. I guess the main difference is that Senator Durbin the Turban was wrong, whereas Karl Rove is right.

Rove, the architect behind President Bush's election victories, on Wednesday night told a gathering of the New York Conservative Party that "Liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers." Conservatives, he said, "saw the savagery of 9/11 and the attacks and prepared for war."

He added that groups linked to the Democratic Party made the mistake of calling for "moderation and restraint" after the terrorist attacks.

I can't even count how many times I had to listen to whiny pleas to "try to understand why they hate us". Ironically, I'd like to understand that, and fix it, but priority number one has always been to make sure that if more dying is necessary it's them that's doing it, not us. Can't we all just get along? Yes, we can, as soon as they stop blowing stuff up; and since we have no reason to trust them, we'll have to eliminate their capacity for violence.

Anyway, the left has been wobbly on terror since 9/11. That's no secret. Sometimes some hesitation was worthwhile, but most of the time their complaints are designed to hamstring America and protect our enemies out of misplaced (or entirely disingenuous) "compassion".

Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, in a letter to Rove co-signed by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Democratic senators from Connecticut and New Jersey, called the presidential adviser's speech "a slap in the face to the unity that America achieved after Sept. 11, 2001."

There are more important things than unity for a country. What's more, the idea that unity is "achieved" and must then be preserved is nonsense. There's unity when people agree about important issues, but unity is the result of that agreement, not the cause of it. In that way, unity is like peace.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Thursday there was no reason for Rove to apologize because he was "simply pointing out the different philosophies when it comes to winning the war on terrorism."

"Of course not," McClellan said when asked by reporters whether Bush would ask Rove to apologize.

Ace points to The Therapist's main complaint:

Rove's recent comments, in which he said that liberals sought "therapy and understanding" in the wake of the attacks on September 11th, 2001, is being touted as "the most" incendiary of comments yet delivered in the rapier-thrust arena of politics--primarily in how Democrats charge that Rove "deliberately and maliciously" plotted to not slam American fighting forces. ...

Illinois Senator, Dick Durbin said he "knows first hand" how to go about dispensing incendiary remarks, and that Rove's non-comparing of the troops to Nazis was "part and parcel of the nefarious GOP strategy to unite Americans behind America."

Meanwhile, James MacDuff bemoans the connotations of "liberal".

But read Rove's comments again. Remember the Presidential election? How many times did you hear the Democratic ticket described as the 4th and 2nd "most liberal" Senators as if it were a disease? It is truly fascinating how pejorative the term "liberal" has become to our Southern neighbours - if you are a liberal, you are a waffling wimp with no moral compass. A "liberal" voting record is a bad one in middle America, case closed. Conservatives in Canada likely have the same grudge at Liberals for successfully linking the extremist elements to the core of the party, hence its "scary" nature.

I generally use "leftist" rather than "liberal", because to me a real liberal is someone who favors, you know, liberty, which most American leftists abhor. Anyway, if people associate "liberals" with waffling America-haters, whose fault is that?

There was some discussion on my earlier thread about Arnold's propositions about rules for drawing district lines that would eliminate the problem of gerrymandering. Wacky Hermit proposed a rule limiting the ratio between the perimeter and area of a district, and Ben Bateman proposed creating a computer model to optimize over a wider range of constraints.

My own thought is that attempts to group people that "fit" together into a district based on demographics is inherently anti-democratic. I think districts should be based on city and county lines, and I would propose two simple rules for two types of districts.

1. Type A districts can contain multiple cities. Any city in a Type A district must be contained entirely within that one district. More than one city can be in a Type A district, but none of those cities can cross the district line.

2. Type B districts can contain part of only a single city. Any city too large to fit in a Type A district can be broken into multiple Type B districts, but no two cities can share a Type B district.

These two rules would ensure that district lines are drawn that represent the local government structure. State and federal representatives should work with the same lines as local representatives; it'll make everyone more accountable, and reduce confusion and waste.

And then there's bioregional democracy:

Bioregional democracy (or the Bioregional State) is a set of electoral reforms designed to force the political process in a democracy to better represent concerns about the economy, the body, and environmental concerns (e.g., water quality), toward developmental paths that are locally prioritized and tailored to different areas for their own specific interests of sustainability and durability.

Interesting concept, and the article has some examples of how it's put into practice. I'm not an environmental fanatic by any means, but I like the idea of political structures built with environmental interest geographical boundaries in mind -- that way, people in a given environment can treat it as well or as poorly as they want, with minimal effect on other groups.

Update 2:
Richard Tallent emailed with an algorithm he devised to allow voters to draw district lines (with some pixelization).

There is only one fair method to creating districts: as much as possible, let the voters choose for themselves with whom they want to vote. Create a number of similarly-populated geographic "blocks" using a semi-random computer algorithm that is simply taught to avoid splitting up cites or counties where possible. Let each voter pick up to "X" other blocks along with his own, where "X" is the size of the represented region divided by the average number of people in each block. Require that voters can only choose regions either neighboring their own block or sharing some border with at least two other blocks they have also selected. Aggregate these to determine the wishes of each block, and use these numbers to shape the borders with a deterministic best-fit algorithm.

Interesting and possibly effective, but voters won't trust a system that's too complicated for them to understand -- just remember the recent EU Constitution debacle. Why not just take the next step and untie representation from geography entirely?

I had a few Muslim fellows commenting hundreds of times on this old Shia vs. Sunni post, but I'm having to close the conversation because the number of comments is overloading the server. Perhaps if they want to continue the conversation they can do so here; if anyone else has questions for them about the difference between Shia and Sunni history or beliefs, go for it, they seem pretty knowledgable.

Sweet. Apparently recently-arriving evangelical Christians are causing a stir in Iraq, even among other Christians.

BAGHDAD -- With arms outstretched, the congregation at National Evangelical Baptist Church belted out a praise hymn backed up by drums, electric guitar and keyboard. In the corner, slide images of Jesus filled a large screen. A simple white cross of wood adorned the stage, and worshipers sprinkled the pastor's Bible-based sermon with approving shouts of "Ameen!"

National is Iraq's first Baptist congregation and one of at least seven new Christian evangelical churches established in Baghdad in the past two years. Its Sunday afternoon service, in a building behind a house on a quiet street, draws a couple of hundred worshipers who like the lively music and focus on the Bible.

"I'm thirsty for this kind of church," Suhaila Tawfik, a veterinarian who was raised Catholic, said at a recent service. "I want to go deep in understanding the Bible."

Sounds great to me! But some more "traditional" -- in the Iraqi sense -- Christians don't seem happy.

Some Iraqi Christians expressed fear that the evangelicals would undermine Christian-Muslim harmony here, which rests on a long-standing, tacit agreement not to proselytize each other. "There is an informal agreement that says we have nothing to do with your religion and faith," said Yonadam Kanna, one of six Christians elected to Iraq's parliament. "We are brothers but we don't interfere in your religion."

[Patriarch Emmanuel] Delly [head of the Eastern rite Chaldean Catholic Church, Iraq's largest Christian community] said that "even if a Muslim comes to me and said, 'I want to be Christian,' I would not accept. I would tell him to go back and try to be a good Muslim and God will accept you." Trying to convert Muslims to Christianity, he added, "is not acceptable."

If you don't like it, take it up with God.

And it looks like Christianity is thriving elsewhere in the Middle East as well.

Iraq's new churches are part of Christian evangelicalism's growing presence in several Middle Eastern countries, experts say. In neighboring Jordan, for example, "the indigenous evangelical presence is growing and thriving," said Todd M. Johnson, a scholar of global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts.

Nabeeh Abbassi, president of the Jordan Baptist Convention, said in an interview in Amman that there are about 10,000 evangelicals worshiping at 50 churches in Jordan. They include 20 Baptist churches with a combined regular Sunday attendance of 5,000, he added. The organization also operates the Baptist School of Amman, where 40 percent of the student body is Muslim.

While most evangelicals in Jordan come from traditional Christian denominations, Abbassi said, "we're seeing more and more Muslim conversions, not less than 500 a year" over the past 10 years.

It's a start. Let me echo Jesus' own exhortation on evangelism:

Matthew 9:36-38

When he [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field."

(HT: Rob Parks)

The biggest story of the day has got to the the 5-4 ruling by the Supreme Court in Kelo v. City of New London that basically says there are no limits to eminent domain.

The Supreme Court today effectively expanded the right of local governments to seize private property under eminent domain, ruling that people's homes and businesses -- even those not considered blighted -- can be taken against their will for private development if the seizure serves a broadly defined "public use."

In a 5-4 decision, the court upheld the ability of New London, Conn., to seize people's homes to make way for an office, residential and retail complex supporting a new $300 million research facility of the Pfizer pharmaceutical company. The city had argued that the project served a public use within the meaning of the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution because it would increase tax revenues, create jobs and improve the local economy.

There is no more private property in America. Whatever you own can now be taken and given to someone else for them to profit off of at the whim of the government. If you don't like it you'll have to sue to keep your stuff, and even if you fight it all the way to the Supreme Court, apparently they'll spit in your face.

A group of homeowners in New London's Fort Trumbull area had fought the city's attempt to impose eminent domain, arguing that their property could be seized only to serve a clear public use such as building roads or schools or to eliminate blight. The homeowners, some of whom had lived in their house for decades, also argued that the public would benefit from the proposed project only if it turned out to be successful, making the "public use" requirement subject to the eventual performance of the private business venture.

This isn't even for the "public" good -- which would be bad enough -- it's for the good of Pfizer and Pfizer's shareholders. They're the ones who will be making a profit off the theft of these homes. If they want the land so bad, they should just buy it. That's how a free market works.

I think it's time for some impeachments. If not the five who joined this majority decision -- Justices John Paul Stevens, Anthony Kennedy, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer -- then let's just throw the whole bunch of them out and start over. It's time for limited terms for federal justices.

I know some leftists wouldn't be happy to have President Bush appoint nine new justices, but how about if we start them on eighteen-year terms staggered every two years? So Bush would get to appoint all nine now, but by the time the next president comes around in 2008 he'll get to appoint two of his own, and so will the next president, and so on forever. Eh, there's flaws I'm sure, but it would be better than the system we've got now.

Another possible solution is proposed by Abu Gingy who wants to develop over some Justices' homes.

If there are any well connected real estate developers in the DC area reading this, please drop me a line. If we can come up with some project that would kick these schmucks out of their own homes, I doubt the irony would be lost on the learned justices.

Michelle Malkin links to Brash Limburg who points out that property rights are more important than library records.

While You Were Busy Protesting The Patriot Act... ...the government took your house. I'm sure the residents of New London, Connecticut will be happy to know that while their houses are being demolished, their library records will be safely locked away.

I wish the left would use its protest energy for something useful like this... or am I mistaken in thinking that leftist Americans would be opposed to the elimination of private property?

Eugene Volokh has a more balanced look at Kelo v. City of New London and examines the effects of the ruling, setting aside (apparently) any moral objections to government takings.

But I think Clayton Cramer's analogy is better, because I don't think the moral aspects can be ignored.

If you aren't a property owner, consider this analogy: you believe that you labor is worth $10 per hour. You aren't prepared to work for less. A corporation decides that your labor is essential to what they are doing, but they aren't prepared to pay you $10 per hour--so they have the government draft you, and pay you a private's wages--and assign you to work for that corporation, arguing that the corporation's products would enhance the overall economy. You would properly recognize that you had been enslaved.

Qdoba just opened a location near my house and the food's pretty good, but one thing is really insultingly stupid: their loyalty card. You eat ten meals with them and what do you get? A free meal? No. A free burrito? No. A free drink? No. A free bag of chips. No guacamole, nothing. And the bag of chips is tiny; I counted eight chips in the bag, total. How stupid do they think we are?

One of the hardest things to do in the field of artificial intelligence is to interpret what exactly a neural network is doing and why it's doing it. Artificial neural networks (ANNs) are deterministic in the sense that, given adequate information about one's state, it is always possible to exactly predict what it will do. However, due to their complexity and chaotic nature it is almost always difficult to go backwards from an end state to discover how the various parts of the neural network contributed to that end state. By "difficult" I mean that it is theoretically possible but practically impossible; the math says it can be done, and we know how to do it, but the calculations are so onerous that it basically can't be done. (Very simplified explanation.)

For this reason, it is very difficult to determine where in a given ANN a certain piece of knowledge is stored. We can put in inputs and get out outputs that indicate that the ANN knows something, and we can probe for real-time data, but it's difficult to determine which neuron (or connection between neurons) or set of neurons (or set of connections) stores a given piece of knowledge just by looking at the structure. Sometimes, in simple networks, neurons can be analyzed and isolated to demonstrate their function, but most of the time a given piece of knowledge is distributed across many neurons, all of which contribute towards generating the appropriate output. One advantage of distributed storage is that if a single neuron breaks the output will only degrade slightly (in theory).

Human brains are far more complex than artificial neural networks, but they're similar in many respects (or so it would appear). Recent research from UCLA and Caltech indicates that knowledge may not be as distributed across neurons as was previously thought. Earlier speculation was that no single neuron was responsible for any specific piece of knowledge, but that everything we consider "memories" is distributed across billions of neurons. However, now there's some evidence that, even if no specific piece of knowledge exists only on a single neuron, some neurons are tied to a specific piece of knowledge.

In the current issue of the journal Nature, a research team led by neuroscientists at UCLA and Caltech has rather haphazardly located a neuron that "looks for all the world like a 'Jennifer Aniston' cell," writes Charles Connor of John Hopkins University. Conner was not involved in the study.

The cell in question was found in the brain of one subject as part of an epilepsy study. When the person was shown 87 images of various celebrities, well-known buildings, animals and objects, the neuron only fired for seven separate snapshots of the Friends actress.

It may be that many other neurons that weren't probed also fired for Jennifer Aniston. It may also be that the researchers simply couldn't find another thought that would trigger that neuron, but that such a thought does actually exist. Either way, these results are somewhat surprising.

However, no one is claiming that there is only one cell in the brain for Jennifer Aniston, the Eiffel Tower, and your grandmother.

"One straightforward objection to this idea is that we don't have enough neurons in the brain to represent each object in the world," said Connor.

Well, the adult human brain has around 100 billion neurons, which would seem to be more than enough to devote one to each person you know or know of, plus more than enough for every other proper noun conceivable. Futher, there are far more connections than there are neurons, and connections certainly play a role in thought and memory, perhaps even more of a role than the neurons themselves. (In ANNs, the connections between neurons are where all the work is generally done.)

"Sparseness has its advantages, especially for memory, because compact coding maximizes total storage capacity," Connor said.

Actually though, the method of knowledge distribution (sparse or dense) probably has little effect on how much capacity a given piece of knowledge requires to store. There may be some overhead associated with distributing knowledge across neurons and weights, but given the highly parallel nature of the human brain it's not likely to be very much.

The Los Angeles Times has an article about the indictment of local Vineland Boyz gang, which sounds closer to the Mafia than what one would typically think of as a street gang.

The Vineland Boyz, a tight-knit gang that grew out of a football team in the late 1980s, was one of the most violent street gangs in the San Fernando Valley, but it operated primarily as a business, trading in narcotics and high-end illegal weapons and stealing big-ticket appliances from construction sites, according to a federal indictment made public Tuesday.

They've been arrested under federal RICO statutes, which means it shouldn't be hard to get convictions because -- as I understand it -- the level of gang involvement required for guilt is very low. Good.

The gang absorbed several other street gangs, forged an alliance with the Mexican Mafia to boost its narcotics trade, and controlled large areas of the San Fernando Valley and Burbank, the indictment said.

The gang became the focus of law enforcement in November 2003, when reputed member David Garcia allegedly fatally shot Burbank Police Officer Matthew Pavelka near the Bob Hope Airport and fled across the Mexican border. Garcia was captured 13 days later by the U.S. Marshals Service.

Obviously part of the alliance with the Mexican Mafia includes assistance for any Boyz member who needs to flee to Mexico... a sort of reverse Underground Railroad. I don't doubt that the gang also helped Mexican gang members come to Los Angeles.

In the Hat posted some history of the Vineland Boyz last year.

In a conversation with an SEU cop the other day, I was told that the VINELAND BOYZ gang is actually a migratory gang that used to claim NORTH HOLLYWOOD but were driven out or moved out due to pressure from other NH gangs. At one point in their move from NH to SUNLAND, they called themselves the VILLAGE BOYS. If anybody can shed light on this, feel free to correct me. This cop also pointed out that most VB players don't like to be inked and don't look like the average citizen's image of a gangster.

... They made the transition from ball players to tagging crews back in the mid 90s and by 1998 were heavily involved in drive-bys, slanging and tax collection. VB, of course, took a big hit when BURBANK PD and LAPD arrested dozens of players after PAVELKA's murder. While it may not be in shambles, VB isn't the hegemonic powerhouse it used to be. In the wake of police pressure, we heard that some shot callers in VB actually GREENLIGHTED every cop in the area.

An article about gang activity in Los Angeles from 1998 at StreetGangs.com also mentions the Vineland Boyz.

Despite its reputation as L.A.'s version of Nebraska, the Valley harbors nearly as many hard-core gang members per square mile as South-Central Los Angeles. The primary concentration is in Pacoima. Nearby rivals are next door in San Fernando, which has only a few gangs but many members. Gangs of interest include the Shakin' Cat midgets, who began aficionados of rockabilly music, and to the east, the Vineland Boyz, who have earned a nasty reputation for multiple drive-bys -- a Pacoima gang member estimates they`ve killed 26 and left at least four paralyzed. These killings have, in a twisted way, earned the respect of the other local gangs because the shootings were unprovoked and indiscriminate.

Senator Dick Durbin has made yet another "apology" for his remarks equating American soldiers with Nazis.

"Some may believe that my remarks crossed the line," the Illinois Democrat said. "To them I extend my heartfelt apologies."

Some may believe? What do you believe, Senator? Do you believe that your comments crossed the line? I've had to make plenty of apologies in my life, and "I'm sorry you were offended" is much different from acknowledging, "what I said was wrong, and I shouldn't have said it".

I was just playing around with BlogExplosion -- a sort of traffic pyramid scheme -- and many of the random sites I found through it are pretty interesting. One that quickly caught my eye was Thoughts of a High Functioning Autistic Teen, the author of which not only doesn't view her condition as a disability but actually says that autism has positive traits. An interesting inside perspective, and especially thought-provoking in an age in which so many people are eager to view themselves as victims.

I saw Batman Begins last night and it's my favorite in the series thus far. I don't think I've ever read any of the comics, so I can't say how true the movie is to the sources, but it sure was fun to watch. Without being preachy, it was also one of the most solid and viscerally moralistic movies that I ever remember seeing. Spoilers follow, obviously.

I didn't completely buy into the motivations of the League of Shadows, though I liked Ra's Al Ghul's interactions with Batman. The differences between the moralities of the two characters was subtle and mostly came down to a question of implementation, but the movie dealt with the contrast cleanly, for the most part, and presented both sides of the issue. Ra's Al Ghul wanted to fight evil by destroying the city, writing it off as a lost cause, wheras Batman recognized the evil but didn't believe that the city was beyond redemption. Realistically, humanity has no choice but to hope for the latter.

There are all sorts of nits to be picked, but I'll lay off the science since it is a superhero movie. However, am I the only one who found it unrealistic for Katie Holmes to turn billionaire crime-fighter Bruce Wayne away just because he hadn't "found himself" yet or somesuch nonsense?

Finally, Christian Bale was a great Batman, and again, my favorite thus far. Liam Neeson did a great job. Katie Holmes' character was well written (except for the rejection of Wayne near the end) and understated, and she pulled it off well. I also enjoyed Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon, Michael Caine as Alfred, and Cillian Murphy (best know to me from 28 Days Later) as Scarecrow.

Saddam Hussein is delusional and he really doesn't know what's going on in the world outside his prison. According to some of the soldiers who guarded the former dictator, he even expects to return to power.

Sean: "But he wanted to be friends with them. Towards the end, he was saying that he doesn't hold any hard feelings and he just wanted to talk to Bush, to make peace with him."

Jesse: "He thought that Bush could forgive and forget about what has happened. 'He knows I have nothing, no mass weapons. He knows he'll never find them.' "

Based on my understanding of Arab culture (poor at best), Hussein wants to make "friends" with President Bush because in his experience power is built and maintained through personal relationships with other powerful people. Arab governments are not ruled by laws, but by the whims of individual "power brokers" who conspire together to stay on top (much like mob bosses). They promote and reward people who are loyal to them personally and punish dissenters. When threatened, they resolve the issue by either killing the boss who's threatening them or making "friends". Hussein was never the only power in Iraq, but he stayed on top because he knew who to make friends with and who to kill. He knew how to play all the other sides against each other, and he made it profitable for other ambitious bosses to fall in line rather than fight him. Hussein probably thinks that if he could talk to President Bush they could reach an arrangement of some sort that would put Hussein back in power. Think Sopranos.

A final thought: all bureaucracies work this way to some degree. The benefit of rule-of-law is that it reduces the ability of the wielders of public power to use that power for their own benefit. Loyalty to a person is undermined by loyalty to an ideal, the law, which in and of itself does not hand out favors or punishments based on personal ambition. This idea is why, for instance, I'm so opposed to the lack of enforcement of our immigration laws. When laws are only enforced based on the whims of the individual enforcers, a society will eventually decay into a feudal bureaucracy.

My church's youth pastor, Josh Ritchie, has been blogging up a storm at Deception in the Church, with a heavy focus on hermeneutics -- that is, "The theory and methodology of interpretation, especially of scriptural text." His recent post on "Miracle Mayhem" is particularly enlightening, as is an earlier post about false gospel presentations. Great stuff, and I'm adding him to the blogroll on the right.

Bear Flag League Summer Conference

This afternoon I put my fiance's RV up on blocks to reduce wear on the tires, and it wasn't as hard as I'd feared. Just in case anyone else out there ever has to do something similar, here are the steps I followed -- but be careful! I figured all this out for myself, so your mileage may vary.

First, I went on eBay and bought a couple of maintenance books for the old Dodge van chassis that the RV was built around. They only cost a few dollars each, and from them I was able to identify the lift points that are safe to use when jacking up the vehicle.

The front was easy to jack up because the lift point was right in the center between the front wheels. I just stuck a Husky 6-ton Bottle Jack under it and pumped it up. I didn't take the tires completely off the ground, as the picture below shows, but I did take most of the weight off them.

As you can see, I used a pair of 11.5-inch cement pier anchors for the blocks with a couple of pieces of wood and cardboard on top to level them out.

The back was more difficult because there isn't a central jack point -- each side had to be lifted seperately. What's more, I had to crawl way under the vehicle to position the jack and then the blocks. As you can see, there were lots of spiderwebs, but I didn't see any spiders. The webs were old, and I doubt there were any spiders around anymore since we put an Ultrasonic Bug Repeller in the RV.

Anyway, you can see the 10-inch blocks I used under the rear axles. I decided to position them beneath the spring U-bolts; it's not a great spot, but it's the best that was available. My main concern is that the weight is resting on the bolts, but nothing else was possible. The wheels are still bearing some of the weight, so it should be ok.

And that's all there is to it!

Working late sucks, especially on Friday.

For brains, anyway.

RICHMOND, Va. (June 17, 2005) – People with bigger brains are smarter than their smaller-brained counterparts, according to a study conducted by a Virginia Commonwealth University researcher published in the journal “Intelligence.” ...

“For all age and sex groups, it is now very clear that brain volume and intelligence are related,” said lead researcher Michael A. McDaniel, Ph.D., an industrial and organizational psychologist who specializes in the study of intelligence and other predictors of job performance.

Well... duh? Big muscles mean more strength, so these results are pretty obvious. But then, mine is enormous.

Downside: can't wear hats.

Since I'm getting married I've started to think about kid names, and I think it would be ideal to have a name that can be spelled using only letters from the first position on phone keys. This yields the set {A, D, G, J, M, P, T, W}, which is a pretty respectable group of letters for a name. Ideally, the name shouldn't contain any double letters, since I hate waiting the second it takes for the phone to allow me to retype the same letter again using the same key. Unfortunately, the Internet Anagram Server reports that there aren't many potential names.

Drudge links to a sickening story about child sacrifices in London, which the reporter insanely links to Christianity.

Boys from Africa are being murdered as human sacrifices in London churches.

They are brought into the capital to be offered up in rituals by fundamentalist Christian sects, according to a shocking report by Scotland Yard.

Followers believe that powerful spells require the deaths of "unblemished" male children.

The murderers may call themselves "Christians", but from the description of the "spells" and witchcraft associated with these -- utterly unbiblical -- murders/"sacrifices" it should be obvious to anyone with half a brain that the responsible religious influence is African, not Christian.

The report was put together by an expert social worker and lawyer for the Met after talking to hundreds of people in African communities in a series of workshops. It uncovered allegations of witchcraft spells, child trafficking and HIV-positive people who believe that by having sex with a child they will be "cleansed".

An extract reads: "People who are desperate will seek out experts to cast spells for them.

"Members of the workshop stated that for a spell to be powerful it required a sacrifice involving a male child unblemished by circumcision. They allege that boy children are being trafficked into the UK for this purpose."

Those kinds of belief are not Christian in any sense, and their practitioners are wrong to use that term to describe themselves. They may be wrong out of ignorance or malice, but they're certainly wrong objectively and unquestionably.

Further, though I'm no expert, the numbers in the report seem a little off.

Last month Scotland Yard revealed it had traced just two out of 300 black boys aged four to seven reported missing from London schools in a three-month period.

The true figure for missing boys and girls is feared to be several thousand a year.

The population of London is around 7.5 million; assuming that around 20% of the population is between the ages 0 and 14, that's 1.5 million. I don't know what percentage are West African, but based on the CIA World Factbook it must be less than 5%; 5% of 1.5 million is 75,000. I find it hard to believe that "several thousand" children out of 75,000 can go missing each year and only recently be noticed.

I really don't get the concern over privacy for library and bookstore records. Who cares?

WASHINGTON -- Advocates of rewriting the USA Patriot Act are claiming momentum after the House, despite a White House veto threat, voted to restrict investigators from using the anti-terrorism law to peek at library records and bookstore sales slips. ...

"No question, this is a real shot in the arm for those of us who want to make changes to the USA Patriot Act," said Rep. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., sponsor of the provision that would curtail the government's ability to investigate the reading habits of terror suspects. He said the vote would help "rein in an administration intent on chipping away at the very civil liberties that define us as a nation."

Since when is reading material privacy one of the "civil liberties that define us as a nation"? It's nonsense. Investigators can get warrants to tap phone lines and peek into internet connections -- not to mention search warrants for homes -- all of which are clearly far more intrusive than looking into library records. (Although I don't think warrants are needed to look into book records.)

I don't see any reason why library records shouldn't be used to learn about a terror suspect. If someone is suspected of terrorism, isn't it relevant that they have or have not been looking at, say, books about demolition explosives or biological agents? Obviously if that's all a suspect has been doing, then no crime has been committed and all the investigators can do is keep an eye on the guy. But if the book records lead to uncovering a larger plot, then what's wrong with that?

Meanwhile, libraries (which I dislike) are destroying records to protect terrorists.

In the meantime, a number of libraries have begun disposing of patrons' records quickly so they won't be available if sought under the law.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told Congress in April that the government has never used the provision to obtain library, bookstore, medical or gun sale records.

But when asked whether the administration would agree to exclude library and medical records from the law, Gonzales demurred. "It should not be held against us that we have exercised restraint," he said.

Ok, this is going to be an incredibly geeky question.... Does anyone know if the "Imperial March" from Star Wars is ever played in character, or is it always just in the soundtrack? That is, do the characters ever hear the music?

There are some people -- who are typically viewed as being on "my side" of politics -- who think that America is being too weak when it comes to handling the War on Terror. They say we're dealing with the Saudis too weakly, we're not confronting terror-supporting governments harshly enough, we're treating terrorist prisoners with kid gloves, we're not creating strict enough homeland security measures, &c. They often compare our restraint to the lack thereof by previous world powers, like the Romans or the USSR. I agree with these critics to some extent; America really could benefit from more a vigorous anti-terror strategy in some ways. However, it strikes me as important to remember that none of those previous world powers is around anymore, so maybe they shouldn't be held up as the gold standard.

It looks like Arnold was heckled during his Santa Monica College commencement address. However, unlike the numerous reports of leftist polemics disguised as graduation speeches, it doesn't look like Arnold spent much time on politics.

SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's return to his alma mater turned into an exercise in perseverance when virtually his every word was accompanied by catcalls, howls and piercing whistles from the crowd.

Schwarzenegger's face appeared to redden during his 15-minute commencement address Tuesday to 600 graduates at Santa Monica College, but he ignored the shouting as he recalled his days as a student and, later, his work as a bodybuilder and actor.

"Always go all out and overcome your fears," he told the graduates. "Work, work, work. Study, study, study."

I wasn't there, and I haven't read a transcript, but it seems that Arnold appropriately focused on the students and did his best to give them advice for future success -- which he is eminently qualified to do, regardless of what one thinks of his politics. Nonetheless, the leftist "liberals" who are so in favor of free speech attempted to scream him down and prevent him from speaking, essentially resorting to the thuggery that is apparently the left's only remaining contribution to civilization.

One Democrat, at least, thinks that perhaps it's inappropriate for the professors to politicize their students' graduation. And no, it doesn't make you a "bad Democrat", it makes you part of the civil discourse our nation relies upon.

I may have beachfront property soon. There's a tsunami warning in effect for the whole California coast, and I'm getting dressed and watching the news in case we have to make a quick getaway.

All clear, no tsunamis tonight.

Eugene Volokh has an excellent post up about how science can help us answer questions, but only morality can tell us which questions to ask.

What rule we should use for deciding when someone should have the legal right not to be killed is not a scientific question. Applying the rule may be a scientific question; if we decide that only entities that have consciousness have the right not to be killed, then science can tell us whether John Smith has consciousness. But deciding on the rule is simply not a scientific issue: It's a matter of moral judgment, which science isn't equipped to provide. Science can't tell us whether the legal right not to be killed vests at conception, at viability, at consciousness, or at birth; nor can it tell us when the right dissipates.

Quite right. Additionally, as science has advanced and given us more insight into the workings of the womb, more people are beginning to realize exactly what abortion entails -- and they're rejecting it on moral grounds.

I was just wondering how much civilian employees of the Department of Defense make, and it can't be that much. I'm sure the benefits are good, but according to this table of government salaries top level cabinet secretaries only make $175,700 per year, so there can't be much room for growth down in the lower levels of government service... which is why the government is often forced to hire contractors. Interestingly, if the salaries of these top level people were raised the government might actually save money because it could directly hire skilled employees rather than bringing them on as expensive consultants.

The pun is so obvious -- given Clayton Cramer's interests I'm almost ashamed that he didn't think of it himself. Mr. Cramer sent an email claiming that no one else is blogging about the important issue of defending oneself against bears and he links to several studies about bears and pepper spray.

Smith said that although research has shown that red pepper spray is highly effective as a deterrent in aggressive grizzly and brown bear encounters when sprayed directly in a bear's eyes or nose, his pilot study shows that spray residues did attract brown bears when used in nonaggressive situations. Brown bear responses to red pepper spray-treated sites in his study ranged from mere sniffing to whole body rolling in the residues, an uncommon bear behavior.

Mr. Cramer recommends a mixed strategy of pepper spray and a .44 Magnum, but another option he fails to mention is the bear-proof suit, which also has the benefit of being truck-proof and arrow-proof. The only downside (if you see it as such) is that the suit's appearance is so unearthly that bears won't even attack it.

The first live tests of Troy Hurtubise's grizzly-proof suit have found that its best protective feature is its bizarre appearance. Hurtubise donned the suit and squared up to a 145-kilogram (320-pound) female grizzly last week but the bear just found it too weird.

When confronted by Hurtubise in the Ursus Mark VI suit, the bear smelled a human, but saw an alien. "There's no grizzly that's going to come near you in that suit," the bear handler told him, after he spent 10 minutes in a cage with the cowering animal.

Unfortunately the Ursus Mark VI wasn't strong enough to face the intended 1200 pound Kodiak, but don't worry, the Ursus Mark VII was completed less than a year later, in 2002. I haven't been able to discover the results of Mark VII vs. Kodiak, but one thing's for sure: I wouldn't coat the suit with pepper spray before jumping in the ring.

I have a friend who I believe to be knowledgable on the matter who claims that asbestos-related mesothelioma is a scam dreamed up by personal injury lawyers; I can't find a lot of information on the web that isn't directly related to soliciting business for said lawyers. Does anyone have any sources of information about the cancer that I'm not finding on Google?

DeoDuce takes a look at the strange and disturbing world of abortion-themed merchandise. I guess the point of the products is to desensitize people to abortion (an implicit admission that abortion is revolting and sick?) but I predict that any girl who wears a t-shirt that says "Kiss me, I'm pro-choice" is not going to end well.

I've seen and heard of similar ideas before -- often involving razor blades -- but Sonette Ehlers of South Africa is the first to bring to market a rape-deterring "rat trap".

The tampon-like device, invented by a woman, supposedly protects women from rapists by cutting into a man’s penis. ...

The device, which Sonette Ehlers, its inventor, has patented, is worn like a tampon but is hollow. In the event of a rape, she said that it would fold around the rapist’s penis and attach itself with microscopic hooks. It is impossible to remove the clamped device without medical intervention.

“We have to do something to protect ourselves. While this will not prevent rape, it will help identify attackers and secure convictions,” Ms Ehlers told the Johannesburg Star.

Interestingly, many feminist groups in South Africa are opposed to the new invention, even though, as Fink Tank 3000 points out, South Africa is the "rape capital" of the world. The article contributes these numbers:

The South African Law Commission recently estimated that 1.69 million women a year were raped in the country but that only 52,000 cases a year are reported. Other estimates put the rate even higher.

Ms Smith said: “More than 40 per cent of those raped are children and nationally more than 65 per cent are gang rapes. Whether this translates as a woman raped every 26 seconds or more is irrelevant. It is far too many and not enough is being done to tackle it. This is not a male-only problem, it is a societal problem.”

Says a leading anti-rape campaigner:

Charlene Smith, a leading anti-rape campaigner, said: “This is a medieval instrument, based on male-hating notions and fundamentally misunderstands the nature of rape and violence against women in this society. It is vengeful, horrible, and disgusting. The woman who invented this needs help.”

I'm certainly no male-hater, and I agree that the device is pretty awful. Miss Smith is right in thinking that South African women need help to fight rape, but she fails to recognize that if the government won't do anything then women need to be able to protect themselves. These rat traps aren't as good a deterrence against rape as women carrying guns -- especially since the rape has to actually happen before the trap is of any use at all -- but the fear of such a device may discourage some attackers.

However, there are some complications. First of all, once rapists learn about the devices won't they just check for them? Second, it seems that the pain could cause the rapist to become more violent, thereby putting the victim in more danger. Even if the trap is debilitating in the short term, what's to prevent the rapist from finding the victim again later and taking revenge? Hopefully he'd get locked up for a while, but South African laws don't appear to be too good at that.

Ultimately, I mostly agree with this radio host:

The activist’s views were echoed by Jenny Crwys- William, the host of a popular radio talk show, who described the device as a “profoundly disturbing” development that underlined how society was in danger of accepting rape as a reality of everyday life. “We need more police and more sensitive police responses to rape. When more rapists go behind bars, rape rates will go down,” she told listeners.

Best solution: arm all women. Second best: prosecute, convict, and imprison rapists. Third best: rat traps.

(HT: Bill Handle.)

I bought a cheap elliptical machine from Wal-Mart and I totally love it. I started running almost ten years ago, and my knees were starting to bother me from the constant pounding. I bought the elliptical machine last weekend and have been using it all week, and my knees are feeling better than ever.

First off, the elliptical is zero-impact, so it's a lot easier on my joints. Secondly, it exercises my legs more completely than running, so the muscles that support my knees are getting strengthened. Third, it provides a whole body workout for my abs, chest, shoulders, and arms, which running just can't do.

The only significant downside is that I don't get to feel the wind in my hair as I zip through the neighborhood... but on the other hand, I'm much less likely to get hit by a car. All in all, I'd highly recommend an elliptical trainer to anyone who runs -- your knees and hips and ankles will thank you.

My shipment of Lego Minis came and I put two of them together last night.

First off, the MINI Star Destroyer (4492) is one of the best models I've ever seen. I typically like the mini scale models, and this Star Destroyer is awesome. It's very solid and has a definite weight and presence to it, even for such a small model. I'm going to try converting it to a Mini Super Star Destroyer in a little while, but I really wish I'd bought two so I could keep one in the original configuration.

The other model I built is the MINI Sith Infiltrator (4493), which was disappointing. Granted, I'm not a fan of the prequel movies or their products, but the Infiltrator in Episode I looked like a pretty sleek ship. The model is boring, and the landing gear arrangement is awkward and anti-sleek. The wings are cool, but I can see why the landing gear was hard to design so as to keep the wings off the ground. I'd skip it and get a second Star Destroyer.

Apparently the dominant species in London's Battersea Park is crow. Throughout the whole article no mention is made of eliminating these dangerous birds.

Joggers are today being warned about violent crows in London parks after an attack left a man bloodied and needing hospital treatment.

Justin Keay was swooped on by two crows in what experts have called a severe case of "mobbing" - where two or more birds gang up on an assumed predator to keep them away from their young.

Now other runners are being told to stay well away from fledgling crows to avoid further attacks. ...

A spokeswoman for Wandsworth council, which is responsible for the park, said: "We will be talking to bird experts to see if it is a more widespread problem. If it turns out there's any need to alert the public we will do so."

Hm, if crows are dangerous why do the Londoners tolerate them in their parks? Humans should stay away from fledging crows? Why not just kill all the crows and reclaim the park for humanity?

Anyway, I guess it's better than being attacked by flying pigs.


"A nerd is an excellent provider and a guy who puts you first," says E. Jean Carroll, Elle magazine's love and sex advice columnist. "He'll turn out to be a great father and a great husband."

And, she insists that a woman who is willing to stick it out with a nerd and get past his quirks will be handsomely rewarded. "Don't give up on him too fast," she said. "If you stick with him, he's going to turn out to be really great."

(HT: Instapundit, who has the same reaction I do.)

I'm excited that my Lego shipment is arriving tomorrow. Meanwhile, here are some Lego-related blogs that look worth checking out. They don't update that frequently, but they're still pretty cool.

Zemi has the coolest site design I've seen in a while and describes a pretty sweet Lego Moonbase modular building system that allows builders to combine complying modules into giant amalgamations.

Jake's Lego Blog is maintained by the Global Community Relations Specialist for the LEGO Group, Jake McKee. It's mostly links to other Lego stuff, but seeing as how Mr. McKee works for the company he has an inside track and there's some pretty good information in the archives.

From Bricks to Bothans is a blog devoted to Star Wars Lego sets, and it has reviews posted for many of the most popular. It also has a lot of sets posted with only placeholder pages, but presumably these are being filled in over time. One of the more interesting recent posts is an interview with Jay Bruns, the Lego Star Wars Brand manager.

It's really annoying when I'm walking along a path/sidewalk/hallway and someone comes up from a merging direction and starts walking directly next to me. Hello? Haven't you heard of yielding? If you walk out of a doorway into a hall, you don't just start walking directly next to someone already walking there, you wait for them to go past. It's really awkward.

I agree with the Saudi Oil Minister who says they have plenty of oil; even though Saudi Arabia may one day sell all its oil, the oil reserves of the world will never be depleted, thanks to market forces and aside from any technological innovation. I wonder though: what advantage does Saudi Arabia gain from trumpeting its wealth? The scarcer oil is, the higher its price, so why reassure people that oil is plentious?

WASHINGTON -- Saudi Arabia has plenty of oil _ more than the world is likely to need _ along with an increasing ability to refine crude oil into gasoline and other products before selling it overseas, a top Saudi official says.

"The world is more likely to run out of uses for oil than Saudi Arabia is going to run out of oil," Adel al-Jubeir, top foreign policy adviser for Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler Crown Prince Abdullah, said Wednesday. ...

High oil prices benefit the Saudi economy in the short run, but al-Jubeir said his nation wants a stable price that won't hurt consumers so much that they reduce their energy demands.

Maybe that's the real problem then. The Saudis are the world's largest oil producers -- and have the lowest production costs -- but they don't have the ability to increase production volume enough to take advantage of surging demand and high prices. If they can push prices down, they can put their competition out of business because their competitors can't produce oil for the same low cost the Saudis can. Not only that, but as al-Jubeir said, lower oil costs will reduce the incentive for consumers to move to alternate fuels.

Update 050628:
Then again William Tucker and Matthew R. Simmons think the Saudis are lying, or deceived themselves.

Here's a nifty tool that combines Google Maps with a database of observed gas prices: Cheap Gas. You select your location and it shows you where all the cheapest gas locations are (here's a hint: far away). It would be really nice if you could type in a location and have it calculate which station is the most efficient to fill up at based on gas price and distance. It would also be nice if you could input start and end points and have it find a cheap station that's on your way....

Another great use of Google Maps is HousingMaps, which scrapes rental listings from craigslist and maps them out for you by price.

(HT: My cube-mate, who probably got them from this thread on Slashdot.)

It's hilarious, but in a way I hope that Paris fashion designers are right about new men.

PARIS (AFP) - Macho man is an endangered species, with today's male more likely to opt for a pink flowered shirt and swingers' clubs than the traditional role as family super-hero, fashion industry insiders say.

A study along these lines led by French marketing and style consultants Nelly Rodi was unveiled to Fashion Group International during a seminar Tuesday on future strategy for the fashion industry in Europe.

"The masculine ideal is being completely modified. All the traditional male values of authority, infallibility, virility and strength are being completely overturned," said Pierre Francois Le Louet, the agency's managing director.

Instead today's males are turning more towards "creativity, sensitivity and multiplicity," as seen already in recent seasons on the catwalks of Paris and Milan.

Pathetic, yes, but the reason I hope there's some validity to this belief is that "men" who dress and think as described above will never be able to compete successfully with me at any useful or substantial endeavor. The feminization of men is certainly bad for civilization, but it's good for me individually because it will end up improving my position relative to the average.

Here's another use for experimental ecnomics: scientists have isolated the chemical they dub trust in a bottle.

A Swiss-led research team tested their creation on volunteers playing an investment game for real money. When they inhaled the nasal spray, investors were more likely to hand over money to a trustee, knowing that, although they could make a hefty profit, they could also lose everything if the trustee decided not to give any of the money back.

The potion's magic ingredient is oxytocin, a chemical that is produced naturally in the brain. Its production is triggered by a range of stimuli, including sex and breastfeeding, and it is known to be important in the formation of social ties, such as mating pairs and parent-offspring bonds. It is perhaps no surprise that the compound has been nicknamed the 'love hormone'.

Experts think that oxytocin exerts its range of effects by boosting some social behaviours: it may encourage animals or people to overcome their natural wariness when faced with a risky situation. The theory argues that people only decide to trust each other - when forming a sexual or business relationship, for example - when the brain's oxytocin production is boosted.

Many human behaviors -- from advertising to romance -- are tailored to elicit an increase in oxytocin production in their target. Administering the chemical directly would only flatten the playing field and lessen the advantage enjoyed by those of us who are particularly charming. Is that fair? In a way, bottled oxytocin is to a social misfit what a gun is to a physical weakling. Still, convincing someone with natural charm seems somehow less creepy than using a chemical in a bottle.

(HT: GeekPress.)

Here's a great Baklava recipe. Phyllo dough is a real pain to work with, but otherwise this is a tasty dessert that you just can't quit eating. And even if the dough tears, the final product ends up tasting delicious.

Apparently jurors are willing to punish amature abortionists even though their accomplices are presently beyond the reach of the law.

LUFKIN, Texas -- A 19-year-old East Texas man faces a life prison sentence for causing his teenage girlfriend to miscarry twins, even though she wanted to end the pregnancy.

Gerardo Flores was accused of causing the miscarriage by stepping on his girlfriend's stomach. He was prosecuted under the state's new fetal protection law.

Erica Basoria acknowledged asking Flores to help end her pregnancy. But the 17-year-old can't be prosecuted because of her legal right to abortion.

I wonder if this verdict will be upheld on appeal? Should it be? Are there any pro-choicers out there who agree with this verdict? The only injustice I see is that the mother is exempt from prosecution.

Robert Parks raises and good point and asks, where's PETA when you need them?

But, even if the twins aren't considered people, where's PETA when you need them? If they aren't human, there's no doubt to their animal nature. I highly doubt kicking and punching fall under "Ethical Treatment" by any stretch of the imagination. This is blatant, unjustified, "cruel and unusual punishment"!

La Shawn Barber makes a good observation and points out that fathers can't protect their children either.

When you reject moral absolutes, which apply to us all, in favor of satanic “relativism,” this is the result. An unborn baby is human only if his mother wants him or if the father kills him. He commits murder; she commits “choice.”

If the father wants to save his baby’s life but the mother elects to have the unwanted foreign growth scraped from her womb, he’s out of luck. That’s the unsustainable, contradictory, insane, incomprehensible rationale behind legalize abortion.

Beaker thinks that Gerardo Flores was just in the wrong place.

I guess he should have beat her in the lobby of a Planned Parenthood Abortion Mill™.

So let's see if I can make some sense of this. If the teenage girl kills her unborn twins, it's legal. If her boyfriend helps, with her full consent, he's put away for life. If a doctor (or any other member of Planned Parenthood) kills the unborn twins, with her consent, it's legal. If anyone kills the unborn twins without her consent, it's murder.

The babies were also in the wrong "place", in that identical babies who were located outside a womb would have had full legal protection. I can attack someone who invades my house and intends to hurt me, but if I invite a person in I can hardly complain about it later.

Bill Quick thinks the problem is that "social conservative lunatics" are writing laws.

This is the sort of insanity you end up with when social conservative lunatics start writing laws for the majority. Yes, yes, I know all about federalism. That doesn't prevent me from pointing out the idiotic outcomes federalism sometimes provides.

But a truly just system would have punished both killers, not just the man... and it's leftists who prevented that outcome, not rightists.

Republicans should take heart, because from Senator Hillary Clinton's own mouth we learn that Republicans are hard to stop!

"I know it's frustrating for many of you, it's frustrating for me. Why can't the Democrats do more to stop them?" she continued to growing applause. "I can tell you this: It's very hard to stop people who have no shame about what they're doing. It is very hard to tell people that they are making decisions that will undermine our checks and balances and constitutional system of government who don't care. It is very hard to stop people who have never been acquainted with the truth."

Also hard to stop: people who keep winning elections. Yeah, democracy sucks, but what can you do?

In some of her sharpest language, Mrs. Clinton said that abetting Republicans was a Washington press corps that has become a pale imitation of the Watergate-era reporters who are being celebrated amid the identification of the Washington Post source Deep Throat.

"It's shocking when you see how easily they fold in the media today," Mrs. Clinton said, again to strong applause. "They don't stand their ground. If they're criticized by the White House, they just fall apart.

"I mean, c'mon, toughen up, guys, it's only our Constitution and country at stake."

Last time I checked, only our elected/appointed government officials take oaths to protect the Constitution, so why is Hillary trying to fob her job off on the press? They only use the protections of the Constitution to make money -- which isn't bad, but certainly isn't noble either.

(HT: GayPatriot and PoliPundit, who have worse things to say about her.)

I'd go so far as to say that laws that everyone knows aren't going to be enforced are immoral.

WASHINGTON -- Anyone who lights up a joint for medicinal purposes isn't likely to be pursued by federal authorities, despite a Supreme Court ruling that these marijuana users could face federal charges, people on both sides of the issue say.

In a 6-3 decision, the court on Monday said those who smoke marijuana because their doctors recommend it to ease pain can be prosecuted for violating federal drug laws, overriding medical marijuana statutes in 10 states.

While the justices expressed sympathy for two seriously ill California women who brought the case, the majority agreed that federal agents may arrest even sick people who use the drug as well as the people who grow pot for them.

The ruling could be an early test of the compassion Attorney General Alberto Gonzales promised to bring to the Justice Department following the tenure of John Ashcroft.

Gonzales and his aides were silent on the ruling Monday, but several Bush administration officials said individual users have little reason to worry. "We have never targeted the sick and dying, but rather criminals engaged in drug trafficking," Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman Bill Grant said.

Then exempt them from the law! The whole thing is ridiculous, but I don't fault the modern Supreme Court; they're protecting the Constitution no better or worse than the other branches of government, all of which share the responsibility. There are two real problems: first, our government has become very unresponsive to our desires; second, our government has expanded far beyond any reasonable scope. Can you imagine our Founding Fathers sitting around debating what plants people can smoke or setting policy for high school athletics programs?

One problem with politicians, as with many other jobs, is that's it's impossible to just say "no, we've pretty much got all the laws we need" because there are always people clamoring for you to do something about whatever. Plus, if there aren't any new laws needed, why do you have a job? But the fact of the matter is that a legislator who sits on his hands for his whole term is probably the best kind.

My brother Nicholas emailed me with the following great idea:

On C-SPAN today, a professor (he's from Berkeley, but he's a conservative economist and law professor) named John Yoo had a cool idea: the US should create a mock terrorist organization to compete with Al Qaeda. There could be websites, recruiting efforts, they could claim credit for others' terrorist attacks, etc... the whole effort would draw people and money AWAY from Al Qaeda, and would make Al Qaeda's claims and communications suspect in the Muslim world, among common people and potential/current terrorists.

Of course, the whole strategy might be illegal according to current
law, but it is totally interesting.

I can't find any article by John Yoo describing this, and the
transcript is not available yet....

Anyone hear of anything like this before?

If the failure of Communism -- and high school career placement exams -- is that no one dreams of digging ditches, we may be inching towards a world in which only the most unsavory jobs won't attract volunteers to do them. Consider craigslist, a nearly free site with classified listings that are slowly strangling the newspaper industry.

Craig Newmark, its founder, was, and remains, protective of the noncommercial character of the site. In the early years, he ran it in his spare time with the help of other volunteers. Eventually, the traffic overwhelmed them; he quit his day job and imposed fees to pay for full-time stewardship. But he minimized the impact on the community by restricting the new charges to employers in San Francisco who placed job ads. Modest fees for employers in two other cities were added only last year, and only after Mr. Newmark invited Craigslist visitors to comment on the wisdom of the change; there were 3,000 remarks, all posted publicly. Today, 99.2 percent of Craigslist advertisements remain free.

If you're the publisher of a local newspaper, you're spending a lot of time thinking about Craigslist. Traditionally, local newspapers have derived 30 to 50 percent of their advertising revenue from the classifieds.

Surprisingly, the momentum of this online alternative with virtually free offerings had not drawn much attention as recently as last fall, when Creative Intelligence, a consulting firm based in Altamonte Springs, Fla., surveyed the newspaper industry. It discovered that many executives were unaware of the arrival of Craigslist in their own cities. Nor were all aware that aside from a sliver, ads on Craigslist were available free.

In addition to the few ads that cost money, Craig Newmark and his company make money from selling ads on the site itself, but there was no guarantee he'd make money when he started providing a free service. Perhaps ditch diggers will always be salaried, but I think technology is reducing the benefits of scale enough so that soon just about every service job will be done by those who begin as hobbyists -- computers can already do most mental gruntwork.

In a comment to the earlier post on freedom from taxes, Ben Bateman made a good point:

The real problem this state compact is addressing is neither a spending problem nor a revenue problem. It's a tax administration problem.

It's tempting to think of tax law in political terms; I did it, too, until my first tax class in law school. But my tax prof patiently explained that tax law says very little about how much tax is collected overall. It is instead concerned with who pays how much. A bad tax system warps taxpayer behavior, and makes the economy less efficient overall.

The sales tax situation is a great example: In-state vendors are required to collect sales tax, while out-of-state vendors are not. Technically, the purchaser is required to pay a tax on out-of-state purchases equal to what he would have paid in local sales tax. But that tax is impossible to collect as a practical matter.

This differential treatment pushes people to prefer out-of-state purchases over in-state purchases to some extent, solely because of the tax system. That's inefficient in many cases. Many types of products can be sold more efficiently through brick-and-mortar stores, but the tax system pushes people away from those and towards less efficient purchases by mail. That tax-based distortion generates pure economic waste.

Very true. The best way to pay less taxes is to lower the tax rate, not to have all sorts of special cases that end up distorting the market. However, seeing as how it's rather difficult to elect politicians that will actually cut taxes, I'll take what I can get.

As for the rest of Ben's comment, I disagree.

It's usually a mistake to think about tax law in ideological terms. As my tax prof liked to say: "We've got to pay the Marines." We're going to give the government some amount of our money. The total amount that the government takes is a political question. But once politics has set that amount, the next question is not political: How much should you pay? How much should I pay? And how much should the guy down the street pay? Or, more globally: How do we determine who pays how much?

The question of who pays what seems entirely political to me. Should everyone pay the same amount? The same percentage? Percentage of income, spending, wealth, or what? Those are all political questions.

Not much to write about this, but I love how our politicians -- looking to enrich their own bureaucratic fiefdoms -- can call the lack of a tax a "loss".

DENVER - 9News has learned that 43 states have joined together in a coalition to collect sales tax on all Internet purchases.

You already pay sales tax when you go online to buy from an established business like Eddie Bauer or Wal-Mart. But a lot of small Internet businesses and individual transactions float under the radar. ...

The states say they've been losing as much as $16 billion annually to the Internet. They say that new software will make collecting the money almost automatic and that they can have a system in place by Oct. 1.

Now, obviously states don't "lose" money by not taxing it -- by that logic, the federal government "loses" 50% of my income by letting me keep it. Our state and federal governments have a spending problem, not a revenue problem.

Is it possible that the Japanese abortion industry actually encourages policies that have led to a surge in AIDS infections? As I quoted last year, many Japanese view abortion as a primary method of birth control:

It is common knowledge that abortion has long been one of the most popular forms of birth control in Japan, largely because it's such an enormous money-spinner for those who perform the procedure that they have fought tooth-and-nail to prevent proliferation of alternative means.

Perhaps that's why Japanese appear reluctant to use condoms?

Among women, Sato is one of the careful ones. The 23-year-old Tokyoite has unprotected sex with multiple partners, but at least she occasionally gets herself tested for HIV.

"I know about the risks of disease, but usually the guys I'm with refuse to use a condom _ so we just end up having sex without one," said Sato, who would give only her last name as she waited for her blood to be drawn at a health center.

The risky behavior also extends far beyond youth: Older men often consort with part-time prostitutes of high-school age, businessmen go abroad on "sex tours" thinly disguised as company trips, and the country's enormous sex industry offers services condom-free for higher prices.

I started playing Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II last night and stayed up way too late, as could be expected. Naturally this led me to purchase a bunch of Star Wars Lego Minis this afternoon, including the Mini Star Destroyer -- which can be converted into a spiffy Mini Super Star Destroyer! I also bought a Mini Imperial Shuttle, a Mini Sith Infiltrator, and a Mini Republic Gunship. The best part -- other than the Mini Super Star Destroyer -- is that all the models were on sale for 20% off, getting me four for around $20. Sweet. My cube-mate got a Mini Star Destroyer too, and we're planning to start our own fleet.

Oh right, KOTOR2... uh, it looks cool so far. More on this story as it develops.

Larger-scale custom Star Destroyer and Super Star Destroyer. Nice.

Here's a couple of links I meant to write more about, but haven't found the time.

First, Randy Kirk writes about "Getting Real About Illegal Undocumented Immigrant Aliens" (thereby using all the political keywords in a single phrase). He says that we can't get rid of the ones who are here, but that,

Therefore, I would propose that the first step in this process needs to be an all out effort to plug up the holes in our borders and our procedures. Unlike others who want to round up people or fine business owners, the crucial beginning must be to keep the problem from getting bigger. Amazingly, I think that if the hyperbole and angst could be tamped down for a minute or two, almost everyone could agree to a massive effort to crack down on border crossings.

I'm not aware of many people who advocate rounding up all illegals and expelling them freom the country -- it would be impossible, in any event. Seriously enforcing the border does garner approval in the 75% range on opinion polls, and yet our government refuses to do it. The problem I see isn't one of reaching consensus, it's making our government respond.

Second, Storyblogging Carnival XIX, a collection of posts from bloggers who write various types of fiction. I haven't read them all, but I particularly enjoy what I've seen of Fiddle and Burn, "a daily comic strip in prose". Neat idea. The carnival reminds me of my old Spherewide Short Story Symposium, of which there were only two editions before interest waned. My name was cooler, but that was before the whole "blog carnival" meme was established.

Paul Wolfowitz took over as president of the World Bank yesterday, and despite what many leftist writers think I have a feeling that he'll do more good for the poor of the world than most commentators expect. Even those who don't like him admit that he's smart, and the main complaint seems to be that he seems more keen on lending money for hard infrastructure programs than soft social programs.

For the past decade or two, the World Bank had been making an effort -- or at least talking more -- about making low-to-zero interest loans to social development projects in developing countries, stuff like pensions and education. This is contrast to the old school, wherein the WB would make enormous loans to huge infrastructure projects -- highways, hydropower, etc. -- that would enrich the huge American companies (see: Halliburton) that built them, leave the poor poor, and put the countries themselves in crippling debt to the U.S., which they could never possibly hope to escape from, leaving them, effectively, permanently indentured American colonies.

Except, of course, that many non-American companies win these contracts also. Even in Iraq, which America dominates militarily, the plan Mr. Wolfowitz drafted for reconstruction opened prime contract bidding to 63 countries. Bidding means that the contracts are awarded to the company with the best/cheapest proposal. Even though some countries were (initially) excluded as a matter of American foreign policy, that same explicit consideration wouldn't apply to the World Bank.

This topic may relate only peripherally to Howard Dean's spirituality, but I think it reveals a lot about his character. Apparently the good Doctor Governor Chairman is using his name to hawk Visa credit cards that donate their 1% rebate to the DNC.

Howard Dean wrote a personal letter to my girlfriend this week. It started, "Dear Heather..." and ended "Governor Howard Dean, M.D., Chariman, DNC" He even included a post script reminder that said, "Don't forget to check the box below to donate your 1% rebate to help the Democratic National Committee."

Now, I use credit cards, and I'm in favor of free enterprise, but it cannot be denied that easy, misused credit is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for poor Americans, and that credit cards make most of their money from people who make purchases with money they don't have. I hardly think it's in the best interests of most Democrats to get yet another credit card. Although I certainly think credit cards should exist, they need to be used responsibly, and I'm uncomfortable with the idea of pushing them on people. The Bible teaches about usury, and credit card companies have possibly one of the least moral legal business plans I can think of.

It's too bad that, despite his tactics, Howard Dean isn't raising much money.

Ok, so, I'm not sure what to make of this. John Vescio sent me a link to a product called HuFu which, according to the HuFu FAQ, "is designed to resemble, as humanly possible, the taste and texture of human flesh" while actually containing "no human or animal products". Got it? It's a vegan product that tastes like human flesh. The site isn't graphic, but still, you may not want to go read more.

TM Lutas thinks HuFu is in poor taste. He also makes a larger point about taboos existing for a reason, and I agree (isn't that part of being "conservative"?); cannibalism is a particularly valuable taboo, in my humble opinion.

Just like town and village names became surnames in past times, I think blog names are becoming a sort of surname of the future. Many bloggers post under pseudonyms or just their first names, so it's pretty common for me to cite other bloggers as, e.g., "Glenn from Instapundit". If one is doing a Google search for someone, I'm sure that using such a construction -- if known -- will yield more profitable results than a first/last name combination.

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