September 2009 Archives

Keyboard Militia takes on a spy-vs.-spy tone with this one, but it's still an interesting inside-baseball story of political intrigue: is a "top democrat operative" in St. Louis?

A story we have been following here for the past week involves an unidentified black man from Washington D.C., loud, and arrogant as described by others on American Airlines Flight AA401 arriving on Sept. 18th. More details of this man are found on the St.Louis Tea Party website:
On Saturday evening, we confirmed that a top Democrat operative arrived in St. Louis on Friday afternoon to “deal with” Tea Parties. Additional details have emerged.

* The operative, an African-American man, arrived on American Airlines flight 401

* The operative boarded flight AA401 in Washington, DC

* He wore all black—sweatshirt, sweats—and a fraternity ball cap bearing Greek letters

* He is working with Valerie Jarrett, the committed communist and Obama’s “brain”

So what's going on? It would be pretty funny if this guy turns out to just be a local activist. Fun times!

I'm a week late to this story that hits right in my field of expertise! Apparently the Netflix prediction contest has been won!

The company’s challenge, begun in October 2006, was both geeky and formidable: come up with a recommendation software that could do a better job accurately predicting the movies customers would like than Netflix’s in-house software, Cinematch. To qualify for the prize, entries had to be at least 10 percent better than Cinematch.

The winner, formally announced Monday morning, is a seven-person team of statisticians, machine-learning experts and computer engineers from the United States, Austria, Canada and Israel. The multinational team calls itself BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos. The group — a merger of teams — was the longtime frontrunner in the contest, and in late June it finally surpassed the 10 percent barrier. Under the rules of the contest, that set off a 30-day period in which other teams could try to beat them.

That, in turn, prompted a wave of mergers among competing teams, who joined forces at the last minute to try to top the leader. In late July, Netflix declared the contest over and said two teams had passed the 10-percent threshold, BellKor and the Ensemble, a global alliance with some 30 members. Netflix publicly said the finish was too close to call. But Netflix officials at the time privately informed BellKor it had won. Though further review of the algorithms by expert judges was needed, it certainly seemed BellKor was the winner, as it turned out to be.

When the contest was announced I wasn't sure that a 10% improvement was possible given the dataset. Apparently I was wrong! Still, it was a close thing... if they had made the requirement 11% would they have still found a winner?

I love these sorts of contests. They're great for the issuer and for the winner because the cost is almost entirely borne by the many losers.

Yet the sort of sophisticated teamwork deployed in the Netflix contest, it seems, is a tricky business. Over three years, thousands of teams from 186 countries made submissions. Yet only two could breach the 10-percent hurdle. “Having these big collaborations may be great for innovation, but it’s very, very difficult,” said Greg McAlpin, a software consultant and a leader of the Ensemble. “Out of thousands, you have only two that succeeded. The big lesson for me was that most of those collaborations don’t work.”

Tens of thousands of man-years spent for Netflix's benefit, for a total cost to the company of under $2 million (including administrative costs). Slate runs some numbers.

Imagine if Netflix had paid all these math whizzes the prevailing wage—say, $100,000 a year. The company would have had to shell out more than $3 million for just one year of the top performers' time, and that's assuming it could've sussed out who the top performers were going to be. Of course, many of the programmers worked far longer than a year, some of them setting aside their primary occupations in order to work on the Netflix problem full-time. As Netflix CEO Reed Hastings admitted to the New York Times, "You look at the cumulative hours and you're getting Ph.D.s for a dollar an hour."

But even that number discounts the contest's true benefits to Netflix. Had the company simply put out a help-wanted ad for software engineers, it probably wouldn't have been able to recruit many of the geniuses it found through the competition. That's because most of them already have other jobs. BellKor's members work for, among others, AT&T and Yahoo, and many members of the Ensemble are employed by the data-consulting firm Opera Solutions. The participants also spanned the globe. Netflix got submissions from people in more than 100 countries, and the winning team's members worked in New Jersey, Montreal, Israel, and Austria.

That's the main reason why I didn't enter the competition. The only way to really win is to be the one issuing the challenge.

Socialism is collapsing in Europe but we should definitely be trying it here in America!

A specter is haunting Europe — the specter of Socialism’s slow collapse.

Even in the midst of one of the greatest challenges to capitalism in 75 years, involving a breakdown of the financial system due to “irrational exuberance,” greed and the weakness of regulatory systems, European Socialist parties and their left-wing cousins have not found a compelling response, let alone taken advantage of the right’s failures.

German voters clobbered the Social Democratic Party on Sunday, giving it only 23 percent of the vote, its worst performance since World War II.

Voters also punished left-leaning candidates in the summer’s European Parliament elections and trounced French Socialists in 2007. Where the left holds power, as in Spain and Britain, it is under attack. Where it is out, as in France, Italy and now Germany, it is divided and listless.

Socialism just doesn't work.

Also, viewing the current financial difficulties as a "challenge to capitalism" is moronic and displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the benefits of capitalism and the costs of burdensome regulation and government meddling. Capitalism promises efficient allocation of resources over time, not an endless trouble-free creation of wealth. Bumps in the road are par for the course, not a challenge to the capitalistic model.

I've pointed out before and Thursday agrees: average males benefit from monogamy more than anyone else. Despite widespread bravado, middling men would be hurt the most by polygamy. Regarding the "sexual revolution":

Beta males are the one's getting the biggest shaft here. They are forced to compete with Alpha males, meaning that they are often left out of the mating game as the Alphas monopolize more than one woman at a time. Should they actually find someone to mate with, chances are it will be with one of the Alpha's leftovers. More than just the psychological unpleasantness of having other men "break in" their woman, this means that Betas are often left to deal with the bitterness towards men that repeatedly being pumped and dumped by Alphas often bequeaths to women. Not to mention having to measure up unfavorably to the Alpha's sexual performance, and fact that the women is unlikely to bond as strongly with him after having fallen in love with an Alpha.

Alpha males have, of course, made out like bandits. They frequently get the benefit of multiple consecutive or concurrent relationships with various women. If they want to settle down, they rarely have much difficulty in finding a long term mate. Of course, if they try to hang on too long, they do risk ending up alone or with some lesser female in the end, but if they are smart they can end up with the benefits of both easy sex and commitment.

It took centuries for beta males to build a society that valued monogamy and marital fidelity and punished promiscuity, and the end result was quite beneficial for most women at the same time. Unfortunately the alpha males formed a coalition with the beta females to overthrow the order in the name of sexual freedom, and it's the alpha males who reaped the biggest benefits.

Background information on the people behind the undercover ACORN-brothel videos that are destroying that perfidious organization. Associated Press writer Justin Pritchard years for a Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy angle but just can't seem to find one.

But as far back as 2006 - well before the videos became a national sensation and conservative rallying cry - the fresh-faced O'Keefe and Giles connected with a pair of Washington conservative institutions that boast programs training ideological journalists.

Now, due to coordinated promotion of the undercover sting footage by influential players in the conservative media, Giles and O'Keefe have gone from part of the pack to movement superstars.

Nice lede... too bad Pritchard didn't actually find any information to support his belief in unusual "coordination".

I think it needs a little more ergonomic design work, but Honda's U3-X looks like it could be useful in at least a limited set of circumstances. Coolest feature: an omnidirectional wheel.

The single wheel on the U3-X — U stands for "unicycle" and "universal" — is made up of many tiny motor-controlled wheels, packed inside the bigger wheel, allowing the device to swerve in any direction.

Why is everyone saying "no" to President Obama?

The Saudis twice said no to his request for normalization gestures towards Israel (at Barack Obama's meeting with King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia, and in Washington at meetings with Hillary Clinton). Who says no to the American president twice? What must they think of Obama in the desert kingdom?

The North Koreans said no to repeated attempts at talks, by test-launching long-range missiles in April; Russia and China keep on saying no to tougher sanctions on Iran; the Iranians keep saying no to offers of talks by saying they're willing to talk about everything except a halt to uranium enrichment; Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is saying no by refusing to meet with Binyamin Netanyahu until Israel freezes all settlement construction; the Israelis said no by refusing to agree to a settlement freeze, or even a settlement moratorium until and unless the Arabs ante up their normalization gestures. Which brings us back to the original Saudi no.

The only thing Obama did manage to get Bibi and Abbas to say yes to is a photo-op at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in NY. Mazel tov.

At least Obama is accomplishing the primary goal that he has articulated: weakening America's power and influence around the world.

Atheists are breeding themselves out of existence by, well, not breeding. Also here.

In an analysis of European data from ten west European countries in the period 1981-2004 I found that next to age and marital status, a woman’s religiosity was the strongest predictor of her number of offspring. Many other studies have found a similar relationship, and a whole school of thought in demography — second demographic transition theory — suggests that fertility differences in developed countries are underpinned by value differences, with secular men and women unwilling to sacrifice career and lifestyle aspirations to have children and have them early.

Wait wait wait... is he suggesting that the meek will inherit the earth? Who'da thunk.

Scientists have created aluminum that is transparent to ultraviolet radiation.

In this week’s Nature Physics an international team, led by Oxford University scientists, report that a short pulse from the FLASH laser ‘knocked out’ a core electron from every aluminium atom in a sample without disrupting the metal’s crystalline structure. This turned the aluminium nearly invisible to extreme ultraviolet radiation.

''What we have created is a completely new state of matter nobody has seen before,’ said Professor Justin Wark of Oxford University’s Department of Physics, one of the authors of the paper. ‘Transparent aluminium is just the start. The physical properties of the matter we are creating are relevant to the conditions inside large planets, and we also hope that by studying it we can gain a greater understanding of what is going on during the creation of 'miniature stars' created by high-power laser implosions, which may one day allow the power of nuclear fusion to be harnessed here on Earth.’

At the very least this aluminum will make awesome lenses for sunglasses!

(HT: RD.)

As usual I was thinking about cybernetic augmentations, trying to list the places on mammal bodies where non-skin parts protrude from skin. Here are the ones I could think of:

  • fingernails and toenails
  • teeth
  • eyes (sorta)
  • hair
  • antlers
  • horns
  • hooves

Are there any I'm missing?

Here's something new: Christians are fighting amongst themselves over doctrine. This time it's Calvinism... again.

A distinctive issue in Calvinist theology that often is used to represent the whole is the system's particular soteriology, its doctrine of salvation. This doctrine holds that humans are incapable of adding anything to obtain salvation and that God alone is the initiator at every stage of salvation—including the formation of faith and every decision to follow Christ. This doctrine was definitively formulated and codified during the Synod of Dort (1618-1619), which rejected an alternative system known as Arminianism.[citation needed]

Calvinism is sometimes identified with "Augustinianism" because the central issues of Calvinistic soteriology were articulated by St. Augustine in his dispute with the British monk Pelagius. In contrast to the free-will position advocated by Charles Finney and other dissenters, Calvinism places strong emphasis on both the abiding goodness of the original creation and the total ruin of human accomplishments and the frustration of the whole creation caused by sin. It therefore views salvation as a new work of creation by God, rather than an achievement of those who are saved from sin and death.

I'm not a "five-point Calvinist" (say, three-and-a-half) but all of my disagreements with a Calvinist would center largely on semantics rather than practical matters. Unfortunately, theologians and philosophers love to argue about seemingly important matters that have little or no practical impact on anyone's lives. Fortunately the Bible provides us instructions on how to deal with "disputable matters" that don't really affect anyone: "Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters" and "Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way".

The primary dangers I've seen emerge from disputation over Calvinism are:

1. Disagreements in the church that lead to division, destruction of fellowship, and distraction from evangelism and ministry.

2. Apathy towards evangelism on the part of Calvinists. After all, if God's grace is irresistible then why make too much effort spreading it? Let God worry about it himself.

I encourage my fellow believers to focus at least as much effort on serving the lost and sharing the gospel as we do debating theology among ourselves.

I'm not sure why little girls are so scary. I guess it's the juxtaposition of innocence and evil that is so disconcerting. (cf. "The Shining")

(HT: RD)

Thanks to economic and political liberalization from almost 30 years ago, Chile is poised to be South America's first "developed" nation.

The role and achievements of Chile’s team of classical liberal economists is well known. They were the ones who in 1975, once the quasi-civil war was over, decided to carry out a principled, “friendly takeover” of the military government that had arisen from the breakdown of democracy in 1973 (here is my essay, published in “Society”, on that drama). Much less well-known, however, is that they were also the foremost proponents of a gradual and constitutional return to a limited democracy.

In fact, on August 8, 1980, a new Constitution, containing both a bill of rights and a timeline for the restoration of full political freedom, was proposed and approved in a referendum. In the period 1981-1989, what Fareed Zakaria has called the “institutions of liberty” were created—an independent Central Bank, a Constitutional Court, private television and universities, voting registration laws, etc—since they were crucial for having not only elections but a democracy at the service of freedom. Then on March 11, 1990, an extraordinary event happened: the governing military Junta surrendered its power to a democratically elected government in strict accordance to the 1980 Constitution (here is my note on the restoration of democracy in Chile).

Sounds like a nice place to retire.

(HT: LM.)

Interesting observations about a Chinese Wal-Mart in Beijing.

They can’t compete on price in China, of course. So my guess is that they are trying to compete on selection, convenience, and customer service (thus all the sampling). That you can return stuff was very clear.

Also, they sell live turtles... for food or pets? Unknown.

(HT: BM.)

Not quite to space, but two MIT students have photographed the curvature of the earth for $150.

Justin Lee and Oliver Yeh, M.I.T. students, had a goal of flying a camera high enough to photograph the curvature of the earth, they named it Project Icarus. With out having a NASA size budget for a rocket, they opted for the more cost effective method of filling a weather balloon with helium and suspending a Styrofoam cooler underneath that held the camera. They also placed some instant hand warmers inside the cooler to try to keep the camera and its battery from freezing.

The balloon was launched from Sturbridge, Mass., on September 2, 2009. The University of Wisconsin maintains a balloon trajectory Web site that they used to try to determine where it might land. A GPS-enabled prepaid cell phone was placed in the cooler to let them track its return to Earth and to locate it after landing, a fairly low-tech but creative and effective navigation system.

The camera and balloon made it to 93,000 feet, high enough to see the curvature of the Earth. So high, that the cooler took 40 minutes to return to earth. It is around this altitude that a balloon will pop, allowing the rig to fall back to earth.

So. Cool. I'm sure the chicks are lining up to get ahold of these guys now.

(HT: CR.)

The new Mississippi River Bridge is being delayed due to conflicts over whether the contracting process is too sexist but not racist enough.

The Missouri Department of Transportation will delay awarding a contract to build the new Mississippi River bridge until it determines whether minority contractors are being fully utilized in the St. Louis region, the department announced Tuesday.

The delay comes after minority contractors raised concerns this summer that the state hasn't been involving them in projects to the same level as it has women contractors. MoDOT is studying whether women and minority-owned businesses are being used to their fullest potential in transportation work. If the study shows that they are not, the state plans to ask the federal government for permission to have separate hiring goals for both groups in the $640 million bridge project.

Normally "women- and minority-owned businesses" are lumped together for preferential treatment, but minorities are complaining that sexism and racism should be separated because sexism is crowding out racism.

As a member of the group that these "goals" are specifically designed to exclude -- a white male -- I can't help but be amused. Here's an idea: hire the company that does the best work for the best value!

It's a funny stunt, but not that significant that a pigeon has more bandwidth than the South African internet.

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A South African information technology company on Wednesday proved it was faster for them to transmit data with a carrier pigeon than to send it using Telkom , the country's leading internet service provider.

Internet speed and connectivity in Africa's largest economy are poor because of a bandwidth shortage. It is also expensive.

Local news agency SAPA reported the 11-month-old pigeon, Winston, took one hour and eight minutes to fly the 80 km (50 miles) from Unlimited IT's offices near Pietermaritzburg to the coastal city of Durban with a data card was strapped to his leg.

Including downloading, the transfer took two hours, six minutes and 57 seconds -- the time it took for only four percent of the data to be transferred using a Telkom line.

A truck full of optical discs would have higher bandwidth than just about any network... the advantages of the internet are latency and low marginal costs.

An interesting site and associated book: How You Can Kill Al Qaeda In Three Easy Steps.

This book explains how to empower and amplify counter-violence voices to peel away al-Qaeda from any Muslim community that would provide vital support to this terrorist group.


Never forget.

So what's the deal with techies and "so"?

So .. here’s a question: Have you noticed that tech workers start a lot of their sentences with the word, “So…?”

Is it just me? Because I started to notice this around 1997 or so, when dot com companies started gaining in stature, importance, and wealth.

Tech veterans, recent hires, even people who left other careers to jump on the tech bandwagon would answer questions starting with the word “so.” As in, “So, what we do is strictly B-to-B,” or, “So .. I can’t tell you much about our upcoming release, except that it will radically change the way business is done.”

To be fair, it wasn’t just dot com workers. Some people I knew at chip companies, video game companies, and others, they would give me the “so,” too, but dot commers, that’s where you’d get it the most. It lasted through the boom, even the bust. Today, you’ll still hear it. Ask a question, and get a “So…” to start the response. I don’t get it from most other careers. Finance? Automotive? No “so.” Same with politicians. I’ve listened for it, but it’s not there. You don’t hear it from Clergy, either. In my experience, at least, it’s a tech thing.

So what?

So the theory of evolution is upended again.

For generations, scientists have believed Africa was the cradle of mankind.

Now a stunning archaeological discovery suggests our primitive ancestors left Africa to explore the world around 800,000 years earlier than was previously thought before returning to their home continent.

It was there - hundreds of thousands of years later - that they evolved into modern humans and embarked on a second mass migration, researchers say.

Archaeologists have unearthed six ancient skeletons dating back 1.8 million years in the hills of Georgia which threaten to overturn the theory of human evolution.

The Georgian bones - which include incredibly well preserved skulls and teeth - are the earliest humans ever found outside Africa.

I have no comment about the following, other than that people who know me know what I'm thinking.

The remains belong to a race of short early humans with small primitive brains who walked and ran like modern people.

(HT: RD.)

Scientists have identified the best observatory site on earth.

The search for the best observatory site in the world has lead to the discovery of what is thought to be the coldest, driest, calmest place on Earth — a place where no human is thought to have ever set foot.

To search for the perfect site to take pictures of the heavens, a U.S.-Australian research team combined data from satellites, ground stations and climate models in a study to assess the many factors that affect astronomy — cloud cover, temperature, sky-brightness, water vapor, wind speeds and atmospheric turbulence.

The researchers pinpointed a site, known simply as Ridge A, that is 13,297 feet (4,053 meters) high up on the Antarctic Plateau on the continent at the bottom of the world.

Wouldn't the fact that it's so far south be a disadvantage? The site would see less of the heavens over time than would a site closer to the equator.

I shop at WalMart all the time. I love WalMart. And yet... People of WalMart.

(HT: LM.)

Lots of videos from various sources.

Woman at town hall meeting waves a $20 bill and demands that if her Congressman wants to take her money and give it to someone else that he come down from his stage and take it himself.

Beautiful women make men dumb. Unfortunately, I married the most beautiful woman in the world; fortunately, I've got plenty of extra brain power to devote to her.

Although the methods used to calculate these "sin maps" are ridiculous, I'm still gratified to see that I live in one of the least sinful parts of America!

My laptop keyboard has no "I" key, which makes it rather difficult (but not impossible, obviously) to input the letter. Also, a parable of humility.

I wrote shortly after his passing, Ted Kennedy has the blood of millions of babies on his hands -- as the 1971 version of Ted Kennedy would certainly agree.

Kennedy displayed an eloquent pro-life position in 1971, prior to Roe v. Wade, when he wrote a letter to Catholic League member Tom Dennelly.

“While the deep concern of a woman bearing an unwanted child merits consideration and sympathy, it is my personal feeling that the legalization of abortion on demand is not in accordance with the value which our civilization places on human life. Wanted or unwanted, I believe that human life, even at its earliest stages, has certain rights which must be recognized—the right to be born, the right to love, the right to grow old," he wrote.

“On the question of the individual’s freedom of choice there are easily available birth control methods and information which women may employ to prevent or postpone pregnancy. But once life has begun, no matter at what stage of growth, it is my belief that termination should not be decided merely by desire," he added.

“When history looks back to this era it should recognize this generation as one which cared about human beings enough to halt the practice of war, to provide a decent living for every family, and to fulfill its responsibility to its children from the very moment of conception," he concluded.

Remember: abortion is a multi-billion dollar industry that gives heavily to the Democrats. People who are quick to link Halliburton and Exxon to Republicans should recognize that both parties are influenced by corporate money.

(HT: RB.)

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