March 2007 Archives

The line between "virtual" money and "real" money is very fuzzy, especially in an age where even real money is earned and spent mostly electronically. I get my paycheck directly deposited to my bank account, I manage that account through a website, I spend the money with a credit card, and I pay off the credit card through another website. I rarely handle cash, even for very small transactions. So what's the difference between a Chinese yuan and a QQ coin?

HONG KONG -- China's fastest-rising currency isn't the yuan. It's the QQ coin -- online play money created by marketers to sell such things as virtual flowers for instant-message buddies, cellphone ringtones and magical swords for online games. ...

Then last year something happened that Tencent hadn't originally planned. Online game sites beyond Tencent started accepting QQ coins as payment. The coins appeal as a safer, more practical way to conduct small online purchases, because credit cards aren't yet commonplace in China.

At informal online currency marketplaces, thousands of users helped turn the QQ coins back into cash by selling them at a discount that varies based on the laws of supply and demand. Traders began jumping into the QQ coin market as an opportunity to make a quick yuan off of currency speculation.

State-run media reported that some online shoppers began using QQ coins to buy real-world items such as CDs and makeup. So-called QQ Girls started accepting the coins as payment for intimate private chats online. Gamblers caught wind, too, and started using the currency to get around China's anti-gambling laws, converting wins in online mahjong and card games back into cash. Dozens of third-party trading posts sprouted up to ease transactions, turning the QQ coin into a kind of parallel currency.

The only thing that separates QQ coins from yuans is that the former isn't issued by a government... but then that's never been a requirement in the definition of "money". Wikipedia offers a pretty standard set of criteria that I remember from my economics classes:

Money is generally considered to have the following characteristics, which are summed up in a rhyme found in many economics textbooks and primers: "Money is a matter of functions four, a medium, a measure, a standard, a store".

1. It is a medium of exchange: A medium of exchange is an intermediary used in trade to avoid the inconveniences of a pure barter system.

2. It is a unit of account (also called a "measure" or, alternatively, a "standard" of relative worth and deferred payment): A unit of account is a standard numerical unit of measurement of the market value of goods, services, and other transactions. A unit of account is a necessary pre-requisite for the formulation of commercial agreements that involve debt.

3. It is a store of value: To act as a store of value, a commodity, a form of money, or financial capital must be able to be reliably saved, stored, and retrieved - and be predictably useful when it is so retrieved.

Electronic currencies like frequent flier miles or QQ coins have all these characteristics, and in many cases are far more stable than currencies issued by smaller governments.

What's particularly interesting is that QQ coins are undermining the Chinese government's control over their monetary supply.

The rapid rise of the QQ coin has caused angst for the government in China, where circulation and trade of the real currency is strictly controlled. Last month, 14 Chinese ministries and China's central bank together waged a QQ coin crackdown of sorts, calling on companies to stop trading them in order to prevent money laundering. ...

Despite the Chinese government warnings, people continue to trade QQ coins. The new capital controls, in fact, have given them new scarcity value, driving up the price by 70% in recent weeks, says Milly Chen, who trades QQ coins.

"Over the past months, the system has been getting more complicated to transfer credit, and there is less supply" she says.

It's very difficult for governments to restrict free/"black" markets except through political oppression... which is one of the communists' strengths.

(HT: My brother Nick.)

Meir Javedanfar theorizes that Iran took the 15 British soldiers hostage as a ploy to "Carterize" Tony Blair and knock the UK out of the Global War on Terror.

By capturing the servicemen, Tehran is hoping that the British people, particularly the majority who are already against the war in Iraq will openly blame Blair for the crisis, by saying that it is his fault for endangering the lives of troops by sending them into a conflict zone.

Such internal dissatisfaction, Tehran hopes, would subsequently deal a deadly blow to any plans Blair or his successor may have to support an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The solution to dealing with thugs is to turn to Carter's successor, Ronald Reagan. Every time we give an inch they push for another, and pretty soon we're living under sharia law and baseball is replaced as the national pass-time by stampeding off bridges.

I pray nightly for the safe return of those British soldiers, but I cringe at the policies that allowed their capture. I hope that American troops would have been free to resist capture, but I'm not confident of it thanks to our weak-kneed politicians.

Walid Phares thinks he knows what Iran will do next.

2) The regime "needs" an external clash to crush the domestic challenge.

As in many comparable cases worldwide, when an authoritarian regime is faced with severe internal opposition it attempts to deflect the crisis onto the outside world. Hence, Teheran's all out campaign against the US and its allies in Iraq, Lebanon and the region is in fact a repositioning of Iran's shield against the expected rising opposition inside the country. Hence the Khomeinist Mullahs plan seem to be projected as follow:

a. Engage in the diplomatic realm, to project a realist approach worldwide, but refrain from offering real results

b. Continue, along with the Syrian regime, in supporting the "Jihadi" Terror operations (including sectarian ones) inside Iraq

c. Widen the propaganda campaign against the US and its allies via a number of PR companies within the West, to portray Iran as "a victim" of an "upcoming war provoked by the US."

d. Engage in skirmishes in the Gulf (and possibly in other spots) with US and British elements claiming these action as "defensive," while planned thoroughly ahead of time.

3) The regime plan is to drag its opponents into a trap

Teheran's master planners intend to drag the "Coalition" into steps in engagement, at the timing of and in the field of control of Iran's apparatus. Multiple options and scenarios are projected.

a. British military counter measure takes place, supported by the US. Iran's regime believe that only "limited" action by the allies is possible, according to their analysis of the domestic constraints inside the two powerful democracies.

b. Tehran moves to a second wave of activities, at its own pace, hoping to draw a higher level of classical counter strikes by US and UK forces. The dosing by Iran's leadership is expected to stretch the game in time, until the departure of Blair and of the Bush Administration by its political opponents inside the country's institutions and public debate.

So basically they plan to keep jabbing us until President Bush and Prime Minister Blair are out of office, at which point the mullahs expect our next leaders to capitulate and sue for peace. Seems like they're familiar with the Democrats.

I'm not sure how common this practice is, but it sure calls into question the value of political endorsements. After dropping out of the race, former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack has agreed to endorse Hillary Clinton; in a completely unrelated matter, Hillary Clinton has offered to pay off Vilsack's campaign debt.

Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack gave Sen. Hillary Clinton his endorsement for her presidential campaign.

The Clinton campaign has promised Vilsack to help pay off a $400,000 campaign debt he built up during his run for the White House.

A representative for Clinton's campaign said they are not sure how their campaign will do that. They concede that at some point, Clinton will have to contact her supporters.

The campaign said there is no connection between Vilsack's endorsement and their commitment to help pay off his campaign debt.

That Clinton's representative didn't know how they'd do it indicates to me that this practice isn't too common. In any event, I'm not going to weight Vilsack's endorsement too highly.

(HT: James Taranto.)

Yes, Sanjaya Malakar is a poor singer. He's a kid, so that's no knock against him as a person... but c'mon, he's one of the top 10 unsigned singers in the country? Ludicrous. I think it's hilarious that VoteForTheWorst.com has kept him in this long and that he'll get to go on the top-10 tour this summer. Idol fans shouldn't be upset, because in the end they'll have more votes than VFTW's followers and they'll get the singer they want, but in the meantime it's quite entertaining to see the horror of the audition round extended a few more weeks.

[VFTW founder] Della Terza claims Fox once issued a cease-and-desist order demanding he take copyrighted "Idol" material off his site, a move Fox confirms.

"Millions of fans of 'American Idol' vote for their favorites each season," the network proclaims in a statement, "and that success speaks far louder than the specious ramblings of any mean-spirited and insignificant Web site."

Della Tersa is undeterred. "They're as dumb as the 12-year-olds that write to us," he says.

"All we're doing is getting people to watch their show. ... You're idiots. We're [earning] you money for the sponsors!"

It's just a huge game, it isn't a matter of life and death. VFTW enhances the entertainment value of Idol immensely, not least because Simon Cowell has threatened to quit if Sanjaya wins. Let the circus continue!

Here's a pretty sweet spaceship size comparison chart. I'd host it myself, but the bandwidth could get excessive.

Here's another, interactive site about Starship Dimensions.

(HT: Donald S. Crankshaw and Deep Space Bombardment.)

Ryan Sager writes about McCain-Feingold and five years of CFR failure.

Last but not least — and here we get to the real nub of campaign-finance regulation — McCain-Feingold supporters promised that the bill would curb the scourge of "negative" and "dirty" advertising. "It is about slowing political advertising," Ms. Cantwell said during the debate. "Making sure the flow of negative ads by outside interest groups does not continue to permeate the airwaves."

Of course, curbing and "slowing" speech critical of politicians by "outside interest groups" (a.k.a. "citizens") is in no way a permissible goal under the First Amendment. But, ultimately, the politicians may have failed in this most nefarious goal.

Let's hope this unconstitutional law -- which impinges on our freedoms far more than the Patriot Act -- will be dismantled soon.

(HT: Instapundit.)

It seems like cancer is in the news more than ever these days, and the health benefits of light alcohol consumption have been touted for years (even claims that alcohol improves brain health). However, new research indicates that even light alcohol consumption will increase your risk from cancer.

Scientists have known for a hundred years about the link between alcohol consumption and cancer. A study from Paris in 1910 showed that 80 percent of patients with cancer of the esophagus or gastric track were alcoholics. More recently, scientists have found correlations between alcohol consumption and cancer of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, liver, large bowel, and even the breasts. Yet lab experiments have always failed to show the effects in animals that investigators knew to be true in humans.

Until now.

It seems past studies used too much alcohol -- in concentrations of 20 percent -- and the animals just wasted away while showing no tumor growth. But when Gu used concentrations of one percent -- about one to two drinks per day in humans -- to study blood vessel growth, he detected stimulated tumor growth in both chick embryos and mice. ...

Gu's findings, now confirmed by other scientists, are evidence of what many have long suspected -- alcohol, even in moderation, increases cancer risk.

Therefore I'll continue my policy of teetotaling.

Australia seems like a nice place... except for the huge toads.

DARWIN, Australia - An environmental group said Tuesday it had captured a "monster" toad the size of a small dog.

With a body the size of a football and weighing nearly 2 pounds, the toad is among the largest specimens ever captured in Australia, according to Frogwatch coordinator Graeme Sawyer. ...

Frogwatch, which is dedicated to wiping out a toxic toad species that has killed countless Australian animals, picked up the 15-inch-long cane toad during a raid on a pond outside the northern city of Darwin late Monday.

Cane toads were imported from South America during the 1930s in a failed attempt to control beetles on Australia's northern sugar cane plantations. The poisonous toads have proven fatal to Australia's delicate ecosystems, killing millions of native animals from snakes to the small crocodiles that eat them.

Despite the deep saddening of toad-bloggers, it really would be best for the gazillions of other animals in Australia if the Cane Toads were eliminated.

Congress wastes a lot of time on useless posturing, but sometimes they actually pursue policies that seem designed to harm American citizens. Most recently, the Senate just passed a bill 94-2 declaring that no new US attorneys will be approved for an indefinite period of time. It's called the "Preserving U.S. Attorney Independence Act of 2007", which is silly because US attorneys aren't supposed to be independent, they're political appointees. That doesn't mean that the US attorneys should overlook wrongdoing by allies of the President, but he is their boss.

The Senate passed this bill that would prohibit the attorney general from filling U.S. attorney vacancies for an indefinite time period. The attorney posts are subject to Senate approval.

As I wrote earlier, the to-do over Attorney General Alberto Gonzales firing some of his subordinates is nothing more than the typical criminalization of politics. This bill is nothing but a job security program for US attorneys appointed by President Clinton that President Bush decided to keep around for whatever reason (even though Clinton himself fired all 93 US attorneys when he took office).

On the House side is the "Gulf Coast Hurricane Housing Recovery Act of 2007" which is completely removed from reality.

This House bill would require the government to replace public housing that was damaged by Hurricane Katrina. The Department of Housing and Urban Development determined that 7,500 apartments are unsuitable for repair and has plans to raze the buildings to clear the way for new construction of mixed-income housing. Supporters contend that plan would leave poor people displaced by the hurricane with no housing. The bill would require HUD to make public housing available to displaced tenants and prohibit the agency from razing any public housing without a plan to replace it. Opponents contend that the mixed-income housing would increase the standard of living in neighborhoods with public housing by providing economic development.


The bill passed the House 302-125, but hopefully it will die in the Senate. Newsflash: millions of poor people left the Gulf region and aren't going back. Building government housing to a level that may not be needed is a stupid waste of money. Of course I oppose all government housing on principle, but I'm especially opposed to building structures that won't even be used because the poor people who would have lived in them are gone.

GeekPress linked to a Wired article by Bruce Schneier about how human brains are poor judges of risk, but unfortunately the article approaches the question from an entirely wrong direction and therefore comes to some meaningless (and ridiculous) conclusions. (Set aside the pervasive issue of assumed evolution for the time being.)

The article does set up the problem reasonably well, highlighting the difference between our reflexive amygdala and our analytical neocortex.

But the world is actually more complicated than that. Some scary things are not really as risky as they seem, and others are better handled by staying in the scary situation to set up a more advantageous future response. This means there's an evolutionary advantage to being able to hold off the reflexive fight-or-flight response while you work out a more sophisticated analysis of the situation and your options for handling it.

We humans have a completely different pathway to cope with analyzing risk. It's the neocortex, a more advanced part of the brain that developed very recently, evolutionarily speaking, and only appears in mammals. It's intelligent and analytic. It can reason. It can make more nuanced trade-offs. It's also much slower.

So here's the first fundamental problem: We have two systems for reacting to risk -- a primitive intuitive system and a more advanced analytic system -- and they're operating in parallel. It's hard for the neocortex to contradict the amygdala.

Fine. The problem comes when the article asserts that the neocortex is bad at making predictions because it has "rough edges".

All this is about the amygdala. The second fundamental problem is that because the analytic system in the neocortex is so new, it still has a lot of rough edges evolutionarily speaking. Psychologist Daniel Gilbert wrote a great comment that explains this:
The brain is a beautifully engineered get-out-of-the-way machine that constantly scans the environment for things out of whose way it should right now get. That's what brains did for several hundred million years -- and then, just a few million years ago, the mammalian brain learned a new trick: to predict the timing and location of dangers before they actually happened.

Our ability to duck that which is not yet coming is one of the brain's most stunning innovations, and we wouldn't have dental floss or 401(k) plans without it. But this innovation is in the early stages of development. The application that allows us to respond to visible baseballs is ancient and reliable, but the add-on utility that allows us to respond to threats that loom in an unseen future is still in beta testing.

A lot of the current research into the psychology of risk are examples of these newer parts of the brain getting things wrong.

That's silly. Sure, the neocortex often makes bad predictions, but the reason for that has nothing to do with "rough edges" (whatever that means). The problem is very simple: the immediate future is much easier to predict than the distant future. If you're walking down the sidewalk and a lion starts running at you, it isn't hard to imagine what's going to happen next; a quick, irresistible physiological "fight or flight" response is a good way to handle a life-threatening situation that demands immediate action. The neocortex might prefer to weigh the various options: will fighting this lion make my peers respect me? Would a lion-skin rug look better in my living room or foyer? But such predictions are almost impossible to make very far in advance, which is what we imply when we say "hindsight is 20/20".

The author believes that our neocortex is flawed because it can't predict the future as well as computers can.

And it's not just risks. People are not computers. We don't evaluate security trade-offs mathematically, by examining the relative probabilities of different events. Instead, we have shortcuts, rules of thumb, stereotypes and biases -- generally known as "heuristics." These heuristics affect how we think about risks, how we evaluate the probability of future events, how we consider costs, and how we make trade-offs. We have ways of generating close-to-optimal answers quickly with limited cognitive capabilities. Don Norman's wonderful essay, Being Analog, provides a great background for all this.

Someone please show me where I can buy one of these computers that can predict the future. Alas, they don't exist. Computers are no better at predicting the future than are humans, and in some areas humans do significantly better. We can analyze more varied information than computers can because we're great at parameterizing a wide spectrum of data types. Our heuristics and "hunches" are beyond the ken of state-of-the-art artificial intelligence, and there's no immediate prospect that this will change.

The fact of the matter is that we don't know the best funds to pick for our 401(k) because that sort of prediction is hard, not because our neocortexes are somehow lacking. It's easy to predict if a baseball is about to plonk your nose or if a lion is dangerous, but as the time horizon extends it becomes increasingly hard to analyze risk, and that won't change no matter how long our neocortexes have to evolve.

Finally, the most complex systems that humans interact with are composed of other humans. If all of our neocortexes were improved by evolution (or cybernetic enhancement, or whatever), the net effect would probably be zero. If everyone else in the stock market has a super-neocortex just like me, what advantage I have when I select my investments? None, because my competitors will all be using their superior analytical skills against me.

Update:

AdamReed points out in the comments that the economy isn't a zero-sum game in which wins by one party are equal to losses by another party. This is true! In competitive markets the wins can be larger than the losses, which is why we see economic growth over time. My point in the "finally" paragraph above is that improved neocortexes wouldn't give one investor an advantage over any other, and wouldn't give one businessman an advantage over another in a particular niche. Improved neocortexes probably would improve the creation and exploitation of new niches, however, and thereby enhance broad economic growth in an absolute sense if not in a relative sense.

In January Mark Steyn wrote in a book review that if you're not "obsessed with victory" then you shouldn't have gotten into the war in the first place. Alas, the newly-elected Democrat majority in Congress is obsessed with many things, none of which involve America winning the Global War on Terror.

Now as [in the 1970s], America seems less a sleeping giant than a helpless one, ensnared by Liliputians and longing for release. Some Republicans distance themselves from the President’s “surge” in Iraq, others dutifully string along with it, but without any great confidence it will make a difference. Democrats, meanwhile, are all but urging on defeat. Explicitly threatening to cut off funds for “Bush’s war”, Senator Ted Kennedy trotted out the old Vietnam “quagmire” analogies but added a new charge, bizarrely formulated: “In Vietnam,” he recalled, “the White House grew increasingly obsessed with victory, and increasingly divorced from the will of the people and any rational policy.”

“Obsessed with victory”? In the history of warfare, most parties have been “obsessed with victory” to one degree or another, ever since Caveman Ug first clubbed Caveman Glug. If you’re not “obsessed with victory”, you probably shouldn’t have got into the war into the first place. It would be more accurate to say that Kennedy and his multiplying ilk are obsessed with defeat, and they’re prepared to do what’s necessary to help inflict it. The famous photographs of the departing choppers lifting off from the US embassy in Saigon with pleading locals clinging to the undercarriage are images not just of defeat but also of the betrayals necessary to accomplish it. “In reality,” writes John O’Sullivan in his splendid new book The President, The Pope And The Prime Minister, “the betrayal was truer than the defeat. America had not been defeated on the battlefield and South Vietnamese ground forces had themselves defeated a full-scale North Vietnamese invasion in 1972 when they still enjoyed US air support. Not only did the United States withhold such support in 1975, but Congress also refused to supply even the ammunition and military supplies that it had promised when the American forces left. For some perverse psychological motive, the American establishment acted as if the United States would not be genuinely free of involvement in Vietnam until its allies were conquered and occupied.”

Only a leftist would consider it a crime for our President to be obsessed with American victory.

The Pirate sent me a funny article about how locals blame all their ills on ex-Californians who move into their state. The piece mostly focuses on the public smoking bans we Californians are so fond of, but people also apparently don't like they way we drive up home prices.

Since 1991, the number of Californians moving out topped the number of people moving in to the state. And where do they go? The top five states Californians moved to between 2000 and 2005 were Arizona, Nevada, Texas, Washington and Oregon, according to William Frey, population expert for the Brookings Institution.

For many Californians, they want what eludes them in their state — open space, clean air and not so much traffic. So they sell their houses for a chunk of change, move somewhere else in the West, buy a bigger house and start driving up the housing prices, much to the dismay of locals.

Sherrie Watson has lived in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, since she was 16 and is quite fed up with Californians.

“They complain how cold it is. And they just moved here because it is cheaper and to ’get away,’ but then they keep saying things like, ‘We did it in California this way, so why don’t you change?’ ”

“They came here because they liked it the way it was when they visited, but then they want to change it. I don’t get it,” she said.

Hopefully the rest of the country won't be assimilated by expatriate Californians and won't replicate our bizarre behavior -- except for the public smoking bans. C'mon, smoking is gross.

I've never understood why a generic gas station can be empty while right across the street customers are lining up at a Shell station charging twenty cents more per gallon. As I'd always assumed, generic gas and brand-name gas are essentially identical.

At the Maryland Fuel Testing Laboratory, chemists conducted a battery of tests. First, they verified that gas was formulated correctly for the season. Then, they checked for contaminants, like excessive sediment or diesel, accidentally mixed with the gasoline.

They also ran the gas through an elaborate engine to make sure it got the 87 octane level people pay for. Both samples easily met state standards.

"By and large, it's one and the same. … You will find results will almost mirror each other," said Bob Crawford, who works at the lab. "There are going to be slight variations -- but gasoline is gasoline."

When gasoline arrives at regional distribution centers, it's all the same. Different gas station chains then buy the raw fuel and add their own blend of detergents. In the past, there might have been more of a difference between different brands of regular unleaded, but these days the EPA requires that all gas contain a minimum amount of detergent to keep car engines clean.

If you're paying for a particular brand of gasoline, "you would be paying more for brand loyalty, primarily," Crawford said. "Some people feel more comfortable dealing with a particular brand." ...

"The generic, no, will not do harm at all," Crawford said. "I use the lowest price. It makes no difference what the brand is."

Paying extra money for a brand-name is a foolish waste of money, whether we're talking about Prada purses or Shell gasoline.

"The man from Tallahassee" Ben asked for has to be Locke's dad. What's more, I agree with TeleValues who thinks that the con man who motivated Sawyer was also Locke's dad.

Just as Robert Mugabe ruined Zimbabwe -- formerly "the jewel of Africa" -- with his "agrarian reforms", tyrant Hugo Chavez is preparing to seize private farms and convert them to "collective property". History has shown that this will not work well. When Zimbabwe was known as Southern Rhodesia it exported food to its neighbors and was incredibly prosperous... now people there are starving to death. How's socialism working in Venezuela?

Chavez, who hosted Sunday's program from a ranch in Venezuela's sun-baked plains, said his government would move to expropriate large ranches and farms spanning more than 300,000 hectares (740,000 acres) and redistribute lands deemed "idle" to the poor under a nationwide agrarian reform.

Since the reform began five years ago, officials have redistributed over 1.9 million hectares (4.6 million acres) of land that had been classified as unproductive or lacked property documents dating back to 1847, according to a recent government census.

Critics say reform has failed to revive Venezuela's agriculture industry, which does not produce enough food to satisfy domestic demand. The government has been forced to import food amid shortages of staples such as meats, milk and sugar.

The quickest way to ruin a country is to nationalize private property and turn it over to the masses.

Pray for the British soldiers who were abducted by Iran and are now going to be put on trial for spying. The Iranians may be all bluster, but they may also be trying to provoke a conflict to boost oil prices and throw us Brits and Americans off our game. The soldiers caught in the middle are in a lot of danger.

FIFTEEN British sailors and marines arrested by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards off the coast of Iraq may be charged with spying.

A website run by associates of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, reported last night that the Britons would be put before a court and indicted.

Referring to them as “insurgents”, the site concluded: “If it is proven that they deliberately entered Iranian territory, they will be charged with espionage. If that is proven, they can expect a very serious penalty since according to Iranian law, espionage is one of the most serious offences.”

Punishable, obviously, by death. The British deny that their soldiers were in Iranian waters.

Admiral Sir Alan West, the former head of the Royal Navy, dismissed suggestions that the British boats might have been in Iranian waters. West, who was first sea lord when the previous arrests took place in June 2004, said satellite tracking systems had shown then that the Iranians were lying and the same was certain to be true now.

It's interesting to read that recently updated sanctions might be hurting the Iranian leadership enough to motivate this sort of provocation.

Intelligence sources said any advance order for the arrests was likely to have come from Major-General Yahya Rahim Safavi, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards.

Subhi Sadek, the Guards’ weekly newspaper, warned last weekend that the force had “the ability to capture a bunch of blue-eyed blond-haired officers and feed them to our fighting cocks”.

Safavi is known to be furious about the recent defections to the West of three senior Guards officers, including a general, and the effect of UN sanctions on his own finances.

Sanctions must hit rogue leadership personally to be effective, since most tyrannies don't care how much the regular people of the country suffer. Good for America and the UK for insisting on tough sanctions.

Also via GeekPress (just go there and quit reading my blog) is a really cool bit about how police interrogations work. The main thing to remember is that you shouldn't say anything without a lawyer. Anything. You probably won't get more lenient treatment by talking, despite what police officers may imply, and saying anything without legal advice will only end up hurting you.

Here's an astounding article about why Hummers are better for the environment than Priuses -- and it doesn't even mention smug!

Building a Toyota Prius causes more environmental damage than a Hummer that is on the road for three times longer than a Prius. As already noted, the Prius is partly driven by a battery which contains nickel. The nickel is mined and smelted at a plant in Sudbury, Ontario. This plant has caused so much environmental damage to the surrounding environment that NASA has used the ‘dead zone’ around the plant to test moon rovers. The area around the plant is devoid of any life for miles.

The plant is the source of all the nickel found in a Prius’ battery and Toyota purchases 1,000 tons annually. Dubbed the Superstack, the plague-factory has spread sulfur dioxide across northern Ontario, becoming every environmentalist’s nightmare. ...

All of this would be bad enough in and of itself; however, the journey to make a hybrid doesn’t end there. The nickel produced by this disastrous plant is shipped via massive container ship to the largest nickel refinery in Europe. From there, the nickel hops over to China to produce ‘nickel foam.’ From there, it goes to Japan. Finally, the completed batteries are shipped to the United States, finalizing the around-the-world trip required to produce a single Prius battery. Are these not sounding less and less like environmentally sound cars and more like a farce? ...

When you pool together all the combined energy it takes to drive and build a Toyota Prius, the flagship car of energy fanatics, it takes almost 50 percent more energy than a Hummer - the Prius’s arch nemesis.

Through a study by CNW Marketing called “Dust to Dust,” the total combined energy is taken from all the electrical, fuel, transportation, materials (metal, plastic, etc) and hundreds of other factors over the expected lifetime of a vehicle. The Prius costs an average of $3.25 per mile driven over a lifetime of 100,000 miles - the expected lifespan of the Hybrid.

The Hummer, on the other hand, costs a more fiscal $1.95 per mile to put on the road over an expected lifetime of 300,000 miles. That means the Hummer will last three times longer than a Prius and use less combined energy doing it.

So just like real environmentalists drink tap water, real environmentalists drive Hummers.

(HT: GeekPress.)

Reader JV sends along this graphical genealogy of the Greek gods, and here are some cool Tolkein genealogies of Elves and Men from his various writings.

The wife and I don't have any kids yet and plan to wait for a while, but I've been considering the various available ways to save and invest money towards their college education. I've read about Coverdell ESAa, Section 529 plans (which vary by state), and even using a Roth IRA (since the principal can be withdrawn without penalty at any time).

So, what are your plans for your kids? Personally, I'm not sure that Jessica and I will be motivated to pay a very large portion of our kids' college education. Both of us paid for the majority of our own education, and that is working out just fine. Student loans are cheap, but no one is going to lend us money for our retirement.

Despite being in the fringe minority, anti-war protesters get a lot of attention by squeaking the loudest.

Peace activists armed with poetry occupied the Capitol Hill office of Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Tuesday to protest Democrats’ support for a bill funding the Iraq war. They camped out in his office for nearly eight hours, reading verse and reciting the names and biographies of soldiers killed in Iraq, punctuating each by banging on a gong they had brought with them. ...

“Obviously, when you have a group of people in your office gonging a gong and reading off names it’s somewhat distracting, but it did not disrupt the workflow,” said Marilyn Campbell, Van Hollen’s spokeswoman.

Why don't conservatives don't use similar techniques to get noticed? Maybe it's because we prefer actual intelligent debate rather than lunatic raving, or maybe it's just because we have jobs.

Here's a brilliant article by Steven E. Landsburg about how the poor have gained far more leisure time than the rich over the past several decades.

As you've probably heard, there's been an explosion of inequality in the United States over the past four decades. The gap between high-skilled and low-skilled workers is bigger than ever before, and it continues to grow.

How can we close the gap? Well, I suppose we could round up a bunch of assembly-line workers and force them to mow the lawns of corporate vice presidents. Because the gap I'm talking about is the gap in leisure time, and it's the least educated who are pulling ahead. ...

About 10 percent of us are stuck in 1965, leisurewise. At the opposite extreme, 10 percent of us have gained a staggering 14 hours a week or more. (Once again, your gains are measured in comparison to a person who, in 1965, had the same characteristics that you have today.) By and large, the biggest leisure gains have gone precisely to those with the most stagnant incomes—that is, the least skilled and the least educated. And conversely, the smallest leisure gains have been concentrated among the most educated, the same group that's had the biggest gains in income.

Read the whole thing, but his second conclusion is is especially spot-on:

Second, a certain class of pundits and politicians are quick to see any increase in income inequality as a problem that needs fixing—usually through some form of redistributive taxation. Applying the same philosophy to leisure, you could conclude that something must be done to reverse the trends of the past 40 years—say, by rounding up all those folks with extra time on their hands and putting them to (unpaid) work in the kitchens of their "less fortunate" neighbors. If you think it's OK to redistribute income but repellent to redistribute leisure, you might want to ask yourself what—if anything—is the fundamental difference.

(HT: Sound Mind Investing.)

Here's a neat item: an artificially intelligent expert system was cited for effectively practicing law without a license for helping prepare bankruptcy filings. From the decision

The software did, indeed, go far beyond providing clerical services. It determined where (particularly, in which schedule) to place information provided by the debtor, selected exemptions for the debtor and supplied relevant legal citations. Providing such personalized guidance has been held to constitute the practice of law. ...

(The) system touted its offering of legal advice and projected an aura of expertise concerning bankruptcy petitions; and, in that context, it offered personalized -- albeit automated -- counsel. ... We find that because this was the conduct of a non-attorney, it constituted the unauthorized practice of law.

That's awesome.

(HT: Intelligent Machines, a blog I'll have to watch closely.

Bill Gates is completely right: America should welcome highly skilled immigrants with open arms.

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, the world's richest man, said on Tuesday the United States should reform its immigration laws and give more flexibility to higher-skilled foreign workers. ...

Gates, who runs a foundation with his wife that is the world's largest charity, said flexibility of movement for higher-skilled workers was especially important for his global company.

"I think every country in the world should make it easier for people with high skills to come in," he said.

This seems obvious. Ideally, all the smart people in the world would come here. The problem is that unskilled, uneducated workers flagrantly violate our immigration laws by the millions, while America simultaneously puts up roadblocks that impede the entrance of highly-skilled workers. This is the exact opposite of what we should be doing.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shouldn't get so incensed about "300"... doesn't he realize that 95% of Americans don't even know that Iranians are Persian?

Ahmadinejad also appeared to hit out at a Hollywood blockbuster called "300" that depicts a 480 B.C. battle between Greeks and Persians. Iranian officials and the public see the film as a Western attempt to vilify Iran's image.

"Today they are trying to tamper with history by making a film and by making Iran's image look savage," he said.

He's vastly overestimating the historical knowledge of movie-going Americans. Plus, y'know, this battle happened almost 2500 years ago.

spring-s.jpg

Happy Spring!

My brother sent me a neat article about a car that runs on compressed air and has many promising qualities.

Many respected engineers have been trying for years to bring a compressed air car to market, believing strongly that compressed air can power a viable "zero pollution" car. Now the first commercial compressed air car is on the verge of production and beginning to attract a lot of attention, and with a recently signed partnership with Tata, India’s largest automotive manufacturer, the prospects of very cost-effective mass production are now a distinct possibility. The MiniC.A.T is a simple, light urban car, with a tubular chassis that is glued not welded and a body of fibreglass. The heart of the electronic and communication system on the car is a computer offering an array of information reports that extends well beyond the speed of the vehicle, and is built to integrate with external systems and almost anything you could dream of, starting with voice recognition, internet connectivity, GSM telephone connectivity, a GPS guidance system, fleet management systems, emergency systems, and of course every form of digital entertainment. The engine is fascinating, as is and the revolutionary electrical system that uses just one cable and so is the vehicle’s wireless control system. Microcontrollers are used in every device in the car, so one tiny radio transmitter sends instructions to the lights, indicators etc. ...

90m3 of compressed air is stored in fibre tanks. The expansion of this air pushes the pistons and creates movement. The atmospheric temperature is used to re-heat the engine and increase the road coverage. The air conditioning system makes use of the expelled cold air. Due to the absence of combustion and the fact there is no pollution, the oil change is only necessary every 31.000 miles.

My only hesitation is that carrying highly compressed gases can be extremely dangerous. Despite what you may see in action movies, gasoline-powered cars rarely explode; however, a compressed air car could easily explode if involved in an accident that impacts or punctures its air tank.

Animal activists are bizarrely demanding the death of a baby polar bear because his mother abandoned him. They're outraged that the Berlin Zoo is keeping the baby alive by non-"species-appropriate" means.

Animal rights activists argue that he should be given a lethal injection rather than brought up suffering the humiliation of being treated as a domestic pet.

"The zoo must kill the bear," said spokesman Frank Albrecht. "Feeding by hand is not species-appropriate but a gross violation of animal protection laws."

When Knut was born in December, his mother ignored him and his brother, who died. Zoo officials intervened, choosing to raise the cub themselves.

But Albrecht and other activists fret that it is inappropriate for a predator, known for its fierceness and ability to fend for itself in the wild, to be snuggled, bottle-fed and made into a commodity by zookeepers.

So I imagine that Albrecht would also object to all the endangered species lists we use to protect animals in the wild? Anyway, the whole thing is patently absurd and begs the question: if Knut is killed, can I make his fur into a hat without incurring PETA's wrath?

(HT: JB.)

When we're confronted by statistics like "Study Finds One-Third in D.C. Illiterate" we've been conditioned to immediately blame education... but what if the real problem isn't education, but intelligence?

About one-third of the people living in the national's capital are functionally illiterate, compared with about one-fifth nationally, according to a report on the District of Columbia.

Adults are considered functionally illiterate if they have trouble doing such things as comprehending bus schedules, reading maps and filling out job applications.

It's possible that in this case the major explanation is, as the article later claims, that there are a lot of non-English-speaking immigrants in the city (that many?), but what if the real reason that American academic achievement has been dropping isn't because of a worsening education system (which we spend more and more on each year) but because Americans are getting dumber?

Anyway, here's a neat page that describes functional literacy with a few sample problems and then links to even more. Go ahead and see how you do. You might be surprised at the types of questions that the majority of Americans simply can't answer.

It's my opinion that the reason we're having so many problems in Iraq now is that we didn't thoroughly defeat our enemies when we first invaded. Instead of destroying the Iraqi army and eliminating Ba'athists, we let the army and its leadership dissolve into the populace and jump-start the ongoing guerrilla conflict. By trying to fight a "kind" war and limiting casualties we actually doomed the Iraqi people to years of strife and turmoil. It's right to decry the Iraqis' ambivalence towards peace and freedom, but part of the reason they're having such a hard time is that our military was hamstrung by political correctness from the very beginning.

Four years into the Iraq war, all sides in the bitter debate agree that President Bush’s “troop surge” plan represents the final drop of American patience for the war. If Iraqis fail to control the violence, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said, “The American taxpayer has a reasonable expectation that we will bring our people home.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has steadfastly supported the mission, said Republicans’ patience is nearly exhausted, too.

“This is the last chance for the Iraqis,” the Kentucky Republican said in an interview with The Examiner. “The last chance for them to step up and demonstrate that they can do their part to save their country.”

We shouldn't forget that the reason we're fighting an uphill battle now is because we were unwilling to deliver the coup de grâce in 2003; instead, we listened to domestic peaceniks and our erstwhile "allies" who demanded a "humane" war. The ongoing chaos in Iraq is the result of that lukewarm policy.

Here's a list of "curious states of equilibrium". My favorite:

The candle wax engine is cooler, but harder to understand from just the picture.

Some of these strange statues are also pretty impressive balancing acts.

(HT: GMSV and GeekPress.)

Researchers in Belgium have developed a model to attempt to explain how opinions change within a population, but I'm not sure their assumptions are valid. My masters thesis was in a very similar vein, but used a more complex model.

The key, say European researchers, is how strongly the groups communicate with each other. The work could explain how language differences persist across geographic boundaries and how political thought can quickly become polarized. ...

To model the evolution of opinions, researchers led by physicist Renaud Lambiotte of the University of Liege in Belgium imagined two groups, initially isolated, whose members gradually begin to talk to members of the other group.

They supposed for simplicity that individuals hold one of two opinions, assigned randomly at the start. People then change their views by a “majority rule” – each person tends to adopt the opinion that is held by a majority of those with whom they are linked in the social network.

Because of the majority rule system, it's perfectly logical that increasing connections between groups would lead to equilibrium (agreement) across the population. However, no opinion space is really binary and very few people make up their minds based purely on what the majority of their friends think. It seems that these assumptions might be so simplifying that they miss the essence of the problem at hand, but I reached a similar conclusion in my masters research.

There's a lot of to-do about how the current crop of virtual worlds could lead to the next killer app of the internet age (after email and the web), but I think there's one critical feature that these virtual worlds presently lack: interconnectivity.

[Linden Labs'] backers include some of the world's smartest, richest, and most successful tech entrepreneurs. The chairman and first big outside investor is Mitch Kapor, creator of Lotus 1-2-3, the spreadsheet application that helped begin the PC software revolution. Other investors include eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, Amazon (Charts) CEO Jeff Bezos, and Microsoft chief technology architect (and inventor of Lotus Notes) Ray Ozzie - each credited with a seminal networked product of our age.

They think Second Life may be next, and some respected tech pundits agree. Says Mark Anderson, author of the Strategic News Service newsletter: "In two years I think Second Life will be huge, probably as large as the entire gaming community is today."

The problem with Second Life, World of Warcraft, and the upcoming Sony virtual world called "Home" is that unlike the web and email, none of these worlds can connect to any other. Each world is self-contained and proprietary, developed for the profit of the owning company. In contrast, web pages can be loaded in innumerable browsers, and pages can be created that link to pages owned by anyone, anywhere in the world. Similarly, users of Microsoft Outlook can send emails to Gmail users, not just other users of Outlook. That interconnectivity is the reason that email and the web are so powerful and compelling.

Until someone designs the virtual world equivalents to HTML and Firefox that allow users to seamlessly jump from one independent virtual world to another, there is no way this technology will be good for anything more than making toys. By analogy, the current crop of virtual worlds are to the future what GEnie and CompuServe were to the modern web.

When I first saw the furor over Alberto Gonzales I was flabbergasted. He's in trouble for firing eight US Attorneys? One of Bill Clinton's first acts as President in 1993 was to fire all 93 US Attorneys and no one had a problem with it then because, as now, the US Attorneys serve at the pleasure of the President. They're not independent entities like so-called "special prosecutors", they're an arm of the executive branch.

Despite the molehillish nature of the mountain at hand, Democrats are inexplicably eager to remove the highest-placed Hispanic that has ever been in the United States government -- who also happens to be pro-choice and pro-affirmative action. Intrade doesn't give Gonzales a very good chance of surviving, although the trading volume is very low at the moment. I haven't been following the story very closely, but my opinion is that this should blow over quickly since there just isn't much to it.

I can't imagine a white politician getting away with the kinds of racist remarks New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin makes on a daily basis.

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin has suggested that the slow recovery and rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina -- which has prevented many black former residents from returning -- is part of a plan to change the racial makeup and political leadership of his and other cities.

"Ladies and gentlemen, what happened in New Orleans could happen anywhere," Nagin said at a dinner sponsored by the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a trade group for newspapers that target black readers. "They are studying this model of natural disasters, dispersing the community and changing the electoral process in that community." ...

"Everybody in America started to wake up and say: 'Wait a minute. What is he doing? What is he saying? We have to make sure that this man doesn't go any further,' " Nagin told a room full of black newspaper publishers and editors at the Capital Hilton. ...

"They thought they were talking about a different kind of New Orleans," Nagin said. "They didn't realize that folks were awake, that they were paying attention."

If this isn't "coded" racism then I don't know what is. Ray Nagin is a despicable racist, and prominent black leaders like Barack Obama should speak up and denounce him.

After installing Windows Vista on my new machine I discovered the Windows Experience Index, a numerical measure of how well a computer system will be able to run Windows Vista and other software. This is a pretty cool feature if it measures something useful, and despite disparaging comments around the net it appears that it does.

The Windows® Experience Index is a new feature built into Windows Vista™. It is designed to help consumers understand how well Windows Vista and the software running on it will perform on a specific PC. The index achieves this by assessing the performance of the PC and assigning a score to it. The higher the score, the better the PC will perform.

The overall PC performance is represented by the base score. The base score is derived from 5 sub-scores for each of the following 5 attributes:

- Processor: calculations per second

- Memory: operations per second

- Graphics: desktop performance for Windows Aero graphics

- Gaming graphics: 3D graphics performance. Useful for gaming and 3D business applications

- Primary hard disk: The data transfer rate of the primary hard disk

The numbers are determined by actual tests run on your system, not by just looking at the types of components you have installed. The goal is that the scores for a given system will stay constant unless the hardware is changed, so future systems with new technology will be able to be compared on an ever-expanding scale. Good idea, if implemented properly.

This post won't make any sense to anyone who isn't up-to-date with Lost -- meaning that you watched "Par Avion" last night.

Here are my predictions. We know The Hanso Foundation is a major sponsor of the DHARMA Initiative and heavily involved in life extension research. Eyepatch told us last week that the "Hostiles" (a.k.a., the Others, of which Eyepatch is one) were on the Island long before the DHARMA researchers arrived. So, DHARMA went to the Island to do life extension research but there were people already living there... implying that the Others are actually extremely old themselves, far older than any of them look; some of them are possibly hundreds or thousands of years old.

Eyepatch also told us that the Others can leave the Island whenever they want but that it's hard to come back. He also implied that the Others prefer to be on the Island. Why? Because they start aging when they leave. When the Swan station exploded the Others' sonar beacon was damaged so the ones outside can't get back to the island. This is bad for them since they'll start aging. Perhaps the Swan station was a power source that used the strange magnetic properties of the location to power the beacon and the communication equipment? Or perhaps the explosion damaged the equipment, like some sort of electromagnetic pulse.

Did Desmond avert the end of the world when he destroyed the Swan station? It's implied that his fate was to turn the key, and what would be the point of the key if it wasn't able to prevent the Swan station from ending the world? My theory is that the Swan station or the magnetic location it covered somehow protects/protected the Island from being discovered, and that if it were allowed to overload then outsiders would have been able to find the Island. If the Island grants everyone who visits eternal life, then discovery of the Island could indeed precipitate the end of the world. So now that the Swan station is destroyed, is the Island still impossible to find? It would appear so, since Eyepatch was worried about the sonar beacon, but then he didn't seem to be particularly well-informed about ongoing events. Perhaps the magnetic anomaly was saved from destruction when Desmond turned the key, even though the station itself was destroyed.

So why did Bea Klugh ("be clue"?) want Eyepatch to kill her in last week's episode "Enter 77"? First off, there's a reasonable chance that she didn't die when she was shot. We know the Island can heal those with enough "faith", so it's very possible that Klugh and Eyepatch will both be revived after the main characters have leave their bodies behind. Perhaps Klugh knew that Sayed would torture her if she were captured and that she would reveal critical information, so she thought it was better to take her chances with a bullet. Similarly, why would Eyepatch thank Locke for throwing him into the sonic fence?

If these guys have eternal life, why are they so quick to embrace death? Either because (1) they aren't really dying, (2) they're protecting some idea that's even more important to them than living forever, or (3) they're afraid of some consequence of betraying the Others that's even worse than death. I'm thinking the most likely answer is (1). But Ben has implied (by claiming to be the "good guys") that the answer is actually (2). However, most people aren't eager to sacrifice their lives unless there's an imminent threat to whatever they hold dear, and neither Klugh nor Eyepatch had reason to believe that the Others' goals were in immediate danger.

So my overall theory is this: the Others are the guardians of some sort of fountain of youth. Many of them are extremely old, and despite their youthful appearances they can't have children. They abduct "good" people (and people with "psychic" powers?) to replenish/grow their society, and they reject "bad" people because who wants to live forever with a bunch of rotten apples? The Island is protected from discovery by the outside world by some sort of mystical force, but the force isn't perfect and sometimes people get through, including the Others, the DHARMA Initiative, and the Losties. The Others let castaways live on parts of the Island but do their best to protect their fountain of youth because they know the effect it would have on society if it were found. The Others were eventually forced to destroy the DHARMA Initiative because the DI was getting too close to the truth.

Meanwhile, Penelope Widmore and Widmore Corporation have lost contact with the DHARMA presence on the Island and have even lost the Island itself. Charles Widmore sponsors a yearly sailing race around the world, probably part of an attempt to relocate the Island. When the two Portuguese-speaking men at the listening station detect the explosion of the Swan station they call Penelope and tell her they "found it", obviously meaning the Island. They knew to look for magnetic anomalies, and the explosion was a big one. This means that Widmore Corporation is probably on its way to the Island and will arrive soon. Penelope seems like a good guy, but her father isn't and it's very possible that the Others will turn out to be acting in the best interests of the world at large. The Others' sonar beacon is destroyed, so they won't be able to get reinforcements (if they have any available off the Island) which will force them to team up with the Losties against Widmore.

It seems pretty unfair to make wrongly-convicted prisoners pay for their own jail time.

Three men who spent years in jail after being wrongly convicted of murder will have to pay for their prison board and lodgings, Law Lords have ruled.

Brothers Vincent and Michael Hickey of Birmingham, spent 18 years in jail for paperboy Carl Bridgewater's murder.

Michael O'Brien from Cardiff spent 11 years in jail for a separate murder.

The three were deducted money from their compensation for what lawyers called "living expenses" but what the court agreed was for life necessities.

Judges ruled by a four to one majority that they must pay back 25% of their compensation.

Talk about adding insult to injury.... What's more, the "compensation" awarded was less than a million pounds for the two guys who spent 18 years in jail each, and barely half a million for the guy who spent 11 years in prison.

Oh good grief, who can think of an idea worse than allowing TSA airport screeners to unionize?

During consideration of the 9/11 Commission bill, the Senate approved this amendment that would give Transportation Security Administration airport screeners the right to unionize. There are 45,000 TSA airport screeners. Opponents of the move argue it would add more bureaucracy to the system and interfere with the agency’s flexibility. Supporters say the amendment allows for flexibility in reassigning workers. President Bush has indicated he would veto the final bill if the provision was included.

Great, so they'll get paid more and work slower. At least there's hardly any corruption or crime associated with labor unions!

Continuing my series about Mexican outrage, Mexico is mad at America for putting out a fire on our shared border.

Mexico has sent a diplomatic note to the United States objecting to an alleged incursion into Mexican territory by U.S. Border Patrol agents in Arizona trying to extinguish a fire, the country's Foreign Relations Department said Tuesday.

The incursion allegedly took place on Monday, as Border Patrol agents stationed in Sonoita were trying to quash a brush fire on the U.S. side that quickly spread into Mexico, the department said.

We're waiting for America's ambassador to Mexico to once again apologize like a... kitten.

At that time, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Tony Garza issued a statement promising to look into the incident and asserting that the United States "has the deepest respect for the integrity of the sovereignty of Mexican soil and for the importance of the border shared by our two countries."

No indication yet that Mexico reciprocates.

The cinematically-named Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim says that building solid companies does more to benefit humanity than giving away money, and he's right in principle.

The world's third-richest man, Mexican telecom magnate Carlos Slim, poked gentle fun at the philanthropy of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, and said businessmen can do more good by building solid companies than by "going around like Santa Claus" donating money.

Slim on Monday announced a new $450 million foundation for health research and care _ a minor slice of his estimated $49 billion fortune.

But Slim said he had no interest in competing with Gates and Buffett, who lead him on the Forbes magazine's list of the world's richest and have donated much larger shares of their fortunes. Slim is gaining rapidly on the two heavyweights with a fortune that grew by $19 billion last year _ the largest wealth gain in the past decade tracked by Forbes.

"Our concept is more to accomplish and solve things, rather than giving; that is, not going around like Santa Claus," said Slim, as he cracked jokes, smoked a cigar and outlined business plans at a rare news conferences. "Poverty isn't solved with donations.

Mr. Slim is right, but I believe that there is a place for both charitable giving and not-for-profit investment in technological research and development. I'm far from well-informed about Gates, Buffet, or Slim, but my understanding of the Gates Foundation is that it doesn't just hand out cash, but rather it invests in infrastructure and research that bypass the political causes of poverty, such as tyranny and anarchy.

I'm curious to learn more about how Gates' and Buffet's fortunes are being used, but from what I've read they aren't giving money away "like Santa Claus". While I'm not sure if Slim's jibes are entirely accurate, I agree with his perspective in principle.

(HT: The Pirate.)

Click below for an amazing picture from NASA of two volcanic plumes on Jupiter's moon Io.

(HT: My brother.)

Do any of you have any advice for how to collect about $2000 from deadbeat renters who didn't pay their last month's rent or utilities? I've found a couple of debt collection agencies online that don't charge any fees unless they collect, but I can't tell how reputable they are. I'm not sure how I could get screwed by them, but this is a whole new situation for me. Thoughts?

SimulScribe is a company that provides voice mail to email transcription, a service I've been craving for years. I hate listening to voice mail. If they can transcribe call-back numbers correctly this will be a great service.

California politicians who oppose the Three Strikes law have apparently be undermining the state's prison system for years.

Los Angeles, CA. In an eight minute Full Disclosure Networkâ„¢ video news blog, President Steve Ipsen of the Association of Deputy District Attorneys accuses California politicians of deliberately sabotaging the California Prison system thus setting the stage for a massive prison release program now underway. Ipsen tells FDN host Leslie Dutton how criminals who are sentenced to prison are now being released after serving only half, or less, of their sentences due to California politics. He says elected officials, who oppose the Three Strikes law, have for the past ten years, blocked building new prisons, causing massive overcrowding and early releases. ...

According to Steve Ipsen, the political strategy to undermine the Three Strikes Law started ten years ago, when elected officials decided ”We’re not going to build more prisons because we don’t like the three strikes law, we’re going to let overcrowding occur and then some poor governor down the line—who happens to be Governor Schwarzenegger—has Federal judges staring down his…saying ‘you better do something or we’re going to release ’em’ and we’ve got a governor here who’s been sabotaged by a plan orchestrated ten years go—where were the plans to build more prisons?”

Sounds like a good strategy to me.

I just ordered a new computer from Dell: the XPS 410. I got a much cheaper configuration than the one reviewed there.

Mine:

  • XPS 410
  • Intel(r) Coreâ„¢2 Duo Processor E6600 (4MB L2 Cache,2.4GHz,1066 FSB)
  • 2GB Dual Channel DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz - 2 DIMMs
  • 22 inch E228WFP Widescreen Digital Flat Panel
  • 256MB nVidia GeForce 7900 GS
  • 250GB Serial ATA 3Gb/s Hard Drive (7200RPM) w/DataBurst Cacheâ„¢
  • Genuine Windows Vistaâ„¢ Home Premium

Given my limited budget I think I got a pretty nice system. Despite the common perception, I'm not a "geek" and don't really live on the bleeding edge of technology. My computers usually last me five years or more, and when I upgrade I get something in the middle of the pack.

I hadn't considered it before, but since women live longer than men it really makes sense that women earn less. If your life is 10% longer, then your time is certainly worth less!

Update:

In case it wasn't clear, this post is facetious. Everyone's time is equally valuable.

Scooter Libby probably did lie to prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald during the course of the Valerie Plame investigation, but his convictions for perjury and obstruction of justice are not particularly just. Fiztgerald knew from the beginning of the investigation that no crime had been committed when Plame's name was leaked, and he should have closed his investigation right then rather than continuing for almost four years. Libby shouldn't have lied, but the investigators he lied to were pursuing what they knew to be a non-crime.

Update:

Ann Coulter -- whatever you may think of her biting sense of humor -- has posted an enraging catalogue of legal persecutions of Republicans alongside Democrats who get away with far worse.

Since Teddy Kennedy walked away from a dead girl with only a wrist slap (which was knocked down to a mild talking-to, plus time served: zero), Democrats have apparently become a protected class in America, immune from criminal prosecution no matter what they do.

As a result, Democrats have run wild, accepting bribes, destroying classified information, lying under oath, molesting interns, driving under the influence, obstructing justice and engaging in sex with underage girls, among other things.

Meanwhile, conservatives of any importance constantly have to spend millions of dollars defending themselves from utterly frivolous criminal prosecutions. Everything is illegal, but only Republicans get prosecuted.

Read the list. Be convinced.

Maybe he's just inarticulate -- a compliment? -- but John Edwards needs to learn the basics of Christianity and get a little humility rather than presuming to speak on Jesus' behalf.

"I think that Jesus would be disappointed in our ignoring the plight of those around us who are suffering and our focus on our own selfish short-term needs," Edwards told the site. "I think he would be appalled, actually."

Edwards also said he was against teacher-led prayers in public schools, but he added that "allowing time for children to pray for themselves, to themselves, I think is not only OK, I think it's a good thing."

So John Edwards thinks children should be praying to themselves rather than to God? Who knows. It's also not clear how America is corporately "ignoring the plight" of "those around us", since the Bible never talks about corporate charity, only individual charity. A guy who owns the most expensive home in his county has some room for improvement in the charity department himself.

After his anti-Christian blogger debacle you'd think John Edwards would want to stop digging, but apparently not. Alas, lecturing and pontificating aren't going to get Edwards out of the hole with Christians.

Don't let the leftists hear about this, but it looks like Bulgaria has found a way to get people to use mass transit.

Soft porn films are being shown on giant video screens at a bus station in Bulgaria.

The plasma TVs at the terminus in the capital Sofia show bus times during the day but switch to porn at night.

A station spokesman said: 'We wanted to give the passengers something to take their minds off the cold and to pass the time while waiting for a bus.'

Though the title sounds more like some weird porno, this short video is about Angelina Jolie's adoption addiction.

Not very fair really, since Jolie is one of the few celebrities who walks what she talks. Still, funny.

Here's a movie of me at the zoo showing a huge gorilla who's boss.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty "bans all nuclear explosions in all environments, for military or civilian purposes", which presents quite a difficulty for American scientists developing a new nuclear warhead.

One of the assurances given by defense officials to Congress is that the new warhead will not have to undergo actual testing. Once developed, it would be used in the Trident missiles on submarines and eventually would replace warheads on the Air Force's missile arsenal, officials said. ...

Of overriding concern to members of Congress has been that the warhead be developed without the need for underground tests. The administration has sought to assure Congress that the design would not require such testing.

That's ridiculous, and especially so because America hasn't ratified the CTBT. We've got plenty of desert land to use for testing, and it's pretty foolish to not perform a full suite of tests on our new nuclear arsenal. Congress' insistence on this matter has weakened our national security substantially, not least because it almost forced the approval of a proposal based on an older warhead design that was tested in the 1980s rather than a new, untested technology.

An amateur genealogist has determined that Barack Obama's white ancestors owned slaves. As the article there notes, this isn't very surprising for a person descended from Southern or Mid-Western whites.

According to the research, one of Obama's great-great-great-great grandfathers, George Washington Overall, owned two slaves who were recorded in the 1850 census in Nelson County, Ky. The same records show that one of Obama's great-great-great-great-great-grandmothers, Mary Duvall, also owned two slaves.

The Sun retraced much of Reitwiesner's work, using census information available on the Web site ancestry.com and documents retrieved by the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, among other sources. The records show that Overall, then 30, owned a 15-year-old black female and a 25-year-old black male, while Mary Duvall, his mother-in-law, owned a 60-year-old black man and a 58-year-old black woman. (Slaves are listed in the 1850 census by owner, age, "sex," and "colour," not by name.)

However, as you can imagine, I think this is completely irrelevant. Unless Senator Obama owned slaves himself, was a slave, or even knew family members in either position, it's hard to say why it matters what his long-dead ancestors did. However, for whatever reason, you can expect some black leaders to make a big deal out of this.

"The twist is very interesting," said Ronald Walters, a political scientist who is director of the African-American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland, College Park. "It deepens his connection with the experience of slavery, even if it deepens it on a different side of the equation."

It "deepens" his "connection" with the "experience" of slavery? How do the actions of his long-dead ancestors affect his "connection" with the "experience" of slavery? Like most discussions about race in America, that whole sentence was gibberish.

Author and essayist Debra J. Dickerson wrote in a January salon.com article that she had previously refrained from opining about the senator because "I didn't have the heart (or the stomach) to point out the obvious: Obama isn't black."

" 'Black,' in our political and social reality, means those descended from West African slaves," Dickerson said.

Walters, who was deputy campaign manager for Jesse Jackson in 1984 and the author of Black Presidential Politics in America, agreed that questions raised by Dickerson and others "is an important debate."

"What people are really asking is, 'Can I trust this guy? Do I have confidence in this guy? Does he understand my situation, and therefore [is he] able to take my issues into the political system?'" Walters said.

It's sad to me that some people seem to think that they can only trust people with their same ancestry and skin color.

It's also interesting to note that no one has investigated whether or not Senator Obama's African ancestors owned slaves; this also wouldn't be surprising, since slavery was historically widespread in Africa.

An interesting "virtual" child pornography case is developing in my own backyard: Michael L. Gulley, former youth pastor at Grace Baptist Church in St. Charles, Missouri, has confessed to creating "virtual" child pornography.

The former youth pastor of a Baptist church in St. Charles admitted Thursday in federal court that he pasted photos of the heads of teenagers from the congregation onto scenes of adult pornography. ...

They called St. Charles police, who later found images of the heads of minors from the church that had been electronically cut and pasted on pictures of naked adults engaged in sex, court documents show.

Gulley had taken digital pictures of the youths during church social activities, officials indicated. ...

Court documents show that the attorney, Daniel Juengel, had argued that the images could not be considered child pornography because the adults in the pictures were the ones engaged in sex, not the teens whose heads appeared.

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Carrie Costantin insisted that by modifying images of minors to make it appear they were engaged in sex, Gulley’s result qualified as child pornography.

I put quotes around "virtual" because the adjective is used to obscure the fact that "virtual child pornography" doesn't actually involve any naked children. Mr. Gulley should certainly have been fired from his pastoral job (and the bar for losing such a job is much lower than this) but it's wrong for him to be facing criminal charges. It isn't alleged that he ever molested or abused a child, nor did he photograph a child in a sexually explicit manner, nor did he possess sexually explicit pictures of children. I don't even think there's a libel case here, because the pictures weren't distributed. How can there be a crime when there's no victim?

As disturbing and disgusting as Mr. Gulley's actions were, no one was hurt by them in any way and he's basically being prosecuted for a thought crime. His thoughts were sick, but thoughts shouldn't be illegal. "Virtual" child pornography is a legal fiction that's used to to achieve ostensibly noble ends by dishonest means.

Conrad Hilton, the founder of the Hilton hotel chain and the great-grandfather of Paris Hilton sure was smart. He tried to prevent the train-wreck his whorish descendants have created but was thwarted by his own children.

Conrad Hilton died on January 3, 1979, in Santa Monica, California at age 91 from natural causes. He is interred at Calvary Hills Cemetery, in Dallas, Texas.

His estate founded the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize. He left $250,000 to each of his surviving siblings and $10,000 to each of his nieces and nephews. Most of his monetary values went to the Roman Catholic Church and charities. However, Conrad's son Barron contested the will and won in 1988. The net worth of Barron and his descendants then jumped to over US$335 million.

So that's why we're forced to read about Paris' weekly prostitutions. Good job, Barron!

Scott Aaronson addresses the hype surrounding quantum computing in a series of questions and answers. The science behind this stuff is out of my domain, but the problems are quite interesting. His site has a lot about the topic and quantum mathematics in general, so it should be a great read. (HT: Scientific American.)

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