September 2010 Archives

Decades ago some genius combined the automobile and the radio, completely revolutionizing the driving experience. Only now in 2010 does humanity finally surpass the brilliance of the car radio with the invention of the Emergency Bra.

Caught in a disaster? You'd better hope you're wearing the Emergency Bra. Simply unsnap the bright red bra, separate the cups, and slip it over your head -- one cup for you, and one for your friend. ...

"The goal of any emergency respiratory device is to achieve tight fixation and full coverage. Luckily, the wonderful design of the bra is already in the shape of a face mask and so with the addition of a few design features, the Emergency Bra enhances the efficiency of minimizing contaminated bypass air flow," explains the eBra website.

Ok. Where to start?

1. I predict a dramatic increase in the number of respiratory emergencies during first dates.

2. Emergency Bra wearers had better hope they don't have to run very far/fast to escape the danger.

3. Sweat.

Please extrapolate.

Considering that cold and flu season is almost upon us I'm pretty interested to read that gargling with salt water can reduce chance of infection and ease symptoms.

In a randomized study published in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2005, researchers recruited almost 400 healthy volunteers and followed them for 60 days during cold and flu season. Some of the subjects were told to gargle three times a day. At the end of the study period, the group that regularly gargled had a nearly 40 percent decrease in upper respiratory tract infections compared with the control group, and when they did get sick, “gargling tended to attenuate bronchial symptoms,” the researchers wrote.

40% is huge! I'll have to add this to my new flossing regimen. I wonder if the gargling would add anything over my periodic use of my neti-pot?

Paul Hsieh brought this link chain to my attention:

9/14/2010: I wrote "Mice on a Plane" about air-dropping Tylenol-stuffed mice in Guam to control the population of brown snakes.

9/16/2010: Paul linked on GeekPress.

9/20/2010: Eugene Volokh linked on Volokh Conspiracy.

9/21/2010: Glenn Reynolds linked on Instapundit.


  • I wonder if these time differences are close to the actual mean-times-between-readings of these bloggers to these linked-to blogs?
  • I have the feeling that these links were garnered passively -- I didn't email Paul about my story, and I feel that none of the other linkees purposefully passed the story on. Confirm/deny?
  • GeekPress and Volokh Conspiracy linked to the story as a standalone item, but Instapundit might have only linked to it because it fit into the context of the possum-rat story he was already linking to. I bet Glenn read the tylenol-mouse story first and it came to mind later when he read about the possums and rats. Two related stories equals good enough to post! This might be worth remembering next time I send a link to Glenn.
  • Does this link chain reflect the emergent hierarchy of the blogosphere?

It appears that the fine-structure constant may vary over space and time.

RICHARD FEYNMAN, Nobel laureate and physicist extraordinaire, called it a “magic number” and its value “one of the greatest damn mysteries of physics”. The number he was referring to, which goes by the symbol alpha and the rather more long-winded name of the fine-structure constant, is magic indeed. If it were a mere 4% bigger or smaller than it is, stars would not be able to sustain the nuclear reactions that synthesise carbon and oxygen. One consequence would be that squishy, carbon-based life would not exist.

Why alpha takes on the precise value it has, so delicately fine-tuned for life, is a deep scientific mystery. A new piece of astrophysical research may, however, have uncovered a crucial piece of the puzzle. In a paper just submitted to Physical Review Letters, a team led by John Webb and Julian King from the University of New South Wales in Australia present evidence that the fine-structure constant may not actually be constant after all. Rather, it seems to vary from place to place within the universe. If their results hold up to the scrutiny, and can be replicated, they will have profound implications—for they suggest that the universe stretches far beyond what telescopes can observe, and that the laws of physics vary within it. Instead of the whole universe being fine-tuned for life, then, humanity finds itself in a corner of space where, Goldilocks-like, the values of the fundamental constants happen to be just right for it.

To me, the variation over space is even more interesting than the variation over time. Speaking naively, we humans are used to "things" being different in the past and future, but stuff that's happening there should follow the same basic rules as things that are happening here.

What they found shocked them. The further back they looked with the VLT, the larger alpha seemed to be—in seeming contradiction to the result they had obtained with the Keck. They realised, however, that there was a crucial difference between the two telescopes: because they are in different hemispheres, they are pointing in opposite directions. Alpha, therefore, is not changing with time; it is varying through space. When they analysed the data from both telescopes in this way, they found a great arc across the sky. Along this arc, the value of alpha changes smoothly, being smaller in one direction and larger in the other. The researchers calculate that there is less than a 1% chance such an effect could arise at random. Furthermore, six of the quasars were observed with both telescopes, allowing them to get an additional handle on their errors.

If the fine-structure constant really does vary through space, it may provide a way of studying the elusive “higher dimensions” that many theories of reality predict, but which are beyond the reach of particle accelerators on Earth. In these theories, the constants observed in the three-dimensional world are reflections of what happens in higher dimensions. It is natural in these theories for such constants to change their values as the universe expands and evolves.

Basically, we know a lot less than we like to think. Heck, we think 74% of the universe is made of "dark energy", which we we don't even know what it is.

I love Walmart and shop there all the time. It's not a perfect company of course, but in the net Walmart is a huge boon to humanity and the planet.

Walmart and its Big Box friends are making the world a greener, more sustainable place. This isn’t because of any PR stunts or corporate green initiatives they may have going; it’s because they are relentlessly focused on profit and efficiency. It is their cutthroat capitalism not their sense of corporate citizenship that will save us — if anything can.

Walmart is helping to save the planet because it’s tough and realistic and focused like a laser on the bottom line. Giving customers what they want at low prices has made Walmart an irresistible force in the market. Every sock factory in China, every flatware manufacturer in Bangladesh wants to crack the Walmart market. Some purchasers buy by the crate and the carton; Walmart buys in the millions and billions.

But there’s a catch. Walmart wants to sell cheap to its customers; that means it must buy cheap from producers. And Walmart isn’t loyal; what have you done for me lately? is what its buyers want to know. Maybe last year you sold them ten million pairs of men’s shorts; if you want to repeat that you are going to have to be the low bidder yet again. If the factory across town (or across the ocean) figures out a way to make shorts that meet Walmart’s specs for two cents a pair less than your price — it’s goodbye to those ten million sales.

That means you, and everyone else trying to sell to Walmart, have to spend all your time figuring out how to produce the same product with less. Walmart’s ruthless focus on reducing prices is driving producers everywhere to cut the costs of production: to switch to cheaper materials, use less packaging, cut down on waste of all kinds and to consolidate and rationalize both production and distribution. The result is a steady and inexorable decline in humanity’s impact on the environment for every unit of GDP.

Saving money means saving energy, reducing waste, and increasing efficiency. When you shop at Walmart you're doing your part to save the earth!

Read Tim Cavanaugh's evisceration of the Community Redevelopment Agency of Los Angeles and then multiply by 100 to understand why California is falling apart.

They say failure is an orphan, but they’re wrong. Everything the CRA touches generates a new class of illegitimate parents, as participants blame each other for the debacle. McClendon’s complaint above is characteristic, but there are other hobgoblins. Eli Sasson, a developer who spent his own money to assemble several blocks of land for a development at Vermont Ave. and Manchester Ave., was denounced by Janis and other CRA officials in preparation for an eminent domain proceeding against him in 2008. Two years later, the status of the Vermont/Manchester project is cloudy, but the status of the project area is quite clear: Like almost all CRA areas, it is a vacant lot.

No less a figure than legendary Lakers point guard Magic Johnson served as a CRA scapegoat in 1999, when the itinerant local politician Mark Ridley-Thomas (then a city councilman, now a county supervisor) dumped him from the Marlton Square project in favor of the shady Chris Hammond. Then again, Magic is at a disadvantage in this game: He actually gets things built.

But the CRA, the Moriarty of public organizations, is the culprit at the scene of every crime. A bloated, self-perpetuating organization that turns poverty into penury; that could solve the budget deficit and revitalize the economy just by selling off its holdings and putting itself out of business; that elevates process over progress and political speech over any actual accomplishment; and that occasionally grabs the credit for successes private operators achieved in spite of the agency’s interference: The CRA is more than just an L.A. problem. It’s the perfect government agency.

If California ever throws off the shackles of Leftism there will be huge opportunities there for growth and productivity. Decades of left-wing rule have turned the Golden State into a burgeoning wasteland, but that decay could be quickly reversed by adventurous capitalists if they were free to act.

A new field of artificial intelligence is coming into its own: translation and condensation of statistics into human-readable format. Here are two concrete examples. First, automated newscasts.

Automated journalism can basically be understood as search algorithms programmed to look out for certain key findings. then to put them into a certain structure. For a report on a football game for example, the StatsMonkey calculates the narrative based on the numerical data.

Using the score, the algorithm captures the overall dynamic of the game, highlights the key plays and key players, looks for quotes, and generates a text out of these elements. In addition, it configures an appropriate headline and a photo of the most important player in the game - and there goes a very rough sketch of a sports article.

As indicated, sports are definitely low-hanging fruit when it comes to stats-to-English translation. So second, how about an automated sports blog?

Now, I'm in the process of developing completely automated sports content, which will take the form of blogs. I'm not talking just a "stat of the day" or game recaps, but a lot more. I've identified 21 different types of sports stories that can be automated. You could say I'm trying to make the process of writing a sports blog so easy you don't have to do anything at all. My goal for these blogs in version 1.0 is that at least 90% of the readers think the content was created by a human. One of the nice attributes of algorithmic content is that it can be improved over time. A blogger/writer's internal script is pretty much set. They generally don't change or improve the quality or comprehensiveness of their content over time in a significant way, but algorithms can be upgraded continuously. The "voice" of the content can be improved.

Will automated content be the end of sports journalism or blogging? Definitely not. There are always multiple sides to every story. And of course there are some categories of news (e.g. breaking news stories) that can't be easily automated. I'd like to see an algorithm write a story about Tiger Wood's infidelities! However, it will take only a short amount of time to get to the point where the average sports fan can't tell the difference between human generated content and automated content.

Is automated content the future of sports journalism? It will definitely play a big part. Large sports media companies can't cover every team to the level they cover the most popular teams. But algorithms don't care about the size of your market. I can generate content that is just as in-depth for North Dakota State as I can Duke. Automated content will be a boon for smaller markets.

And so the use of artificial intelligence to replace white-collar workers marches on. I for one welcome our new robot overlords!

Air-dropping Tylenol-stuffed mice carcasses to control the snake population of Guam:

Dead mice packed with acetaminophen, strapped to pieces of cardboard and dropped from helicopters may help control one of the big headaches for the Pacific island of Guam – the brown tree snake.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture last week began dropping the expired rodents packed with 80 mg of the generic equivalent of Tylenol on the forests of Naval Base Guam.

Since scientists discovered that the household pain reliever was deadly to the brown tree snakes, they’ve been trying to figure out how to get it to where many of the serpents live in the canopies of the island’s forests, according to a report in Stars & Stripes. The Tylenol-loaded mice are attached to two pieces of cardboard joined by paper streamers that snake exterminators hope will catch on tree branches, providing deadly snacks for snakes at those heights, according to the Stripes report.

As we remember together the 3,000 lives lost nine years ago, we shouldn't forget that 9/11 wasn't a "tragedy", it was a deliberate attack on our civilization. The war isn't over yet -- we haven't won -- and there are still plenty of people who are planning, supporting, and yearning for another deadly strike on America.

Beyond Mourning:

But it would be a mistake to sentimentalize what happened on that brilliantly sunlit late-summer morning -- just as it would be wrong to lose sight of the true nature of the event.

The attacks were acts of mass murder, committed to advance political goals that were -- and remain -- antithetical to civilization itself.

Lenin wrote that the purpose of terror ism is to terrorize, and he was right. In this case, the object was to weaken the will of the established order to resist murderous medievalists who meant to drag the West back to the 9th century.

Who still mean to.

Pray for the soldiers, law enforcement officers, and politicians who are working to keep us safe.

God bless America!

Victor Davis Hanson explains why President Obama is so sensitive.

All that matters for the country is that the current president of the United States seems surprised that as our chief executive he is earning scrutiny not previously accorded him — and that he finds that demand for accountability both exasperating and abjectly unfair. Thus this week’s latest “like a dog” whine.

For some reason, Obama believed that those who expected after his campaign promises a real upturn in the economy, or fiscal responsibility, or inspired foreign policy would be satisfied, as they had in the past, merely with soaring rhetoric and superficial reassurance. When they were not, and voiced such displeasure, as ingrates they had supposedly reduced Obama to canine-like status.

There is no need to add that abroad an Ahmadinejad, Assad, or Putin does not care a bit for the supposed personal chemistry or ethnic profile of Obama. Whether he was “clean” or not would be an absurdity to them. We sense only that those authoritarian sorts seem so far to like the idea that Obama speaks ambiguously about his country’s past and future, and appears more comfortable in pondering alternatives than making decisions.

Given all that, it is understandable both why America is very worried about what it has wrought — and why Barack Obama is miffed and lashes out.

You would too if both accountability and criticism were novel experiences at 49.

I largely blame the media for allowing Obama's history to go almost completely unexamined.

Here's a brilliant illustration of how a slight misreading of statistical data can lead you to an incredibly erroneous result.

The chart at left, for example, shows by size the percentage of schools in North Carolina which were ever ranked in the top 25 of schools for performance. Notice that nearly 30% of the smallest decile (10%) of schools were in the top 25 at some point during 1997-2000 but only 1.2% of the schools in the largest decile ever made the top 25.

Seeing this data many people concluded that small schools were better and so they began to push to build smaller schools and break up larger schools. Can you see the problem?

The problem is that because small school don't have a lot of students, scores are much more variable. If for random reasons a few geniuses happen to enroll one year in a small school scores jump up and if a few extra dullards enroll the next year scores fall.

Thus, for purely random reasons we would expect small schools to be among the best performing schools in any givenyear. Of course we would also expect small schools to be among the worst performing schools in any given year! And in fact, once we look at all the data this is exactly what we see. The figure below shows changes in fourth grade math scores against school size. Note that small schools have more variable scores but there is no evidence at all that scores on average decrease with school size.

States like North Carolina which reward schools for big performance gains without correcting for size end up rewarding small schools for random reasons. Worst yet, the focus on small schools may actually be counter-productive because large schools do have important advantages such as being able to offer more advanced classes and better facilities.

Smaller schools have more variance in their performance because a few outlying students can significantly affect a small school's aggregate score. If your measure is "the percentage of schools in North Carolina which were ever ranked in the top 25 of schools for performance" you're going to catch all those small schools when their scores randomly stumble to the top due to outlying students.

In general, the meaning of a measurement changes significantly when you start looking at things that "ever" or "never" happen instead of what is happening in a given snapshot.

(HT: Megan McArdle.)

Regular flossing can add years to your life.

When you floss, you help prevent your gums from becoming inflamed. That's a good thing. What is happening when your gums are inflamed is that you have a chronic bacterial infection in your mouth. This harms your arteries through two mechanisms: the bacteria find their way in to your arteries and hang out (causing plaques), and your body mounts an immune response to the bacteria in your mouth, causing inflammation (which in turn can cause your arteries to narrow). This makes it hard for your heart to do its job and can lead to heart disease.

There is some debate about how many years you can gain with heart disease. Dr. Perls says 1.5 years, while Dr. Roizen says 6 years.

I haven't read the studies, but could it be that people who have the discipline to floss regularly also have other good habits?'s number one most important thing they didn't teach you in school":

Many of you will get very depressed in your 20s, and some of you will stay that way the rest of your lives. Over the years your garage band will break up, you career dream will fall through, a girl will break your heart, you'll be unhappy with your body, you'll lose your parents, your favorite pet will die, you will endure at least one very terrible injury that requires hospitalization and breaks new boundaries for what kind of pain you thought was possible.

The reason why this will lead to depression, where it may not have done so for an equivalent person 200 years ago, is because you were raised on illogical stories where things always work out for the main character for utterly arbitrary reasons. Han Solo can shoot straight, but none of the bad guys can--even though they train more. John McClane beats the terrorists because he has toughness and perseverance--something the bad guys lack, even though they should be equally desperate. If a guy and a girl are right for each other, they always wind up together, careers and geography and personal hang-ups be damned.

Here's the problem: these fantasies were created by adults, as a means of escape from the real world. You, however, have been watching them since you were five--for most of us these were our first impressions of how the adult world works, even if on a subconscious level. You had no context to realize they were bullshit. It sounds frivolous, but that doesn't change the fact that some of you reading this will not survive the long process of learning how different the real world is.

If it helps, try to remember that you're still one of the one percent of humanity that was born in a time and place where there is such a thing as anesthesia.

Too true.

Larry Sabato has consulted his crystal ball and released some predictions for November's mid-term election.

Given what we can see at this moment, Republicans have a good chance to win the House by picking up as many as 47 seats, net. ...

In the Senate, we now believe the GOP will do a bit better than our long-time prediction of +7 seats. Republicans have an outside shot at winning full control (+10), but are more likely to end up with +8 (or maybe +9, at which point it will be interesting to see how senators such as Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and others react). ...

The statehouses will provide the third leg of the Republicans’ 2010 victory. We have long suggested the GOP would gain a net +6 governorships. We now believe they will win +8. This boon to the GOP for redistricting will be enhanced by a gain of perhaps 300 to 500 seats in the state legislatures, and the addition of Republican control in 8 to 12 legislative chambers around the country.

Increased Republican control of the impending redistricting process could move as many as 20 House seats into the GOP column for the next decade.

1. Don't get cocky.

2. Don't forget the Tea Partiers who are poised to put you back in power.

I bathe my cat pretty regularly and she's comfortable with it, but I can see where a machine like this might come in handy....

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