Saturday, October 4, 2008

The Enron Canary

Interesting Op-Ed piece in the Guardian (home page) today, comparing the practice of hiding debt that brought down Enron to our current situation. And while I'm on the topic, there was an outstanding article in Der Spiegel on Tuesday, also on the current financial crisis. The latter article is pretty lengthy, but I think very much worth reading.

The US press has done an adequate job of explaining the mess, though as I've commented earlier, I have seen no one explicating why the number is 700 billion rather than 600 or 800 billion dollars. My sense is this is the first plane load of fire retardant to be dropped, not the plane load. And the pork larded into the bill that passed angered me. However, if you are relying on one news source, or god help you, if you're relying on television news, this must make no sense at all.

There are many people who pay closer attention to news than me, and who understand the background of topics like economics, international relations, politics and so on better than I do. But when Caribou Barbie can't name a single news source she reads, and then later claims, oh what I meant to say was The Times, the Wall Street Journal, and The Economist, I throw up... my hands, I mean. My hands. I read The Times, too. And the Economist. And the Guardian, and The Telegraph, and der Spiegel, the Corvallis Gazette-Times (hurts to admit that one), The Oregonian, The Washington Post, The LA Times and (sometimes) the Globe and Mail. And that's just off the top of my head. If I were to go through my e-mail and my feeds, I expect that list would easily double.

People, this stuff is free. The few seconds your eyes skim over advertising pays for your access to nearly endless news. Turn off the goddamn tube. I'll bet Palin could name a dozen TV shows she watches.

And to get back to my starting point, many of the best news sources for US news are not from the US. They're from England (The Guardian, The Telegraph, The BBC), Germany (Der Spiegel) and Canada (The Globe and Mail).

Turn off the idiot box. Explore your world. Read.

Friday, October 3, 2008

How to debate...

if you're Sarah Palin.

From here, click over for full size.

As I said yesterday, I did watch the debate. I felt Palin did a fairly good job of remaining coherent: she actually spoke in fairly well-constructed English sentences, rather than projectile vomiting fragments of anything crossing her mind that had any chance of being related to the topic at hand. I should back up for a moment and clarify that, after watching excerpts of her interview with Katie Couric, I told a number of coffee drinkers that Palin reminded me of nothing so much as a student who skipped class all term long, spent 48 hours prior to the final cramming, OD'ing on caffeine, and not sleeping. Then upon showing up for a blue book exam, spent two hours projectile vomiting onto the pages, gagging up every key word vaguely remembered from all the cramming. No effort for coherence- that simply didn't exist. No effort toward actually answering questions, or demonstrating understanding. Just spitting out words and phrases that might, just might, have any relevance whatsoever. It is very obvious when a student has done this, and it was obvious when Palin did it.

So at any rate, I was hoping she didn't pull that kind of performance again; no one deserves that kind of humiliation in front of a live audience and a television viewership of millions. I thought her answers were pat, emphasizing the hockey mom/Joe six-pack mentality, and predictable talking points, over substance of any kind. I thought Biden's responses were indicative of much more comprehension and background. But I'm biased- I'll freely admit that. And since I really resent the talking heads telling me what I think about news, I turned off the tube immediately after the closing remarks.

So I was surprised and more than a little pleased earlier today, when I jumped into the webscape, to find that most polls and news sources agreed with my assessment: Palin gave a respectable performance, but Biden clearly had more meat.

So when is the next debate between McCain and Obama? I should watch at least one of them.

Live Pilot

This is more an experiment than anything else: can I embed live video? We'll see. The back story is that "Star Stryder," astroblogger Pamela Gay, and her husband, are having a problem with their water heater pilot light. It keeps going out. Their plumber can't find the problem. So us netizens have been invited to spend hours contemplating the bluey blueness of said pilot light on a live feed. If it goes out (or if it isn't lit when you check in) twitter "" Now, we return to our previously scheduled bluedom.

Yep! It works!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Only, You Know, If You, Like, Care About Something

Otherwise, don't bother.

You can get an online Oregon registration form to print here. (537 kb PDF) Registration forms are also available at the Corvallis Public Library, The OSU Library, and other places.
Here is information on registering in Oregon. The pertinent date to keep in mind is that your mailed registration must be postmarked 21 days before the current election (I presume that if you hand deliver your registration to the County Courthouse (basement, NE corner), it must also be 21 days before the election.) By my arcane calculations, that means Tuesday October 14 is the deadline. For answers to other frequently asked questions, see this page.

If you're confused, and a corporeal visitor (as opposed to a netizen) to my favorite coffee shop, please ask me for help. I'm the older guy with a shaggy beard, and a fuzzy hat, normally sitting in the eastern (art-filled) room, staring into a laptop. All of the clerks and many customers know me by name-ask for Lockwood. It's important to me that everyone qualified have the opportunity to cast a ballot.

And even if you're on the other side of the country, leave a comment, and I can probably find information pertinent to your location and situation. As the video points out, you must be registered by your state's deadline. For some places that may be just a couple of days away.

But only, you know, if you, like, actually care about something.

Draw me a Picture

I don't have the sense that middle-school students have classes on that archaic subject of grammar anymore. I just got through talking with another coffee drinker who also grew up in Ohio, and who is just a little younger than me, who also hated grammar. Both of us spent much of our youth reading, and the experience of seeing so many good examples of well-written English taught both of us more than we ever learned in class.

It just occurred to me that I found a good, funny example earlier... ...though this is spelling, not grammar. (From here)

One of the typical components of grammar was learning to diagram sentences. For those around my age, I'm picturing your eyes rolling, and a vague groan of "Oh wow... I forgot about that." For those younger, it was a really obnoxious exercise in, essentially, converting sentences into little maps. People other than English teachers see no redeeming characteristics to this activity. You can learn a little from this Wikipedia entry, and from following the additional links there.

In a piece yesterday at Slate, Kitty Burns Florey does a hilarious job of attempting to diagram some sentences from a particular GOP VP candidate, in Diagramming Sarah. Again, for the younger generation, this might not make much sense. For people around my age, the idea of a grammarian throwing up their hands and saying,

I had to give up. This sentence is not for diagramming lightweights. If
there's anyone out there who can kick this sucker into line, I'd be delighted to
hear from you. To me, it's not English—it's a collection of words strung
together to elicit a reaction, floating ands and prepositional phrases ("with
that vote of the American people") be damned. It requires not a diagram but a
selection of push buttons.

is pretty funny.


I probably will watch the Biden-Palin debate tonight. I didn't watch last week's Obama-McCain debate. My mind is set, and I see very little that could change it. Obviously I follow the news, but the nature of a debate seems very artificial and constraining to me... they seem designed to prevent ideas and substance from being expressed, rather than fostering such expression.

So why bother watching, if my mind is made up, and I don't expect to learn anything substantive about either candidate's positions and outlook? Exactly my point.

Unless, as I said to another coffee drinker a bit ago, it's like a car race. I couldn't care less about the outcome, but there might be a really cool crash...

Sick, sick, sick.

Welcome to American politics.

Followup: Matty Boy at Lotsa 'Splainin 2 Do points out that The Venerable and Much Missed Molly Ivins deserves credit for the car race metaphor I used above. "The late Molly Ivins is given the credit for the great line: 'Debates are like stock car races - nobody really cares who wins; they just come to see the crashes.'" I really don't mind giving credit where it's due. Especially if I can concede said credit to Molly. I've read a great deal of her stuff, and while I honestly did think I had come up with the idea myself, I don't doubt for a second that some poorly-lit corner of my mind was giggling as it recalled this.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Lotsa Part II

A week ago I posted a piece called "Lotsa," where I talked about the difficulty non-science (not to be confused with "nonsense") people have with large numbers. Most people would have difficulty distinguishing the meaning and the reality of 700 million versus 700 billion. Those of us who have spent time with large magnitudes know immediately that the difference is a factor of 1000. A dollar won't buy me a cup of coffee (though it will buy me a refill). A thousand dollars will buy me two months rent and electricity with enough left over to buy a cup of coffee each day for a month. That's not a trivial difference.

One way to internalize the meanings of "lotsa" of various magnitudes is to convert the numbers to something you can visualize- even if it's an absurd representation, the process of picturing what 700 billion dollars means can help one come to some comprehension of it. That is not to say you really understand it in human terms, but you have some abstract way to relate to it. I cannot in a meaningful way grasp the magnitude of 4.6 billion years, but I can relate it to other periods of time that are meaningful to me. For example, there are approximately 31.5 million seconds in a year. So if I could live one second for every year the earth has existed, I would survive about 146 years. All of human history (the last 10,000 years) would pass in the last 2 hours and 47 minutes of my life. I could make some snarky comment about those not being the most pleasant three hours of my 146-year life, but I won't.

So to get back to the idea of 700 billion dollars, I had been toying with the idea of converting that into some sort of physical imagery, as the author of the original article on a billion McDonald's hamburgers had done. But someone beat me to it. See here and here.

Some examples:
  • Laid end to end (as dollar bills) $700 billion would "Stretch from the Earth to Venus (the next closest planet at approximately 25,476,219 miles from Earth at its closest approach) over two and a half (2.66) times."
  • The weight as dollar bills would be "Slightly less than eight (8) Nimitz class aircraft carriers (each one is approximately 97,000 tons)."
  • The area covered by that amount would be "Almost twice (1.81) the total area of Rhode Island (1,545 square miles)."
  • $700 billion would have a volume "Almost three quarters (0.71) the size of the Hoover Dam (39,240,000 cubic feet)."
See the linked blog for a number of other great examples.

I am not against the bailout plan; it will almost certainly be necessary to stave off much worse consequences. I'll even go so far as to say that I feel like I more or less understand the causes of the situation. But I have no freaking idea where this 700 billion number came from. As a person who has a symbolic sort of understanding what a ginormous version of "lotsa" that number is, that makes me very, very uncomfortable. I mean, we're throwing 8 Nimitz-class carriers at the problem. Why not seven? Or nine?

Mercury Flyby 2

The Messenger Probe will make its second pass of Mercury next Monday. The Planetary Society Weblog has a good article summarizing this morning's press conference, laying out the schedule and objectives. There is also a useful map showing the portions of Mercury that were imaged by the first flyby as well as by Mariner in the mid-70's. (click over to see full-size)

I have done a few posts on Mercury (Click on the "Mercury" Label, or here). Here's the thing that engaged me even before new data started coming in: Mercury is pretty small, a bit larger than our moon. Yet it has a proportionally enormous iron core (the moon has no significant core, which is a good topic for another post). Because from Earth, Mercury is always close to the sun, it's very difficult to observe with traditional telescopes- and even when it's at its greatest angular distance from the sun, only a small crescent is illuminated from our perspective. In addition, through the oddities of orbital dynamics, it's much more difficult to get a probe to than one might first assume. So even though it's one of the closer planets, we know very little about Mercury.

And as I've tried to explain numerous times before, stuff we don't know is very, very appealing to me.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Window on the World

Spectacular picture on APOD today. (Click over to see full size and a description.) This is an actual, single exposure photograph. Astronomical images can be a little misleading in that light over a long period of time can be "integrated" or "summed up;" our eyes could never actually "see" this. I remember being very disappointed when I found that the image one sees through a telescope isn't at all what one sees in a photo. I got over it. There is still something a little goose-bump inducing about realizing that the light being registered by my eyes has been traveling for thousands of years or longer, without being interfered with by anything. When it does finally hit something, it's the perception apparatus of a being capable of comprehending what he's seeing.

And photographs like this are just plain awesome, even if I can't witness them directly.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

LHC Status

I came across these sites a few weeks back, and was just trying to find them for another coffee drinker. He had to leave and go get ready for school (which starts tomorrow). I had not quite gotten to them as I skimmed through my notes, but here they are as an easy reference for all of us.

First, a quick site to check on the question, "Has the large Hadron Collider Destroyed the World Yet?"

Second, if you're worried, you might want to follow a live webcam stationed at the LHC. Actually, if you're worried, you might not want to follow this one.

Fey Humor

The more I see of Tina Fey's impersonation of Sarah Palin the funnier it becomes. The funny becomes hernia-inducing when significant chunks are lifted from the actual interview. Tom Leher (see this post for one of my favorite songs of his) claimed in an interview a few years back that he quit doing satire in the late 60's because real life was satire; he could add nothing to it. SNL apparenty feels the same way about Palin.

From Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic. I'm not getting the video clip, so you may need to go over to the source site to watch- well worth it!

World-Wide Vote

The British magazine, The Economist, is running a mock election using an electoral college model like ours here in the U.S. Each country gets a number of electoral college votes based on its population. Right now, the results read 8002 Obama to 12 McCain. El Salvador is the culprit in giving McCain anything. The results are updated every three hours, but I have the sense it will take some real work on the Republican side to change this thing around.

If only it counted...

Another similar site I found a while back is called This one simply tallies the total votes, though the results are broken down by country. The results there are surprisingly similar to The Economist's:
Barack Obama 86.2% (64720 votes)
John McCain 13.8% (10348 votes)
Total number of votes: 75069 Countries voted from: 162

When I first saw these results, I assumed there was a heavy self-selection bias. The Economist's results may also be the result of self-selection, but their site is limited to subscribers and those who have registered. While the Economist is fairly centrist overall, I know that both liberal and conservative bloggers in the US consider it owned and operated by the other side- as they do the New York Times.

So what do these results mean? I suspect we're seeing a very real revulsion toward Bush-style internationalism: "Just do what we say, and no one gets hurt." Along with a growing recognition that McCain's ignorance and bellicosity indicates similar behavior if he was to become president. On the other hand, both of these polls show the US results in the range of 80%-20% Obama, a very poor match to the reality.