flwyd: (bad decision dinosaur)
In case you haven't been paying attention to the news this weekend, Democratic Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and a bunch of spectators were shot at a street corner political gathering in Tucson. The police arrested suspect Jared Lee Loughner, who left behind a bunch of semi-coherent YouTube videos. Thanks to Boing Boing for posting transcripts of Jared Loughner's videos.

I find it interesting to try to follow the killer's train of thought–he doesn't share the same reality that most of us do. It looks clear that Loughner recently took a philosophy or logic class and loves the Aristotelean-style propositional logic. The classic example is
  • All men are mortal.
  • Socrates is a man.
  • Therefore, Socrates is mortal.
Loughner prefers the conditional phrasing:
If B.C.E. year are unable to start then A.D.E. years are unable to begin.
B.C.E. years are unable to start.
Thus, A.D.E. years are unable to begin.
However, he's not very good at choosing true premises: If you're receiving a grade from Pima Community College class then the grade you're receiving is unconstitutional because of the United States Bill of Rights.
You're receiving a grade from Pima Community College class.
Therefore, the grade you're receiving is unconstitutional because of the United States Bill of Rights. The grading you purchase from Pima Community College is unconstitutional at tuition. His grasp of time is also questionable:
If 987,123,478,961,876,341,234,671,234,098,601,978,618 is the year in B.C.E. then the previous year of 987,123,478,961,876,341,234,671,234,098,601,978,618 B.C.E. is 987,123,478,961,876,341,234,671,234,098,601,978,619 B.C.E.
987,123,478,961,876,341,234,671,234,098,601,978,618 is the year in B.C.E.
Therefore, the previous year of 987,123,478,961,876,341,234,671,234,098,601,978,618 B.C.E is 987,123,478,961,876,341,234,671,234,098,601,978,619 B.C.E.

Some points of reference to understand where Loughner is coming from:
Section 10 of the United States Constitution either refers to Article 1, Section 10 (No state shall… make any Thing but gold and silver Coin a Tender in Payment of Debts), implying college tuition is fraud because it's not backed by gold, or Amendment 10 of the Bill of Rights (The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people), implying college tuition is invalid because federally-funded education is not part of the Constitution. Both the gold standard and the idea that the federal government isn't authorized to do anything that's not in the constitution have been popular rallying points for Tea Party activists.

B.C.E. stands for Before Common Era, a more politically correct version of Before Christ. Common Era is the politically correct version of Anno Domini (year of our Lord), but Loughner apparently thought you just add "E" to the older abbreviation. (I always assumed that BCE implied existence of year zero, but unfortunately Wikipedia claims that's not true.)

An ad hominem argument is one that attacks a person rather than the ideas he professes. For example, if someone disputed Plato's political philosophy on the grounds that he was gay, that would be an ad hominem attack. Loughner wrote
If I define terrorist then a terrorist is a person who employs terror or terrorism, especially as a political weapon.
I define terrorist.
Thus, a terrorist is a person who employs terror or terrorism, especially as a political weapon.
If you call me a terrorist then the argument to call me a terrorist is Ad hominem.
You call me a terrorist.
Thus, the argument to call me a terrorist is Ad hominem.
"Terrorist" is a word that has been used in indiscriminate and ad hominem ways in the last decade. But if Loughner's armed attack yesterday was meant to be a political weapon of terror, then he is a terrorist. However, I'm not sure his YouTube corpus is coherent or direct enough to know what his motives were. Maybe he was just pissed at his Congresswoman for personal (not political) reasons and wanted to kill her without causing terror in the hearts of members of Congress. But with a former Vice Presidential candidate posting an image with gun sight crosshairs over Gifford's district, it's easy to see why people would jump to a political conclusion. Apparently, Palin is trying to unsay that on the Internet.
flwyd: (Om Chomsky)
Ted Koppel reflects on partisan news opinion shows and news organizations becoming profit centers for entertainment companies:
The commercial success of both Fox News and MSNBC is a source of nonpartisan sadness for me. While I can appreciate the financial logic of drowning television viewers in a flood of opinions designed to confirm their own biases, the trend is not good for the republic. It is, though, the natural outcome of a growing sense of national entitlement. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's oft-quoted observation that "everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts," seems almost quaint in an environment that flaunts opinions as though they were facts.
This is to journalism what Bernie Madoff was to investment: He told his customers what they wanted to hear, and by the time they learned the truth, their money was gone.
The transition of news from a public service to a profitable commodity is irreversible. Legions of new media present a vista of unrelenting competition. Advertisers crave young viewers, and these young viewers are deemed to be uninterested in hard news, especially hard news from abroad. This is felicitous, since covering overseas news is very expensive. On the other hand, the appetite for strongly held, if unsubstantiated, opinion is demonstrably high. And such talk, as they say, is cheap.

I've been mostly out of the news loop for the last year, and I don't really miss it. I'd rather spend time reading a substantive background article on a topic than getting the blow-by-blow slow dribble of small facts and grand interpretations.

I happened to catch the BBC World Service yesterday. They spent almost an entire hour on the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. They had reports from an eyewitness correspondant (what American news agency has one in Myanmar?), interviews with multiple experts on the country's political system, and a discussion with a friend of hers at Oxford. They talked about the event itself, her background (I didn't know that her father was head of the army, influential in the country's formation, and assassinated), how she came to be a widely admired and potent political figure, how she might affect things now that she's released, what the military junta (which the BBC still pronounces with a hard J) might expect, and what needs to happen for Myanmar to progress (apparently there are a lot of ethnic militia groups that the military can't really defeat, but that would be likely to work with Aung San Suu Kyi).

Why is the BBC so much better at educating listeners than commercial media? Maybe it's because they don't have a narrow market. While under house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi listened to the World Service in English and Burmese. There are listeners all over the world, and their interests are diverse. Maybe it's because they take their news mission seriously and are answerable to people who care about the quality of the news, not to people who care about the revenue delivered by advertisers.

In the information overload world of social media, it's even more critical to be critical of your news sources. If your source of news is links your Facebook friends share and you choose friends who share your opinions, you're in danger of falling into a self-reinforced echo chamber of selection bias and opinion monoculture. Be sure to follow some people you disagree with, or seek out some of the remaining outlets that care more about information than perception.
flwyd: (spiral stone)
Scientists have found Stonehenge's brother, timberhenge. See also, Eddie Izzard - Stonehenge. And if you're driving through Nebraska, be sure to check out Carhenge, the Cadillac of henges.

2008 In Photos

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008 05:34 pm
flwyd: (Trevor shadow self portrait)
The Boston Globe's year in photographs part 1, part 2, and part 3. This looks only slightly crazier than when I was there a week before. "A Guangzhou train station" was the ultimate measure of displeasure on our trip. From time to time, whether doing something awesome or just relaxing, we'd say "This is SOOO much better than a Guangzhou train station!"

I think half of being a good photographer is standing in the right place.
flwyd: (mathnet - to cogitate and to solve)
I've been absorbing a lot of news and blogs about the current financial crisis and about financial systems over the past few weeks. I feel like blogging what I've learned to help my adoring readers understand the situation. Yet I know that I tend to think about undertaking such explanations and then getting overwhelmed by the amount I want to say and not writing anything.

So I won't attempt to explain the entire financial crisis here. Instead, I'd love to answer questions about it. By focusing on one point at a time, like "What is a mortgage-backed security" or "Why are U.S. taxpayers 'bailing out' big banks by buying 'toxic' assets" I can share some of what I've learned in a context that will hopefully keep me succinct.

Are there terms you've heard in the news that you don't know? (Basic tip: "Security" in financial news doesn't mean what it means in "Homeland Security.") Are you confused about what's happening in "global credit markets" and how it impacts your daily life? Anything is fair game, but be warned that I'm not an economist or a financial adviser. I'm pretty good at picking up the core concepts of a domain, but there's a lot of background I don't have. So I'll try to be clear about what I know, what I suspect, and what I opine.

So, what do you want to know?
flwyd: (Om Chomsky)
I've been mentally working on a post with a title like "What's Going On In The World: A Summary" lately, but I haven't made time to write it all down. One thing it'll touch on is the "Global Credit Crunch," which grew out of the "U.S. Housing Crisis" stemming from the "Subprime Mortgage Collapse." I don't have any formal education in economics, but I often find that I can construct a decent sense of the key issues by listening to the language of people who do know what they're talking about. But despite all the news references to this major financial current event, I could tell I was missing key pieces of the puzzle.

Fortunately, This American Life is really good at sharing a full story in a way that's easy to understand in human ways. Episode #355: The Giant Pool of Money looks at people involved at each level of the house of cards which has now foreclosed. They define key terms, explain why otherwise sensible people made bad decisions, and what factors came into place for everything to fall apart. The whole episode will be available as a free download on their podcast for the next week; even if you don't want to listen to everyday people's stories about weird stuff every week, be sure to listen to episode 355.

One thing they didn't really touch on is the question "Where did all the money go?" They said "It's just gone," but money doesn't just disappear; it goes somewhere. Somebody class of people came out on the winning side. I think the answer goes something like this:
Global investors (the giant pool of money) bought shares in mortgage-backed securities offered by investment banks on the assumption that payments would be regular, producing dividends.

Investment banks bought loans from mortgage brokers and commercial banks on the assumption that they could sell shares to big investors.

Mortgage lenders gave money to people (many of whom shouldn't have gotten a loan in the first place) on the assumption they'd make regular payments (or on the assumption that someone would buy the loan before it would matter).

Some people took out mortgages to pay other debts on the assumption that the going interest rate was better than their other interest rate. So creditors are one set of winners. And not entirely coincidentally, creditors like the financial megalith JP Morgan Chase Manhattan were major players in the shenanigans we're now seeing fallout from. So they may not have lost as bad as their current numbers look.

Some people took out mortgages to pay for big expenses like college for their kids or trips to Mexico on the assumption that American housing prices would keep going up and they could use the equity in their home as an ATM. So smart spenders are one set of winners. If someone took out a mortgage, paid for college, then lost the house in foreclosure, they at least funded a good education for their kid who can find a good job (even in the current economy, they hope) and get a house with some extra room for their parents. Of course, dumb spenders are one set of losers. If they bought a big screen TV and took a trip to party on Mexican beaches and then lost their house in foreclosure, the best they can say is "The real titties looked better than the high def ones did."

And, of course, some people took out mortgages to buy houses. For several years, American home construction was a booming industry. So one set of winners is home builders. But then they became losers as they discovered they had vast tracts of cookie-cutter subdivisions ready to sell just as everyone started losing the houses they shouldn't have purchased three years before. But before the home builders moved to the loser category, they paid a lot of money in wages to construction crews. American construction work these days is largely done by Hispanics. A lot of Hispanics send a significant portion of their income to family members in Latin America.

So the flow goes something like this:
American consumers buy cheap goods at discount retail stores -> discount retail stores buy cheap goods from China -> China invests dollars in U.S. mortgage bonds -> mortgage bonds create a demand for unsound loans -> unsound loans promise American consumers the dream of home ownership -> dream sellers build ostentatious subdivisions -> frugal carpenters send their share of American consumer money to poor Mexican families.
It's not so much trickle-down economics as it is Gordian-hose economics. The flow doesn't start or stop where I've outlined, but it's interesting to see how two groups (Chinese factory workers and Mexican subsistence farmers) who at first seem to have nothing to do with $500,000 houses on Shady Hills Lane are beneficiaries of the complex transactions of the American housing market. Of course, with major increases in the prices of food and oil, those benefits may rapidly dissipate. I wonder how much of that increase has come from investors fleeing poor assumptions about the U.S. housing market in favor of assumptions about commodities markets...

Remember kids, when investing or making other important decisions: The past is not necessarily a good predictor of the future. Life is one big Hume problem.
flwyd: (bad decision dinosaur)
Men charged after skull dug up, used as bong
HOUSTON (Reuters) - Authorities in Texas have filed corpse-abuse charges against two men who allegedly removed a skull from a grave and used it as a bong.

Supersize Me

Wednesday, November 21st, 2007 06:12 pm
flwyd: (bug eyed earl)
I don't know if I've talked about my favorite phylum on this journal, but let me state for the record that arthropods are awesome.


Kids science shows were fond of pointing out that you couldn't have an invasion of giant spiders because they would collapse under the weight of their exoskeletons. But a 2.5 meter scorpion is an arachnid that could serve many sci-fi needs.
flwyd: (santa fe church ironwork and cross)
Don't go to church on Sunday
Don't get on my knees to pray
Don't memorize the books of the Bible
I got my own special way
Bit I know Jesus loves me
Maybe just a little bit more

I fall on my knees every Sunday
At Zerelda Lee's candy store

Well it's got to be a chocolate Jesus
Make me feel good inside
Got to be a chocolate Jesus
Keep me satisfied

Well I don't want no Anna Zabba
Don't want no Almond Joy
There ain't nothing better
Suitable for this boy
Well it's the only thing
That can pick me up
Better than a cup of gold
See only a chocolate Jesus
Can satisfy my soul

When the weather gets rough
And it's whiskey in the shade
It's best to wrap your savior
Up in cellophane
He flows like the big muddy
But that's OK
Pour him over ice cream
For a nice parfait

Well it's got to be a chocolate Jesus
Good enough for me
Got to be a chocolate Jesus
Good enough for me

Well it's got to be a chocolate Jesus
Make me feel good inside
Got to be a chocolate Jesus
Keep me satisfied

Tom Waits, "Chocolate Jesus"
Chocolate Jesus statue

A New York art gallery has decided to cancel an exhibit of a chocolate sculpture of Jesus Christ after protests by a US Catholic group.

I heard about it from The Onion.

Note particularly that he's not wearing a loin cloth.
flwyd: (glowing grad macky auditorium)
As many people suspected, Princeton has shown that it's really easy to hack a Diebold voting machine. Like many corporations, Diebold prefers to deal with technical problems (faulty design) with non-technical tools. One tool is ignoring the problem. Another tool is attacking critics. A third tool is keeping the design secret so that nobody knows how bad the system is. An example of the first two tools follows.

"[Our critics are] throwing out a 'what if' that's premised on a basis of an evil, nefarious person breaking the law," Bear told Newsweek after the March Emery County study. "For there to be a problem here," he further explained to the New York Times, "you're basically assuming a premise where you have some evil and nefarious election officials who would sneak in and introduce a piece of software … I don't believe these evil elections people exist." -- Hack the Vote? No Problem on Salon.com

A fundamental technique of secure system design involves playing a malicious party. At point of entry in the system, this party gets to say "What if this happens here?" I'll bet companies that make slot machines don't answer that question "Surely there's nobody so evil to do that!" That's right. Your gambling rights are better protected and enforced than your voting rights.
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