Saturday, October 22, 2005

Interacting Galaxies

APOD has an excellent picture today of an interacting galaxy.
I used to have some code around I got from one of my fellow grad students at UMass, Kevin Olson, who modeled this kind of thing for his thesis. I haven't touched it for awhile, but I remember last time thinking, "Wow! This runs shitloads* faster on this pentium than it did on the VAX-750"

Tropical Storm Alpha

Yup, it's official! Tropical Storm Alpha is now chugging along off the coast of the DR.

Alpha is forecast to move northwestward for thenext 12-24 hours around the anticyclone to the northeast...thenrecurve to the northe and eventually northeast ahead of Wilma andthe large deep-layer baroclinic trough forming over the easternUnited States. The official track forecast has Alpha beingabsorbed by the trough in 96 hours if not sooner.
Alpha is forecast to slowly intensify in the next 12 hours prior to
making landfall along the South Coast of Hispaniola. After
weakening over the mountains some brief re-intensification is
possible prior to the cyclone being absorbed into the larger system
to the northwest.


Tradesports for Politics.
Or rather for more politics.
or something

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Tab Key FAQ


Q. I put some quarters in and pushed the Tab button, but nothing happened. Where’s my soda?

A. Do not stick loose change into the slots in your keyboard.

Volokh SSM Debate

Well, Maggie Gallagher's week of SSM debate is over. It ends with this:

No time to introduce you to the joys of theories of the cognitive nature of social institutions, the relevance of the New Institutionalist Economics understanding of isomorphic institutional change, the developing legal pressures in Canada to repress opposition to its new normative understanding of marriage, or even why I think the most likely outcome of same-sex marriage is not polygamy but the end of marriage as a legal status.

Which is to say, "I saved all my really good arguments this week for the end and oops, I've run out of time!"

I read her arguments, the threads they generated etc. First let me says it was fairly gutsy on her part to do this at all. Sure, Volokh is generally read by conservatives, but they are conservative lawyers and as such are pretty good at the process of debate. I give her a lot of credit for volunteering for this. If I were more cynical than I actually am, I might think this was a plot to trot out weak arguments and have them strengthened by debate. I'm not really that cynical though and, of course, that's not what happened.

Update: I had written a kind of rambling entry about why I thought she hadn't made her point. However, in reading through the comments, I found someone had articualted it better.

Revealed Preference

A good note on Andrew Sullivan today on revealed preferences in the abortion debate:

"The arguments for and against aborting babies who will be born with disabilities are not much different than the arguments for abortion in general. If you believe that the fetus is a person from the start, then the consistent position is not to abort babies with disabilities. After all, they are people, and just as you would not euthanise them after they were born, or as adults, you would not kill them before they are born. On the other hand, if you believe that the fetus is not yet a person, then deliberately allowing a disabled child to be born is akin to abuse.

Just as you would not maim a child after it is born in order to cause mental or physical handicaps, you would also not allow such a child to form in the first place when you could avoid it.

In other Revealed Preference news, I would suggest I have accidentally revealed that I'm not the big left-leading liberal I thought. When the choice came to take a job in Washington state vs. staying in Massachusetts (arguably the bluest state currently still in the union), I chose to move. The money is the same in both cases, the housing situation is about equal etc., so the conclusion I come to is that the value of living there, despite laws which were favorable and a good political climate were minor compared with the novelty of exploring a new area of the country.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Also in Media Training News...

BAGNews has some interesting comments on the optics of the Saddam Trial.
Largely political neutral commentary, BTW. If your a weary Right Winger, you probably don't need your nose rubbed it.

Media Training 351

This is a brilliant piece of marketing on the part of Team DeLay. No really, I'm not being sarcastic, it's fucking brilliant. High profile politician goes down for a mug shot? Well son, flip it around and make it look like a campaign poster. Let the NYT run that!

Kudos to the bastard, there are no flies on him.

Marriage Debate

Over at Volokh, guest blogger, Maggie Gallagher, is having a debate about same sex marriage. It's an interesting exchange in a variety of ways, some of which I comment on over there and some which I will comment on here later.

Occasionally, amid the huffing, puffing and strawman agruements on each side, a little nugget of the visceral, emotional truth bobs breifly to the surface. Here's one I thought an interesting observation:

I really do think, btw, that this is what bothers most ordinary people: an instinct that their government, against their will, is telling them (and will re-educate their children) that everything they know about marriage (like the first ingredient is a husband and a wife, duh) is wrong and must now change. Upon penalty of being officially labelled bigots by their government. And everyone knows its open season on bigots in our society.

Read the thread and comments. It's really very interesting.

My hat is off to Eugene for hosting this on his site.

Update: This is also an excellent bit, although Andrew Sullivan made a similar point a while back in one of his columns.

As to the second, Maggie captures something important that has been obscured by reproductive technology--primarily birth control. Prior to reliable means of birth control, it was inevitable that male-female unions would produce babies; in this way, they were fundamentally different from same-sex relationships, and even had such relationships been recognized, they would have not have presented the same problem of how to contain and nurture the inherent generativeness (?) of the male-female union. Defining marriage broadly enough to capture most fertile couples was an attempt to solve the myriad problems this generative (and uncontrollable, apart from celibacy) characteristic of male-female relationships. Perhaps Kate is also correct that the popular concept of marriage has been transformed (arguably by the development of reliable birth control technologies). If she is, and the popular concept of marriage has finally diverged (or will diverge) so markedly from the traditional religious concept, perhaps it's time for either a privatization of marriage or a reassertion of the distinction between civil and religious marriage?

I'm fundementally a fan of the idea the a) the government shouldn't be in the marriage business at all and b) we should end all government subsidy/penalty of marriage.

Harriet's Defeat

Based on the bi-partisen reaction here, I'd going to take a risk and predicit defeat or withdrawl for Harriet.

The Supreme Court nomination of Harriet E. Miers suffered another setback on Wednesday when the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee asked her to resubmit parts of her judicial questionnaire, saying various members had found her responses "inadequate," "insufficient" and "insulting."
Veteran senators and aides said they could not recall another occasion when the committee had sent back a nominee's answers to a questionnaire because they were incomplete. Former Senator Daniel R. Coats of Indiana, the administration's appointed guide for Ms. Miers on Capitol Hill, defended her answers in the Senate questionnaire as a work in progress.

It seems to support the idea that she's just plain not qualified.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Something Wiki Doesn't know


I'm a little surprised that an open source, unix-based system has holes like this. Although it was helpful with ifconfig.

And it's still unbeatable as a math reference. It even has an excellent thread on quadratic residues, one of the key underpinnings of multistep PKI.

Department of: Baby Keeping, Bathwater Throwing Out

Wonkette again

Dali Lama: Junk Scientist

From the ever enchanting Wonkette:

"Happy Design": The Junk Science Everybody Can Live With!
Take an old-fashioned red state preacher in the cut of every character John Lithgow has ever portrayed on film. Make him spew fire-and-brimstone imprecations and certainties about a creationist myth tricked out as "intelligent design." You'll have every member of the scientific community who's not a laughable fraud sighing in frustration. Ah, but now turn that same preacher into the Dalai Lama, and make the cosmic message something about shiny happy people holding hands. And what do you get? Something like this:

[The Dalai Lama] has been an enthusiastic collaborator in research on whether the intense meditation practiced by Buddhist monks can train the brain to generate compassion and positive thoughts. Next month in Washington, the Dalai Lama is scheduled to speak about the research at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

But 544 brain researchers have signed a petition urging the society to cancel the lecture, because, according to the petition, "it will highlight a subject with largely unsubstantiated claims and compromised scientific rigor and objectivity."

But wait, that's not nearly the end of it:

Defenders of the Dalai Lama's appearance say that the motivation of many protesters is political, because many are Chinese or of Chinese descent. The Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 after the Chinese crushed a Tibetan bid for independence.

But many scientists who signed the petition say they did so because they believe that the field of neuroscience risks losing credibility if it ventures too recklessly into spiritual matters.
Got that? Brain researchers (who I'm sure spend their weekends abusing Falun Gong members) claim that a whoppingly dubious idea deserves no place on any legitimate scientific lecture circuit. And they're met with charges of chauvinism (and worse) because they're... Chinese, or "of Chinese descent."

Now. How many out there who've bumped His Holiness into bestsellerdom on multiple occasions can't see the logic in that? --MICHAEL WEISS
Scientists Bridle at Lecture Plan for Dalai Lama [NYT]
dalai lama , intelligent design , new york times , science , washington, d.c.


MSFT has an in house auction system to riase money for charity (in this case Katrina Victims). The basic idea is the same as ebay-someone donates something to the cuase, other's bid up the price with the procedes going to the charity.

I am in a bidding war for this:

Experiences Auction #1233: 1 Month of Historical European Sword Play Classes
Oct 14 2005 1:26PM - Oct 20 2005 12:00AM
Item Description:
For thousands of years, the sword has enjoyed a position has one of the most romantically portrayed weapons ever to grace the human mind. With recent history the Silver Screen has provided us with even more vivid images of "Swashbuckling" and "Daring-Do" by telling and retelling the stories of the Three Musketeers, Zorro, Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, Excalibur, the Highlander series, and many more. Have you always wished you could do some of the things that you have seen in these movies, or read in books? But never found a place that really taught what you were looking for? Perhaps you could only find Asian Martial Arts, or schools that offered Modern Olympic Fencing? Well look no further!

This Auction is for 1-free month of membership with Old World Martial Arts, a school that provides instruction in Historical Sword Play styles of Europe. We concentrate on styles influenced by the writings of period masters such as Nicoletto Giganti (1606), Ridolfo Capo Ferro (1610), Achilles Marozzo (1536), and the "anonymous" I.33 MS (13th Century). All new students of the sword will start with an introduction to the basics of European Sword Play, such as body mechanics, the concepts of time, measure, and safety, as well as the different types of swords and styles available. All initial instruction will focus more on the use of the Rapier (1600;s), prior to expansion into the other sword styles such as the knightly medieval sword, the wicked "2 handed" long sword, etc. Please see the website listed below for more thorough details regarding OWMA, and what we offer.

I started at $40, but am now up to $65. I'll quit at $100.
or so.
More info here

Derivitives Trading, Refco and Why Wall Street Hasn't Learned It's Lesson

Interesting article on the risk in derivatives trading and the (currently) hidden dangers around unmanaged complexity.

Refco's Collapse Underscores Risks Inherent in the Derivatives MarketOctober 19, 2005 – WSJ – Jesse Eisinger
A month hasn't gone by recently without some regulator or obscure commission sounding an alarm about privately negotiated derivative deals.

If you wade through their speeches and reports, you find out there's a small problem with these fast-growing markets: Traders don't have a clear idea about who ultimately is on the other side of derivative trades that aren't executed on regulated exchanges.

The debacle at Refco, the commodities and securities firm that filed for bankruptcy-law protection this week, gives us all a reason to care about this stuff. So far the spectacularly rapid flameout has been mere spectator sport for most investors. There has been little market fallout. There is good news: Refco doesn't appear to have been a significant broker in the main area of regulatory concern, credit derivatives, where investors buy protection against bond defaults. And the longer the markets go without panicking, the lower the risk.

The bad news is that painless lessons tend not to stick.

Derivatives are designed to make markets more efficient and spread risk, and mostly work well. In their most vanilla form, a derivative allows you to, say, offset the risk of owning ABC stock, worth $55 a share, by buying the right to sell ABC shares for $45. That's called a put option, and those aren't a problem. But derivatives get endlessly more complicated -- defaults can be mind-bending, involving a cascading series of risk buyers -- and regulators are concerned, rightly, about that market's growth.

The main problem is inadequate record-keeping. Joe Buyer sometimes doesn't know who the ultimate seller is, so he's taking it on faith the seller will make good on the deal. That's why brokers like Refco are so important. They are go-betweens that can put up money to make the deal go smoothly. If the market loses faith in the broker, watch out. This problem is multiplied by the risk appetite of short-term investors who borrow to increase returns, primarily hedge funds.

It turns out Refco, a major broker in futures and more-complicated derivatives, woefully underinvested in its "back office," the folks who are supposed to keep track of all this buying and selling. That's not comforting for a firm that is an agglomeration of more than a dozen smaller firms, acquired rapidly. It clearly isn't alone.

That there hasn't been contagion is gratifying, but the firm's troubles are barely a week old. The regulated futures brokerage has a takeover agreement with private-equity fund J.C. Flowers. The area that could pose more problems is the firm's unregulated prime brokerage business. That unit makes its money arranging private "over the counter" trades, including derivatives, without the transparency of an exchange, like the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Refco has frozen its customer accounts in this unit indefinitely.

Cheney Resigning??

Seems very unlikely to me.

Sparked by today's Washington Post story that suggests Vice President Cheney's office is involved in the Plame-CIA spy link investigation, government officials and advisers passed around rumors that the vice president might step aside and that President Bush would elevate Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

"It's certainly an interesting but I still think highly doubtful scenario," said a Bush insider. "And if that should happen," added the official, "there will undoubtedly be those who believe the whole thing was orchestrated – another brilliant Machiavellian move by the VP."
Said another Bush associate of the rumor, "Yes. This is not good." The rumor spread so fast that some Republicans by late morning were already drawing up reasons why Rice couldn't get the job or run for president in 2008.
"Isn't she pro-choice?" asked a key Senate Republican aide. Many White House insiders, however, said the Post story and reports that the investigation was coming to a close had officials instead more focused on who would be dragged into the affair and if top aides would be indicted and forced to resign.

The Kremlinology continues in the wake of resolution.

Wilma, Cat 5

Wow, the hurricane season just keeps getting weirder and weirder.

Gathering strength at a fierce pace, Hurricane Wilma grew into a Category 5 monster storm early Wednesday with 175 mph winds. Forecasters warned the storm was "extremely dangerous" and said a key reading of its pressure was the lowest ever recorded in the Atlantic basin.

Also, I stand corrected on the record-breakingness of Wilma. It's a record tier.

Wilma made history before hitting land. It is the 12th hurricane of the season, the same number reached in 1969, the highest since record-keeping began in 1851. It is also the 21st named storm, tying the record set in 1933.

The six-month hurricane season ends Nov. 30. Wilma is the last on the 21-name list for storms this year. If any other storms form, letters from the Greek alphabet would be used for the first time, starting with Alpha.

So far this year, the Atlantic has had as many hurricanes as in two normal seasons. There are 10 tropical storms and six hurricanes in the average season.
''I hope people aren't too worried. It's not time to panic. It's time to prepare,'' said Sandra Mallory, 68, of Port Charlotte.

Hurricane Alpha... That has to show up in Looking Backwards.

I need to find the Standard Deviation of hurricane occurances and see if I can figure out when we are offically off the guassian.


While I didn't go to yesterday's talk by Mary Roach, I was in a bookstore last night looking for something to read, picked it up to browse and got hooked.

It's pretty good and didn't live up to any of the unfounded expectations I had that it would be new age hippy, trippy stuff. It's well written, amusing and squarely within the relem of science reporting.

I would even recommend it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Joys of Being on Campus

They are good and bad. Last year I got to meet Alastair Reynolds, famous sci-fi author and fellow astronomer.

Today... well... not as upscale:

Visiting Speakers: Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife
10/18/2005 10:30 AM
10/18/2005 12:00 PM
What happens when we die? Does the light just go out and that's that—the million-year nap? Or will some part of my personality, my me-ness persist? What will that feel like? What will I do all day? Is there a place to plug in my laptop? In an attempt to find out, Mary Roach brings her tireless curiosity to bear on an array of contemporary and historical soulsearchers: scientists, schemers, engineers, mediums, all trying to prove (or disprove) that life goes on after we die.

She begins the journey in rural India with a reincarnation researcher and ends up in a University of Virginia operating room where cardiologists have installed equipment near the ceiling to study out-of-body near-death experiences. Along the way, she enrolls in an English medium school, gets electromagnetically haunted at a university in Ontario, and visits a Duke University professor with a plan to weigh the consciousness of a leech.

Her historical wanderings unearth soul-seeking philosophers who rummaged through cadavers and calves' heads, a North Carolina lawsuit that established legal precedence for ghosts, and the last surviving sample of "ectoplasm" in a Cambridge University archive. BIO: Mary Roach is the author of Stiff. Her writing has appeared in Salon, Wired, Outside, GQ, Discover, Vogue, and the New York Times Magazine. She lives in Oakland, California.
113/1021 Research Lecture Room

Redmond Move

So far, so good. I moved in yesterday to corporate housing and everything seems to be going well. The aparment is really a hop, skip and jump to shopping, restaurants etc. The view out my living room window encompasses both the Monorail and the Space Needle, so I can watch the train scooting back and forth a couple times an hour.

Let me just say, for the record, it does not glide as softly as a cloud, it makes a racket that could wake the dead. Trendy, styling retro-20th-centruty-futurist dead, mind you, but departed nonetheless.

Hurricane Wilma

Sweet Jesus!

Although not yet a record year.

The record number of hurricanes in one season is 12 in 1969, while 21tropical storms were recorded in 1933. Although November marks the official end of the hurricane season some storms can occur as late as early December, so it seems likely that these records could be toppled this year. With only 21 names nominated for each storm season it also means that the National Hurricane Centre (NHC) in Miami will need to resort to using letters of the Greek alphabet should the record be broken.

Monday, October 17, 2005

A Shot Across the Bow

Bob Herbert splashes a little "reality-based community" on the DNC:

A word of caution: Democrats should think twice before getting all giddy about the problems caving in on the Republicans and the prospects of regaining control of Congress in next year's elections.

For one thing, the Democrats' own house is hardly in order. While recent polls have shown growing disenchantment with President Bush and the G.O.P., there's no evidence that voters have suddenly become thrilled with the Democrats.

A survey taken by the Pew Research Center showed an abysmal 32 percent approval rating for Democratic leaders in Congress.

Another thing to keep in mind is that Congressional redistricting (anti-democratic in every sense of the word) has made it more difficult to oust incumbents. It would take a landslide of shocking proportions for the Democrats to win control of both houses of Congress next fall.


It's not enough to tell voters how terrible the Republicans are. (Leave that to the left-leaning columnists.) What Democrats have to do is get over their timidity, look deep into their own souls, discover what they truly believe and then tell it like it is.
Give us something to latch onto. Where do we go from here?

What the Democrats have to do is get off their schadenfreude cloud and start the hard work of crafting a message of hope that they can deliver convincingly to the electorate - not just in the Congressional elections next year, but in local elections all over the country and the presidential election of 2008.

That is not happening at the moment. While Americans are turning increasingly against the war in Iraq, for example, the support for the war among major Democratic leaders seems nearly as staunch and as mindless as among Republicans. On that and other issues, Democrats are still agonizing over whether to say what they truly believe or try to present themselves as a somewhat lighter version of the G.O.P.

Actually, I don't really give a damn what the Dems care about, I want them to win elections because I want a return to split party government. Government does best when it governs least and that only seems to occur they've grid-locked the place up solidly. Then we have a shot at surpluses and reducing the deficit.

If it's one thing the last 50 years have taught us, it that one party government leads to excess, corruption and loads of expensive, pointless trials.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Was it an honor-system kind of thing? With the Devil?

McSweeney asks the Obvious Questions to Charlie Daniels about one of my favorite songs.

Now for the Catholics in the audience I realize the Devil is a real person who does this sort of thing and no disrespect (1) is intended to your belief system.

Hat tip to Volokh

(1) and by "no disrespect" I mean, well, very little disrespect(2) since you are basically afraid of another made-up-being you use as a target onto which you project your guilt and psychosis.

(2) By "very little disrespect" I mean, well, basically I mock your core values and question your fitness to raise children.

The Electric Kilogram Acid Test

This is an interesting development:

It's a two-story-tall contraption that looks one part Star Trek, one part Wallace and Gromit. Briefly put, it measures the power needed to generate an electromagnetic force that balances the gravitational pull on a kilogram of mass.

The general answer is that humans have always needed to quantify and standardize, to make their world more certain. Without a standard kilogram - roughly 2.2 pounds - how would scientists know their measurements of mass were accurate? Without a standard meter, how would a manufacturer make a ruler and know that it is precise?

The cool upshot of this would be a device, which would only get smaller as time goes on, people could use to create exactly one kilogram of force. Similar to the atomic clock broadcasts that are used to calibrate watches, the electric kilogram could be used to calibrate scales to arbitrary accuracy.

Meth labs around the world are rejoicing! :)