Monday, April 27, 2009
Friday, April 17, 2009
Louisiana state senator Danny Martiny (R) is sponsoring a bill that would ban human-animal hybrids. As a transhumanist, I say we might as well have this fight now, because the expanding/evolving definition of "human" and what that definition means to "human rights", citizenship, etc., will be THE defining domestic-policy dispute of the 21st century.
Those who wish to remain politically aware, active, and relevant in the coming decades would do well to start brushing up on this now.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
I love sports because ...
200. The 2009 NBA Eastern Conference semi-finals. The East has three good teams: Cleveland, Boston, and Orlando are all legitimate contender for the world's title, but only two of the three can reach the East final. Most likely scenario has Boston and the Magic playing each other for the right to face LeBron and the Cavs.
199. Gump Worsley. The world needs more Gump Worsley
198. There's a new event very nearly every night.
197. Major-league baseball's All-Star Game. I kvetch about it every year. It's a waste of time. It disrupts the pennant races. No one takes it seriously. Then each year I watch it.
196. Ditto the NBA's All-Star Game, to a lesser degree
195. Kvetching about the NFL's Pro Bowl and then *not* watching it.
194. Super Bowl parties
193. Not attending Super Bowl parties and instead focusing on the game.
192. Bunting on the stadium stands during baseball's postseason games.
191. The tension before the puck drops at the beginning of a rivalry hockey game
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
... for being the first, presumably, to commit documented voting-machine fraud. Congratulations!
The fraud is actually kinda slick and exploits two key points of weakness: a difference between what the printed instructions say and what the system actually does, and people's unfamiliarity with a system they use maybe once or twice a year, a system of which they have no real under-the-hood understanding. The gist of the attack was this:
1) There are different types of voting machines used by the same vendor. Some of the machines, manufactured by Omaha-based Election Systems & Software, use the "cast vote" button as the last step in the process. Other machines of the same model family (the "iVotronic") use "cast vote" as the second to last step in the process. In these machines, which were used in the fraud, the cast-vote button prompts the user to confirm.
2) The documented instructions for the second group of machines was written for the first group. The written instructions voters saw told them that cast-vote was the final step, even though it wasn't.
3) It was an inside job. After the voter pressed the cast-vote button -- which they were explicitly told by both the machine's written instructions and by in-on-the-scam polling-place officials was the last thing they needed to do -- but left before pressing confirm, a polling-place worker slipped into the booth, "corrected", shall we say, the ballot, and then confirmed, making the worker's vote the official vote recorded by the system.
There is one way, and only one way to do electronic-voting right: The voter MUST leave with a hard-copy receipt of their vote. That, of course, doesn't matter if voters are told by corrupt officials that they don't need receipts or that the machine doesn't give them. But keeping people inside the system from subverting the system is the eternal challenge of security, and the receipt system requires that *all* workers of a given polling place be in on it. If only one non-rogue worker tells voters to not leave without their receipt, then this fraud cannot take place.
Security guru Bruce Schneier is hosting his annual contest for people to submit their best "movie plot" terrorism threats. It is Schneier's belief that security measures built to defend against very specific threats (say, a bomb in a shoe) are destined to fail and are often used only to scare people. I'll let him explain the contest. From his newsletter:
Let's face it, the War on Terror is a tired brand. There just isn't enough action out there to scare people. If this keeps up, people will forget to be scared. And then both the terrorists and the terror-industrial complex lose. We can't have that.
We're going to help revive the fear. There's plenty to be scared about, if only people would just think about it in the right way. In this Fourth Movie-Plot Threat Contest, the object is to find an existing event somewhere in the industrialized world -- Third World events are just too easy -- and provide a conspiracy theory to explain how the terrorists were really responsible.
The goal here is to be outlandish but plausible, ridiculous but possible, and -- if it were only true -- terrifying. Entries should be formatted as a news story, and are limited to 150 words (I'm going to check this time) because fear needs to be instilled in a population with short attention spans.
Well, we can't very well have people walking around in states of non-fear. That just won't do at all.
If you're of an imaginative and scary mind, submit your entry here. Tips on how to write a good terrorism story can be found here
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
The normally-lucide Matthew (don't call him Matt) Yglesias posts this humdinger of a travashamockery at his ThinkPress blog. His core argument:
Now there’s a decent argument out there, familiar from Adam Smith and the whole tradition of economics, that a world full of greedy people isn’t necessarily quite the disaster that pre-modern ethical thinkers would have thought. This is all well and good. True even. But it’s a sign, I think, of a kind of sickness running through American society that we’ve lost the willingness to just say clearly that ceteris paribus greedy behavior is not virtuous behavior.
If that's not explicit enough, there's this:
... the best people are people who aren’t primarily driven by greed.
Fairly takes your breath away, this example of high-octane horseshit.
The view that greed and attempts to satisfy it are in and of themselves is common, but its commonness doesn't make it any more correct. To paraphrase P.J. O'Rourke's classic line, the entrepreneur who makes $500,000 a year and pays, say, $100,000 in taxes does massively more social good than the hippy tree-hugger who prattles on about the spiritual emptiness of consumerism, and -- this is the important part -- this remains true even if his primary or even sole motivation for running his business is making more money only for the sake of making more money. The beauty of capitalism is that, in a properly-functioning market, it harnesses people's natural greed and drives them to contribute more to the community welfare by providing goods and services that people want to buy out of the belief (possibly erroneous, but that often is a judgment others are not in a position to make) that those goods and services will make their lives better. Consider your favorite locally-owned restaurant. Does the proprietor care more about running a successful business or providing to the community? If it's the latter, why is he or she selling food at even one thin dime above cost? And if it's the former -- even if the proprietor cares *only* about turning a profit and maximizing that profit -- does that make the food taste any less good?
Note that I am not endorsing greed at the expense of others. When people satisfy their greed by extracting instead of creating value -- and the overheated housing market had plenty of these folk, people who could not have looked themselves in the mirror -- then that is wrong. But the problem there is usually dysfunctional or deeply asymmetrical markets and the solution is finding ways to make those markets function better. Two of the more reliable if not infallible ways of that are education and increased transparency. Demonizing those who provide good things to the rest of us with no concern for the rest of us gets us nowhere.
Sunday, April 12, 2009
Glory be! ESPN is using OPS (the sum of a batter's on-base and slugging averages) on its baseball telecasts! Even better, they're rolling out the stat the way a "new" stat (forget that OPS has been around since forever -- I myself figured it out preparing for a table-game draft in 1989 -- and has since been supplanted by OPS+, VORP, and others, it's new to the mainstream) should be rolled out: By providing context. Underneath each hitter's stat line is the league average OPS, instantly giving the viewer a standard by which to judge good from bad.
The sabermetric revolution continues to roll.
I mentioned yesterday that some of my springtime will be spent watching the Montreal/Boston NHL playoff series. This is provided, of course, that watching Habs/Bruins doesn't keep me from following the individual derring-do of Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Washington's Alexander Ovechkin. Sid the Kid and the Great Eight are nearly polar opposites, the former is a sweetly-skating center, the latter an explosive left wing. Crosby is as deft a passer as there is in the world, the powerful Ovechkin scores goals as relentlessly as the tide, leading the league in goals two years running. Crosby is quiet and unassuming, Ovechkin brash and demonstrative. Crosby, a twenty-one-year-old Nova Scotian, has experienced team-level success that has to date alluded his twenty-three-year-old Russian counterpart, having led, along with fellow superstar teammate Evgeni (pronounced "Ev-GHE-nee") Malkin, the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Finals a year ago, while Ovechkin has yet to carry the Capitals, similarly laden with talent, past the first round.
The NFL Draft. Will the Lions take yet another wide receiver with a premium draft pick? They have the chance with Texas Tech stud Michael Crabtree sitting there. Do they take Jawja's imposing but scatter-armed Matt Stafford? Does Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith go in the top five and in doing so remind NFL fans that Baylor does in fact still have a football program? Where does Alabama's Andre Smith go after being kicked off the team prior to the Sugar Bowl for unnamed rules violations and then disappointing everyone with a who-cares approach to the Combine? Where does Missouri's mighty midget Jeremy Maclin fall? His dazzling speed and breathtaking open-field skills are in a package that would fit under a Christmas tree. Will a team use a premium pick to draft a guy who might be only a third-down back and kick returner? And once in the lineup, will he be the game-breaker Reggie Bush has failed to be?
Mathematical Elimination Fever! The Pittsburgh Pirates, who proudly wear the crown of Team Chrisopher Will Follow (in this they follow the 2003 Red Sox and 2006 Rays), are gunning to avoid their 17th successive losing season, a mark that would break the all-time record held by the 1933-1948 Philadelphia Phillies. The Pirates, who began play in 1882, are about 700 games up on the Phils in the All-Time Battle for Pennsylvania, so they shouldn't be too concerned about finishing four to ten games under .500, as is their destiny with this group. Good chance they get off the losing-season shnide in 2010.
Keeping with that theme: The Atlanta Braves, who opened for business back in Boston as a charter member of the National League in 1876, start the season with an all-time record of 9,772 wins and 9,808 losses, a mark 36 games under .500. A 99-63 record this year puts their 133-year mark exactly at break-even. Even for a good Braves club, 99 wins are a bit of a stretch this year, especially given the competition in the NL East, but it's fun to think about.
The Ascension of LeBron. The world's greatest basketball player continues his ascent into Global Icon status as Cleveland takes its best-in-the-NBA record into the playoffs. This is the first year that I can see that the Cavaliers have entered postseason as the league's #1 team, and the 6-foot-8, 255-pound James is clearly its best player. The NBA title has a long history of going to the team with the best individual player, and James by himself makes the Cavs the team to beat and end Cleveland's 44-year world's-championship drought; no Cleveland team in any sport has won its league's ultimate title since the 1964 Browns won the NFL championship. That dry spell ends here and now. The Cavaliers will win the NBA Finals.
So let it be done.
It's April. Spring is officially in all its glory, America's most majestic sport, major-league baseball, is in full swing, the spring somnolence that is the overly hyped manufactured drama of the NCAA basketball tournament is behind us, the National Hockey League drops the puck on its 2009 playoffs on Tuesday, and the NBA starts its postseason this weekend. And don't get me started on how beautiful Augusta National looks in hi-def. This is the first time I have had the pleasure of watching the Masters on the big-penis Samsung I bought in August and Augusta's azaleas, against the backdrop of all that green, is hypnotic in its beauty.
Storylines I'll be following for the next few weeks:
The Hornets' playoff run. After dispatching the Dallas Mavericks 102-92 today to go one game up on the Mavs with two to play for the sixth position in the Western Conference, the Hornets look like they'll be playing either Houston or Portland in the quarterfinals when the playoffs start next weekend. I don't really know who's the better matchup. They are about equal as teams, each with a good big man. The Rockets have more experience, Portland has more depth. "Age and experience trump young talent" is one of those adages that float through every sport with very little to back it up; if anything, in most sports the evidence runs counter. But the NBA is the one league where experience seems to matter most, so the Hornets might be better off taking the puppy-young Trail Blazers. Whhoooooo!
Hockey's rivalries continue. One of the most heated rivalries in any sport pours gas on the fire when the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins meet in the NHL's first round. The Bruins, in their best season in thirty-five years, were the best team in the East during the regular season, earning 113 of 164 standings points (the NHL awards two points for a win, one for a game lost in overtime), compared to Montreal's 93. The Canadiens are celebrating their centennial season but finished the regular year a disappointing eighth in the East after being a pre-season favorite to challenge for the Stanley Cup. Games between these two are among the most physical in hockey and I plan on not missing a minute.
More tomorrow ...
Thursday, April 9, 2009
Will Wilkinson has a column in which he basically states that societies that rely heavily on government are screwed. The argument, which intuitively sounds pitch-perfect, is that in a society where people trust each other and are willing to set aside (if only briefly) their own immediate-term wants to focus (if only briefly) on the common good, government, for those reasons, is likely to function efficiently. Of course, in such a society government is likely to be less needed, since people are solving common-good problems on their own (Wilkinson: "Voluntary civil society associations will thrive"). By contrast, in a place where people do not trust each other and societal needs are abandoned while each chases his or her own at the expense of others, strong government agencies and programs are needed to keep things from devolving into chaos. But those are exactly the type of societies in which government is most likely to be inefficient at best, corrupt and focused on advancing its own interests at worst.
The way around this is not focusing on better government programs, but on increasing the level of trust people have to the other people and institutions within the society. This both improves the quality of and lessens the need for activist government. The Burning Man culture is a good example of this in action.
I'm not really aware of empirical evidence backing this claim (though BM does make a good datum for the argument), but, again, it's one that I find intuitively senseful.
To the degree that climate change is harmful, this is the kind of thing that will allow us to escape or mitigate the damage, not useless attempts at conservation that are often thinly-disguised attacks on modern consumerist culture.
South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker get a signed photo of Saddam Hussein from the Marines. Turns out that the USMC made Hussein watch the SP movie during his captivity. The dictator was depicted in the movie as being Satan's boyfriend.
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Oh, sweet baby jane are the Houston Astros going to be bad.
I know that they won yesterday, beating Chicago 3-2 in a ten-inning affair. I know that they have two of the game's brighter stars in Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt. I know that they have a successful recent history, with only two losing seasons in the past seventeen years. I know that an NL championship trophy from 2005 shines in their trophy case.
But oh, are they going to be bad.
Forget that they are trotting out as their third baseman 35-year-old Geoff Blum, whose .700 career OPS is about fifty points below the norm for his position. Forget that the starting pitching rotation was patched together with Elmer's glue. Focus on one thing: Houston has played two games in 2009, and in each manager Cecil Cooper has chosen to bat Pudge Rodriguez second.
Rodriguez is finishing off a remarkable career. He once possessed a breathtakingly broad skill set, highlighted by his legendary throwing arm a catlike quickness behind the plate. Even at his best, however, Pudge was a poor choice for the second spot in the batting order. His awful ratio of double plays to walks drawn was always better suited for the fifth or sixth hole, and that ratio has only grown uglier with time. That Cooper cannot see this is by itself evidence that he is incapable of effectively running a major-league team. Couple that level of boss's-chair incompetence with a roster that swamps its only two bright lights with flotsam, and even a .500 record is a pipe dream.
Astros fans, you are headed towards a bright light. That light is an onrushing train.
Sunday, April 5, 2009
Neil Paine, whose name would be a thousand times cooler if he would drop the training "e", has at the invaluable Basketball Reference site a good post on the NBA's dyansty teams. Good stuff, but one thing, Neil: This lives in Laker lore as the "Baby Sky Hook", not the "Junior Sky Hook."