Thursday, December 27, 2007

Pitfalls of a skeptical kid

Quite an eventful Christmas this year. Caitlin and Samantha have come to visit for the entire vacation period. Keryn is engaged. I've met most of the family of my future brother-in-law. They seem like nice folks.

One distant non-relation is a little girl who is 5, exactly Ben's age. She is my sister's fiance's brother's girlfriend's daughter. ("So what does that make us?" "Absolutely nothing... which is what YOU are about to become!") The two kids got along great. Ben's been missing two front teeth since some unfortunate horseplay when he was 5. This girl has lost a tooth in the natural way, which is a hopeful sign because it means that Ben's disfigurement won't stand out for much longer.

They got in the following conversation:

Girl: "The tooth fairy brought me five dollars!"
Ben (confidently): "But the tooth fairy isn't real!"
Girl (taken aback): "She is too! Or else who brought me five dollars?"

Ben didn't answer that one, although I like to think that he knows the real answer and just chose to let it drop. (He does know, after all, that parents bring Christmas presents.)

We made a conscious decision when he was born not to teach him to believe in made-up things like Santa and the tooth fairy. That was a tough decision, but he's just now coming to the age where our decision can ruin the fun for other parents.

Ginny and I had a couple of talks with him. I tried to explain to him that we felt it was the right decision not to pretend that imaginary things are real, because we didn't want to lie to him. But at the same time I struggled to justify why it's okay for other parents to lie to THEIR kids.

At one point he asked "So other parents tell their kids Santa is real to make them happy?" And I said "Yes, that's right." And he said "But I'm happy." Good kid. :)

Ginny had the immediate concern that Ben would blab about Santa to his best friend, who came over on Christmas morning to have breakfast with us after the presents were opened. She said "You CANNOT tell Calvin Santa is real. No, not even if he asks what Santa brought you. You can just say 'I got this and this,' and you don't have to lie about who brought it. You just don't say."

I told him it that this is just a game that some parents play. It's a secret. Since you know the secret, you get to share the game with the rest of us adults. So don't tell anyone the secret, or you'll spoil the game for other kids.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Obama on the Rise

I'm mainly posting this for the benefit of my sister-in-law Lynn, who I know is a huge Obama supporter. This is a remarkably positive article about Barack Obama by Matt Taibbi, who is usually incredibly cynical regarding both sides. Yes, he throws in a healthy dose of skepticism in describing the "well-oiled political machine" that Obama actually has at his command. But the ending is pretty upbeat, at least for Taibbi:

"So maybe it's OK to let the grandiose things that an Obama presidency could represent overwhelm the less-stirring reality -- i.e., Obama as more or less a typical middle-of-the-road Democrat with a lot of money and a well-run campaign. Maybe it's OK because it's not always about the candidates; sometimes it's about us, what we want and what we want to believe. And if Barack Obama can carry that burden for us, why not let him? Seriously, why not? The happy ending doesn't always have to ring false."

Disclosure: My ranking is Edwards, Obama, Clinton. Maybe stick Chris Dodd in before Clinton due to his recent filibuster stunt, which I thought was pretty awesome. One the whole, I'd rather have Edwards in office due to the fact that he's selling himself more on his positions on the issues than on his personality; I feel that he has stronger positions on economics and the environment than Obama does.

But that doesn't mean I'd have any qualms about voting for Obama; I think he's a solid and charismatic candidate, and that may matter more in this race. For that matter, based on the current front runners, I feel pretty confident that whichever Republican wins is going to be a complete train wreck in one way or another. Hillary Clinton may not be my ideal candidate, but compared to Huckabee, Romney, or Giuliani? No contest.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Zero hour

Fall 2007 semester (Class weekend Schedule)
August 17-18, 2007
September 14-15, 2007
October 12-13, 2007
November 9-10, 2007
December 6-7, 2007
---> *** Graduation December 7 *** <---

Two final exams tomorrow.

(Cracks knuckles)

(Cracks neck)

Let's rock.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Reaping: another awful anti-skeptic movie

I just watched The Reaping, another tedious horror movie that goes something like this:

Act 1, scene 1

Skeptic: "Hi, I'm an atheist and I think supernatural stuff is all bunk!"
Believer: "An atheist, eh? Why, you must have had some tragic experience in your life that made you mad at God."
Skeptic: "Why yes, as a matter of fact I did!"

Act 1, scene 2

Messenger: "Hey skeptic, some weird supernatural events are happening in this out-of-the-way location, and I think you should check it out."
Skeptic: "Supernatural events? Nonsense! There is a perfectly logical scientific explanation! Therefore, I will drop everything else in my life and go check it out."
Messenger: "I thought you'd say that. Car's ready, let's go."

Act 2

(Obviously supernatural events happen.)
Skeptic: "Nonsense, there is a perfectly rational scientific explanation for all of this. Give me a minute and I'll make some up."

Act 3

Skeptic: "Holy cow, it turns out that these events were supernatural all along! I have certainly learned many things and grown as a person. So much for my vaunted 'scientific method.'"

In this case, the skeptic is Hillary Swank, eventually revealed by the exposition to be a former preacher who lost her faith in God when religious whackjobs in some third world country killed her family. Now she apparently gives lectures on why there are no miracles and no God.

As I mentioned when I talked about Evan Almighty, these kinds of movies really work hard to undermine skepticism by establishing a fictional world where the magic stuff is real. The skeptic winds up looking like a fool by clinging on to "rational explanations" long after a real person, employing the observation and deduction skills possessed by a warthog, would have recognized the existence of magic. None of this applies in the real world, though; the takeaway message of the movie is "Don't be so skeptical of magic!" when it should qualify that with "...if you're a person who lives in a fictional magical universe."

You understand, of course, that I'm not complaining because a fictional story has fictional elements in it. I'm complaining about the really bad way that the skeptical main character is portrayed, in that she is confronted with an unprecedented level of real, concrete evidence... which she blithely ignores right up until the very end.

And "ignore the evidence" seems to be the only thing that Hillary Swank ever does in her capacity as a skeptic. For somebody with such a supposedly scientific mind, she certainly doesn't bother doing any of the obvious tests that I, who am not a scientist, think of immediately. For instance, the first thing she goes to investigate is a river that has turned red like blood. (The plot of this movie involves a recreation of the ten Biblical Plagues, in order.) Naturally, she starts pontificating on the possible reasons why the river could have turned blood-red. At this point I said to Ginny: "Surely the very FIRST thing that she should do when she gets there is run some kind of test to verify whether that stuff is actually blood or not. I sure do hope that occurs to her."

Guess what she doesn't do.

Oh, she has it tested for SOMETHING, but it's not whether it matches the chemical composition of blood. After she's been in the little town fooling around for several days, some other character refers to all the dead fish in the blood river, and she snaps at the guy "Look, those fish all died because the pH balance of that water is off the charts!" So apparently, she took the time to analyze the pH balance of the stuff, but never bothered to take a little extra effort to find out if it is actually, you know, blood. (Spoiler: It's blood.)

It gets worse. When the requisite priest starts yammering about the original Biblical plagues, Hillary Swank again begins ranting about how there's a simple scientific explanation for all ten plagues. You see, first this uncommon species of algae grew in the rivers, turning them red, and then all the fish died because of the algae, which caused some disease that killed the livestock and attracted frogs and locusts, and so on, in this hilariously elaborate Rube Goldberg sequence that handily explains all ten plagues.

This explanation struck me as so patently ridiculous that it could only be dreamed up by some nitwit in Hollywood, but it turns out I'm wrong. Since I googled some stuff to see if I got her "theory" correct, I found this page at Answers In Genesis arguing against a very similar explanation written by one Greta Hort in 1957. So I guess SOMEBODY really took this stuff seriously.

It's not that this stuff with the algae and the diseases and the frogs couldn't have happened in Egypt, or even been a very common occurrence. It's just that I'm floored by the absolute cocksure way that Hillary Swank declares that This Is How It Really Happened. Much simpler explanation: it's just a story. It's loosely based on things the authors had real experience with, or on local legends. There is no need for a scientific explanation, until such time as any evidence is presented to show that it happened at all.

This whole idea that you can just make up a "logical, scientific explanation" by ad libbing stuff off the top of your head, without taking any data or evidence into account, is what bugs me about this and many other movies in the way they portray skeptics. It's quite similar to cargo cult science, because it's clearly somebody who has no idea what science is, writing a script showing what sciency people sound like.

Similarly, the whole "I'm an atheist because something terrible happened to me and now I'm mad at God" angle is a theistic fantasy of how an atheist talks. Theists ALWAYS seem to jump to the assumption that this is how people become atheists. It's the default explanation. Yet among all the atheists I know, not one has ever told me that their story was anything remotely like that.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Daily Show is back!! Well, kind of...

The Daily Show writers, who probably have nothing else to do, are producing their own mini-Daily Show, live from the picket lines, on YouTube.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Alyx Vance may be one of the best game characters ever

If you're a gamer, chances are pretty good that you are at least aware of Half-Life 2 and the recent expansions, dubbed Episodes 1 and 2. Since I finished playing Portal, probably about five times now, I've been exploring the other aspects that the Half-Life Orange Box has to offer.

Man, what a great collection of games. I liked the original Half-Life a lot, and HL2 was even better, but this is simply a triumph of great story combined with great action. In these last few days, my perception of Valve has jumped up from "A really great game company" to "Nearly Blizzard-like in their ability to consistently do everything right."

One of the major contributors to this perception is the character of Alyx Vance, an NPC (that's "Non-Player Character" for you non-gamers, although you folks probably stopped reading before the end of the previous paragraph) who stays at your side throughout most of the game. Alyx was a fun character in the first HL2 story, but she has really gotten a chance to shine in the expansions. With her specifically in mind, I present:

Seven surefire ways to make an NPC that every gamer will love!

1. Make her female. Because -- go on, it's okay, you can acknowledge it -- most gamers are male.

2. Make her kick ass. The damsel in distress is SO fifty years ago. Today's great female characters should be created in the mold of Buffy Summers, Sarah Connor, Ripley, and Hermione Granger. They aren't sitting around waiting for some man to come along and sweep them away; they can blow away armies of ant-lions on their own very well, thank you. And she does look so very stylish when she's kicking zombies in the face.

3. Make her spend a lot of time with you. Most 3D shooters are all about solo play in an environment where everything is either dead or wants you to die. Ever since Wolfenstein 3D, there has always been a distinct feeling of loneliness as you slog through level after level and don't see a single living thing that isn't evil. Having a buddy who is right alongside you nailing enemies can cause a huge difference to the mood of the game. That's why I always liked playing networked games in cooperative mode much more than I like Deathmatches.

4. Make her talkative. As a corollary to the previous point, if she's going to be around a lot, she'd better be talking because you're not going to. Having a NPC say "Wow, nice shot!" can be a tremendous ego booster, while having her occasionally say "Look out, I hear something" can make her feel like a vital trusted companion. If you're a real roleplayer (code word for "dork") then you can always talk back to her yourself and pretend she's responding to you. Not that I would ever do that. Nope. Not me.

5. Make her actually help you. If there are any in-game hints to give, it makes so much more sense to deliver them through the always-present NPC than a disembodied narration. Whether she's shooting something that just came up behind you, or suggesting "I think we should go this way" or yelling "Look out, grenade!" you need to appreciate having a friend in the game. But more than that, Alyx gets special abilities that set her apart from the player, like climbing to places you can't reach, and hacking through security systems. In the early levels of Episodes 1 and 2, she gets a gun and you don't, so you're relying on her for basic protection. Later, as you're strolling through hordes of zombies, it's just so comforting to see the laser targeting line which means Alyx has your back with her sniper rifle. And there had better be at least a few occasions where it's obvious you would be dead without her intervention.

6. Don't let her hinder you. NPC's are generally very hard to write into action games, because they get in the way and aren't supposed to die. The "Opposing Force" Half-Life 1 expansion was really bad about this. Along the way, you keep picking up small squads of soldiers who are vital to your survival. The difficulty in these sections is generally cranked up, so if you blow away your own squad with an errant rocket, you're really up a creek. NPC's in the recent HL episodes seem pretty near indestructible. You can't shoot them yourself, and the monsters don't finish them off for a fairly long time. Yes, it's cheating for a game designer to give a character near-invulnerability. But remember that the NPC is there for the purposes of story and atmosphere, and NOT as an additional obstacle to keep you from getting through the game. Nothing's worse than when you've just come to the end of a five-minute firefight, you're feeling pretty good about yourself, and then from fifty feet away you hear "Argh..." Alyx has died, game over.

7. Let her get in trouble, but only after you've established point #2. I don't really care about the data card that we've been carrying to who-remembers-where throughout the entire game. It's a MacGuffin -- supposedly important to the characters, but irrelevant to my understanding of the plot. On the other hand, I care a lot about Alyx, because her character has been established so well. So if she just took a fall while heroically protecting my life, you bet I'm not going to take a break from the game until I'm sure she's okay.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

And then, Pinky, we will try to TAKE OVER THE WORLD!

I just wanted to mention that I'm fooling around ideas for promoting this blog better. I signed up for Google Analytics yesterday and I'm having some fun looking at the information I'm getting -- about 60 unique readers each day. At one point, I had hacked up my own invisible statistics reader for the blog, but it was in dire need of a rewrite, and I decided Google Analytics would be a good way to not reinvent the wheel.

In addition, my recent Master's work with Digg reminded me that I should start making it easier to recommend posts here, so I've added that little "Digg this" link that you see in the upper right corner. I wouldn't be so crass as to Digg my own posts, but I'm not above begging. So if you're a regular reader and you have a Digg account, I'd be greatly obliged if you'd skim some of your favorite recent posts and hit the button.

No, not THIS post. This post sucks. I notice that the anti-9/11 conspiracy post is popular, but that's partly because it's recent.

The button's not too annoying, is it? Let me know.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Gaming goodness

I had class this weekend, which means that only one weekend and two classes are left in total. My adviser finally got back to me to let me know that my thesis is interesting and well done, and only a few minor changes are necessary before submission. So on the whole it looks like somewhat smooth sailing from here on out, and therefore I treated myself on Friday evening to The Half-Life Orange Box.

I have not bought a game in several months, and part of the reason behind this purchase is that I had heard so many outstanding reviews that I couldn't stand to do without it any longer. This package contains Half-Life 2 (which I've played) and two mini-expansions (which I haven't) as well as some multi-player stuff that I don't much care about. And finally, there's Portal:

Many reviews have been written about Portal, but it's not the professional reviews that did it for me; it was Lore Sjoberg, a very funny guy who writes "The thing about Portal is this: it’s very funny. ...As a puzzle game, Portal runs way too short. As a comedy, it’s perfect." And it was "Yahtzee" Croshaw, whose great review of the Orange Box deserves to be watched and heard in full.

Yahtzee's a hilarious reviewer, and anyone who likes games will have a great time watching all of his regular weekly videos. He's also a very sardonic and pitiless reviewer, which is why it was especially meaningful when he said: "Lastly, there's Portal, and if you're a regular reviewer you'll understand how insane these words feel coming out of my mouth, but I can't think of any criticism for it. I'm serious. This is the most fun you'll have with your PC until they invent a force-feedback codpiece. ...Absolutely sublime from start to finish, and I will jam forks into my eyes if I ever use those words to describe anything else ever again."

Well, "sublime" is a very good description of the game. It is not only fun gaming, it also has brilliant writing, and it is alternately extremely funny and very, very, creepy and unnerving. Fun, amusing, and scary. Those are pretty much my three gold standard criteria for good games, and this hit them all exactly right.

Ben loved it too (and the scary parts were partly derived from uncertainty and the ability to read, so they weren't too scary for him). When you play the game, some puzzles require you to jump from a great height into a portal on the floor, so that you'll build up a lot of momentum before you shoot out of a wall going in a different direction. As we played together, we both started saying "Wheeeeee!" every time we jumped. Well, a minute later, the computerized trainer voice also said "Wheeeeee!" along with us.

Ben cracked up and kept laughing for several minutes. The afterwards, he wanted to know how the computer knew what we were saying. I had a hard time convincing him that it was a coincidence.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The writer's strike explained

I hate the fact that there's a writer's strike; it means that I won't be seeing new episodes of The Daily Show for a while, and Boston Legal will probably go into reruns soon. My friend Possum Momma is also affected by it directly.

Joss Whedon, whose work I dearly love in all incarnations, (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, most of Toy Story) has written a great essay that explains why the strike is good and necessary. Everything Joss says must be right by definition, for he is Joss.

Also, this video is one of the most clear and concise explanations of the strike that I've heard so far:

I'm a fan of writers. With a very few exceptions, I despise reality shows and think they are a cheap, lazy way to get around the need to write compelling content. I mean, user-generated content is great and all; I like blogs (obviously) and message boards. But give me a good, solid novel any day, or a well-written non-fiction account. Give me a TV show that's smart and/or funny, as long as it's well written. There's only so much schadenfreude I can derive from watching Simon Cowell brutally crush the egos of young idiots who mistakenly believe they can sing. (This is one of the "few exceptions." The first few episodes of American Idol are loads of fun. After the field of contestants has been narrowed down to people who supposedly have "talent," not so much.)

In other news, and speaking of Mr. Whedon, a friend recently notified me that he has a new show in the works. With Eliza "Faith" Dushku. Be of good cheer.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Two quick thesis updates

I finished the second draft of my thesis last Friday and submitted it to my supervisor. It's 64 pages, including 17 pages of "padding" in the form of indexes, glossaries, title pages, etc, which are required in the official template. I think it turned out pretty well, though I'm still waiting on feedback from Dr. Ghosh sometime this month.

If you want to see for yourself, you can take a look at the draft here. Also, you can play around with the data I collected (in a very limited way) by visiting the web interface here. The main point of interest is the graph on page 48 (though it's actually page 36 if you go by the numbers at the bottom of the page). This graph shows the emphasis given to celebrities by news sources, compared directly against the interest shown in the same topics by Digg readers. Not completely surprisingly, people are not as into sensational news as TV and print news seems to think they are, at least not according to the way I interpreted my data.

Yesterday I went to visit a journalism professor at UT, a guy named Maxwell McCombs, who invented the "agenda setting theory" of journalism that I referenced early in my paper. I explained the subject of the thesis and he seemed downright enthusiastic about it. He said "I certainly hope you're planning to publish this!" I said that I don't know how the publishing process works, not being particularly involved in academia. He gave me the names of some journals that might be interested, and then asked me to send the working draft and he would do some reading on the subject and get back to me. So, that's neat... nice to have your work validated. And if I actually get this published, maybe that will open some doors for me.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

In Which I Ridicule 9/11 Conspiracies

Wow, the 9/11 Truthers are really coming out of the woodwork this month. I've seen two separate celebrities accosted by them in viral videos.

First, Bill Maher threw people out of his studio after they wouldn't stop shouting "What happened to building 7?"

Then Bill Clinton responded to a similar rant by a heckler:

Unfortunately I'm personally familiar with people who believe in these conspiracy claims suggesting that the 9/11 attacks were planned by our government and not by terrorists. At one point these people called the Atheist Experience several times and got very mad at us when we wouldn't take them seriously. Matt once spoke dismissively about the conspiracy theories on The Non-Prophets, and we got multiple emails that repeated the inane phrase "Oh, so you believe the CONSPIRACY THEORY that our GOVERNMENT promotes?"

Besides that, 9/11 truthers infest the phone lines for the Washington Journal morning show on C-SPAN (which I often watch while getting breakfast), and various Air America hosts are constantly bombarded by demands to swear loyalty to these ideas. There is a two hour amateur documentary out on the internet called Zeitgeist. We keep getting email about this movie all the time, and my blood pressure goes up a couple of points every time I see yet another message about it. Zeitgeist starts with a semi-interesting story arguing against the existence of a historical Jesus, and then degenerates into 9/11 "truth" claims about the World Trade Center attack being an inside job. For good measure, they also throw in some stuff about how federal income taxes are illegal. Riiiight.

I confess: I haven't watched Zeitgeist all the way through. I've tried a couple of times, but it is a fairly awful bit of film making, and I didn't have the patience to sit through two hours of it. I gave it another chance today, just so I would have more to say about it. Tried turning it on and listening to the audio while I worked. The problem is that most of the "shocking revelations" require the movie to clear the screen of any action and display text for several seconds while ominous music plays. So I can't follow the thread of the story unless I sit in rapt attention staring at the screen for the full two hours.

Attention, budding filmmakers: Movies are not the right medium for text. I'm fine with reading a long article, and I'm fine with watching a movie, but don't mix the two. People read things at different speeds. The advantage of a movie is that it presents a sequence of entertaining visual images and compelling sounds. The advantage of text is that you can go through it at your own pace, and you can jump backwards to reread something you missed. A movie with lots of text combines the worst of both formats: The movie is boring, and the text is hard to read. Most of the text is too slow and you have to sit there staring at something you've already read, but if you take your attention away from the screen, you'll miss something and never see it again.

DON'T DO THAT! Watch a Michael Moore movie sometime for an example of how to do it right. Even if you think that Michael Moore is a big fat jerk, and everything he says is a total lie, the guy knows how to make an entertaining movie. You don't get an academy award for putting a full page of text on the screen every thirty seconds.

I have a lot of reasons for thinking that the "inside job" explanation of 9/11 is bullshit, but here's what it really comes down to. Big conspiracies don't work. The bigger they are, the less likely they are to be successfully covered up. Franklin said it best: "Three can keep a secret if two are dead."

It should be no surprise that I'm not a big fan of Team Bush, and I believe their actions have led to the deaths of thousands of innocents, in various ways. But IMHO, these deaths have mostly come about due to apathy and greed, not deliberate attempts to kill American citizens.

It's not that I think Bush and company are a bunch of swell guys who would never harm a living person. It's that I find it completely ludicrous to think that they could plan something this elaborate and make it work without a hitch. Look at Iraq. The Project for a New American Century folks were planning that one for decades, and yet it seems like they sincerely believed that we would be greeted as liberators and have candy and flowers thrown at us when we arrived. Slight miscalculation on their part, no?

The conspiracy dreamt up by 9/11 "Truth" ("You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means") is massive in scope. Whether they're claiming that explosives were planted inside the buildings, or that the government fired missiles at the Pentagon, or that all the news videos released were actually fake... all these ideas require an insanely large number of people to be in on the conspiracy. Let's see, there's the people who planned the actual attack, and much of their staff; the people at the airport; the news organizations that collaborated in spreading fake videos; etc, etc. You can say that some of them were dupes who didn't know the whole plan, but in a scheme this big and this well-executed, you need a LOT of people to have a significant portion of The Big Picture in order to handle their jobs correctly. I think my Project Management professor will probably agree with me there.

What 9/11 truthers are suggesting is that every one of these people was an intentional accessory to the murder of nearly 3,000 people. Now, you can call me a starry-eyed idealist, but I just find it beyond the limits of my credibility that among all those people, not one of them grew a conscience enough to let slip a little information about what they saw.

Think about it... who's promoting the conspiracy? People who would actually be in a position to know anything about it? Government workers, airport workers, aids to important people? No... college kids who are meticulously studying the frames of grainy video footage, and theoreticians pontificating on how the laws of physics prevent smashed up burning buildings from falling down.

Yes, Bush was negligent in following up on credible threats. Yes, he and others like him have done a fantastically good job of exploiting the tragedy at every possible chance. But this looks to me much more like a case of answering opportunity when it knocks, not getting hundreds of American citizens intentionally involved in the murder of thousands.

Conspiracy nuts, give it a rest already. The fact that everyone you contact hangs up on you and doesn't listen is not "censorship," nor is the fact that you were thrown out of a private studio for disruptively yelling at the host. I hang up on you on our cable access show because you are annoying and sound silly.

If you want to read more amusing stuff on the 9/11 conspiracy theories, may I recommend:
  1. Bill Maher again. This is the video that inflamed those people into harassing Maher in his studio in the first place. "New rule: Crazy people who still think the government brought down the Twin Towers in a controlled explosion, have to stop pretending that I'm the one who's being naive."
  2. Matt Taibbi: The Hopeless Stupidity of 9/11 Conspiracy Theories. BUSH: "So, what's the plan again?" CHENEY: "Well, we need to invade Iraq and Afghanistan. So what we've decided to do is crash a whole bunch of remote-controlled planes into Wall Street and the Pentagon, say they're real hijacked commercial planes, and blame it on the towelheads; then we'll just blow up the buildings ourselves to make sure they actually fall down."
  3. The Best Page in the Universe (their title, not mine): "Now we're expected to believe that the same government that was able to commit the largest terrorist operation in history--with military precision no less--is suddenly too incompetent to sniff out and shut down a little website set up by some college losers within days, if not minutes of its creation?"

Comic strip triage

Since I keep filling up my Google feed reader with more stuff than I have the will to slog through, I'm deleting a few comic strips from my feed rolls. If you read comics, you can follow along with me.
  • Goodbye, Doonesbury. I've always sort of liked Doonesbury, but only in a "That occasionally makes me smile" kind of way. Most often, when I'm a week or more behind on my comic strips, it's Doonesbury that has the most unread entries. I presume that if there is a Doonesbury cartoon that's especially insightful, someone will point it out to me. In the meantime, I'm bored of reading about veterans in counseling and Mike's whiny college-attending daughter.
  • Goodbye, Fox Trot. I think there's an unwritten law of comic strips that says that by the time a cartoonist goes into semi-retirement, they already suck so much that it's too late to recover. Fox Trot was once one of my favorite cartoons, but I could already see the writing on the wall before Bill Amend decided to transition from a daily cartoon to a Sundays-only strip. One of the side effects of having idiosyncratic characters who never age is that eventually you start telling the same jokes over and over and over again. Jason is still a little geek who deliberately makes simple tasks more complicated with advanced math. Paige is still obsessing about making a splash in her freshman year, every single year. The mom still insists on making healthy food that everybody hates. Ha ha! Bye bye, Fox family.
I went through another round of comic strip triage last year and it was oddly liberating. Back then, I got rid of
  • Dilbert. I should have seen that it jumped the shark YEARS ago. Not that it was ever truly hilarious, but somehow I failed to notice exactly when the office humor stopped being slightly interesting. Besides, there's so many Dilbert strips on office doors around the IBM buildings, that reading the strip just feels like actually working. And also, Scott Adams is a creationism promoter, and an obnoxious one at that.
  • Non Sequitur. Used to be a truly funny cartoon in the spirit of The Far Side - which, by the way, was authored by the much smarter Gary Larson, who quit while at the top of his game. Non Sequitur went into a slow tailspin when it started doing multi-strip story arcs. The tailspin accelerated massively when the story arcs were all about Danae. Even now, as I look at it today, the story is about god damn Danae again. I'm glad I gave up that habit.
  • Calvin and Hobbes. Sadly, I had to finally let go of this one when it occurred to me that I've already read all the reruns like, five times. I'll miss you, Bill Watterson.
I still have plenty of comics to keep me amused, though, and here's what survived the RSS-eliminating scalpel this time around:
Wow. I just realized... with this latest round of cuts, I now officially read NO daily syndicated cartoons that get printed in actual newspapers. It's all online.

Nevertheless, I still read Comics Curmudgeon daily, so I won't completely lose touch with the world of crappy corporate comics.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Education = terrorism

The conservative group "Family Security Matters" has let us know just how afraid they are of educated people. And also bloggers. On their list of "The Ten Most Dangerous Organizations in America," "Universities and Colleges" came it at number two. Not any particular university or college, mind you. All of them.

Speaking as an educated person AND a blogger, I would like to know when I will have the opportunity to make my acceptance speech.

A floating libertarian dictatorship

Pharyngula linked a story today about Freedom Ship, a proposed libertarian paradise that would be a floating version of Galt's Gulch.

Apart from creationism, there are few things I enjoy reading more than a good rant about libertarian fantasies. As weird as the whole story is, this one part caught my eye in particular.

On Freedom Ship there will be a jail, a “squad of intelligence officers,” and a “private security force of 2,000, led by a former FBI agent, [that] will have access to weapons, both to maintain order within the vessel and to resist external threats.” And while technically the law applied would be that of whichever state lends its flag, Freedom Ship officials make no bones that “the captain’s word will be final.”

Zoinks! Who the hell is going to be stupid enough to sign up for that?!?

I think this little detail is a perfectly distilled example of what is wrong with libertarianism. In stripping away a planned government, which includes detailed rules and restrictions on what the government may not do, they have simply pared away all possible civil protections in order to reach the smallest possible government: one guy. One completely unaccountable guy who makes all the rules.

Look, what people call "big government" exists for a reason. The United States has an elected, distributed, multi-faceted government, composed of different people who do not agree and who do not have absolute power. This in itself is the best way to ensure that people are not ruled for long by petty tyrants. Richard Nixon expressed the opposite point of view in its most pure form:

FROST: "So what in a sense, you're saying is that there are certain situations, and the Huston Plan or that part of it was one of them, where the president can decide that it's in the best interests of the nation or something, and do something illegal."
NIXON: "Well, when the president does it that means that it is not illegal."

Yep, that's what Nixon said, right before he resigned in disgrace. (He gave his farewell speech exactly one month to the day before I was born. As my dad once said about himself and Mussolini, "He must have seen me coming and figured the jig was up.)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A trifecta of suck

I just want to point out that over on Daily Kos, DHinMI has been running an interesting series of posts drawing connections between three things I frequently write about with derision: Blackwater, Amway, and Bushies. It's worth a look.

"Bush Authoritarianism: Blackwater+Amway=GOP"

Also linked from the latest entry, there is a great piece about Amway magnate Dick DeVos, whom I mentioned in my Blackwater post.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Suggestions wanted: Scary stories for five year olds

One of Ben's friends has his birthday on Halloween, so Ben will be attending a combination birthday/Halloween party this year. My wife has asked me to be the teller of scary stories at this party.

I have "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark" volumes 1-3, but only a few of those stories seem appropriate to the audience. I also fondly remember the story of La Llorona from my childhood in Santa Fe, when I used to listen to Joe Hayes.

Just wondering if anyone can link me to any good sites or books with stories that are scary, but not TOO scary.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Evan Almighty: Blessed are the fictional

I watched Evan Almighty on video last night, even though I didn't particularly love Bruce Almighty. It was what I expected, a cute but corny lightweight comedy with a little touch of preachiness and some enjoyable special effects. The Bible story of Noah is watered down a lot, so six billion people don't actually die in a global flood. Steve Carell is acceptably funny, but it's not like his hilarious performance in 40 Year Old Virgin.

Anyway, the movie does deliver kind of a bland religious message, which got me thinking a bit last night. I think I'd be right to say that in just about every movie where God appears in person (as it were) in modern times, there is this obligatory scene where the main character has to be skeptical for a few minutes. You know the scene I mean:
God: "Hi, I'm God."
Mortal: "No you're not! You're a crazy old man who bears a striking resemblance to Morgan Freeman/George Burns/Alanis Morissette/etc."
God: "No seriously, I'm God."
Mortal: "I'm not talking to you anymore."
God: "Here, watch this trick."
(God does various impressive feats in which demonstrates uncanny knowledge and/or screws with the laws of physics.)
Mortal: "Stop! Uncle! I guess you are God."

Of course other characters remain skeptical, because God decides to be a complete dick by not revealing himself to anyone except for the guy he's inciting to crazy behavior. By the end of the movie, though, something remarkably improbable has occurred that makes it clear to everyone that the guy who talks to God was right.

This formula is loosely based on the Bible story of Doubting Thomas. Similar form:
Jesus: "Hey Thomas, it's me, Jesus."
Thomas: "Nuh uh! You're dead!"
Jesus: "No, seriously, it's me. Touch me. Poke your fingers through the stake holes in my hand."
Thomas: "Whoa."

And then there's the punchline.
Jesus: "Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed."

In the story of Doubting Thomas, and Evan Almighty, it turns out to be a good idea to believe in God. But only because they inhabit a fictional world in which God is real and reveals himself through evidence.

And there's the problem. At least part of the point of these stories is to serve as an inspirational example for those of us who live here in the non-fictional world. But in the real world, God never does these tricks for real people. So instead, we're encouraged to base our faith on "evidence" which occurs in fiction.

I'm reminded of an M.C. Escher print of a dragon who is "trying" to get out of his two dimensional world, but fails.

Of this picture, Escher wrote:

"However much this dragon tries to be spatial, he remains completely flat. Two incisions are made in the paper on which he is printed. then it is folded in such a way as to leave two square openings. But this dragon is an obstinate beast, and in spite of his two dimensions he persists in assuming that he has three; so he sticks his head through one of the holes and his tail through the other."

Like the dragon, people seem to try really hard to make God real by having him demonstrate his powers over and over again. Yet however much this god tries to be real, he remains a character in a story.

I'll give Evan Almighty two and a half stars out of five. It was cute, it wasn't a complete waste of time to watch, but it wasn't a must-see comedy.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Cresting that hill

Now I'm mostly ignoring a lecture in my Software Engineering class. This weekend is the midpoint of my final semester. I've done one midterm, and I have one more scheduled for the afternoon. My report draft was finished earlier this month. After tomorrow, all I'll have left is one or two homework, finalizing my thesis, and the finals. I feel like I'm getting over the top of a very long, slow rollercoaster, seeing the track ahead, and getting ready for the downward ride.

My graduation ceremony is December 8. I don't expect anyone to come except my family, but you can email me if you want to be there.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Be all that you can be in the mercenary reserves

Conservatives and libertarians alike generally claim that anything that "The Government" does is bad more or less by definition, and that a smaller, leaner government which manages fewer services is better.

One notable exception, at least where Republicans are concerned, is the military. The one truly legitimate function of government, as far as they're concerned, is in maintaining a kick-ass defense force that can take on the world. In fact, according to this source, the U.S. currently spends more of its budget on the military than the next fourteen countries combined, and that accounts for about 43% of all the military spending in the whole world.

So conservatives hate government but love the military, which should come as no surprise to anyone who's had a pulse at any point in the last 25 years. And I'm not going to pass a value judgment on the relative amount we spend on the military, at least not in this post. All I'll say is that there are lots of things in the world that can kill people, and foreign armies are only a few of them. Like, say, hurricanes. Collapsing bridges. Poverty. Those kill people too.

That's not to say that people don't die from military attacks as well. I'm just saying, you know, if the purpose of spending money on the military is to prevent Americans from dying, then what you've got is a minimax problem: save the most lives for the least dollars. And I find it hard to believe that for our current spending rate, you couldn't save a few more lives by doing something else with the cash we could save by reducing our total military spending a bit. Say we used only 40% of the total world expenditures on military. Say we only spent as much as the next 12 countries combined. That's a lot of repaired bridges, know what I mean?

I'm not a pacifist, though. I believe that maintaining a certain level of military is necessary to the survival of a country. You need to keep the Visigoths from sacking the city, as it were. It's just that reasonable people can disagree on what the ideal level is, and I happen to think the level is substantially less than ten times that of our nearest ally. Speaking of the Roman Empire, bear in mind that they maintained a badass army for a long time before they experienced a financial collapse due to bad management. It was only after that, that the barbarians who had waited politely outside the gates for centuries got to just stroll in the crumbling front door.

Anyway, if there's one thing conservatives like more than spending money on the military, it's privatizing functions that are currently managed by government. After all, everyone knows that when you leave things up to the Stupendous Free Market, you guarantee that they will be done much better and more efficiently than if you, um, took concrete steps towards actually getting them done. Really. Just trust us on this one.

So anyway, under the Bush administration, apparently the military no longer gets a special exemption from this rule. That's why we are now paying for Blackwater, a private security contractor that is now in charge of guarding diplomats. We pay approximately $445,891 per year for the privilege of hiring a Blackwater security specialist. By contrast, a military sergeant costs us around $69,000 per year on the high end, including room and board. See how efficient the private market is?

I was never tempted to join the army. Call me a coward or a spoiled brat, I'll probably own up to it. I'd also probably make a lousy soldier, because I'm not good at unquestioningly following orders. I question tasks a lot at my job, not because I'm trying to be a pain, but because I feel that I can execute a task more effectively when I understand what the intention is behind the task. I'm not saying this to brag or show that I'm in any way "better" than a big tough military guy. I'm just saying that my mindset is somewhat different from what's required in a military role, and they'd have to beat a lot out of me to get me there. I recognize that having an army that is willing to follow order is pretty important, however.

I'm taking a class in Project Management right now -- hooray for the LAST class I need to complete for my Master's! One of the issues that is discussed in the text is that the larger your project gets, the more important it is to maintain a strict structure in your organization. The proverbial "two guys in a garage" can accomplish a small project very well, but a hundred people who all demand creative control over the same project is a disaster waiting to happen. Now apply that to the military, which is arguably one of the biggest freakin' projects anybody could ever undertake. I mean, post-surge Iraq currently has around 175,000 soldiers on the ground, to say nothing of the people at home who are connecting them with the civilian leadership.

I can't really imagine what's involved with organizing so many people, but it's pretty clear to me that if you have a general telling his underlings saying "We need to accomplish X, see that that gets done," and then a colonel below him says "All right men, let's figure out how to do Y, which is a sub-task on the way to accomplishing X," and then some clown of a Lieutenant way down the line says "No, screw this task, I don't want us to accomplish X anyway!" then you've got a problem. It's not because that lowly Lieutenant is necessarily wrong about the quality of the final objectives, or because he couldn't necessarily do a better job of managing the war than the general. The problem is that everybody can't be a general, and if you let all 175,000 soldiers make the decisions then you've got a fine mess, and people are fighting against each other instead of working toward a common goal.

Of course, a military that works as a single unit can do great evil. Of course, a single individual can also do great evil. But there's MORE of the military, so they can do MORE evil because they're acting as a single body. We need a military, because there is this one big task that is necessary to accomplish. Adequate national defense is absolutely vital to the health of a nation in a non-utopian world. So is executing wars, in such cases where war is necessary and right. By which I mean, not this war.

The problem with the military right now is not that it is a military; it's that it's a military in the hands of people who are hell-bent on using it towards nefarious ends. No, strike that. They don't set out saying "Let's all do bad things now." Really. Not even Bush. The key to understanding the Bush presidency is personal cronyism. Bush didn't pick "Heckuva job Brownie" to head FEMA because he intended to put an incompetent boob in the job. No, the chain of events is: first Joe Allbaugh was given the job because he helped run Bush's 2000 campaign, and then Brownie was picked to succeed Allbaugh because he was Allbaugh's old college buddy.

By and large, the members of the Bush administration see government jobs as an opportunity to make money, and to kick more money over to their friends. Other people may get hurt, killed, or impoverished as a result of this focus, but that is a by-product of the official policy, not the intention of the policy itself. What's happening here is that the president and his cabinet all have an attitude that, basically, who gives a crap if government is effective, as long as I'm helping out my friends? And that attitude gets trickled down through the ranks, because people with that perspective will pick friends who often have the same perspective, who in turn pick THEIR friends who have that perspective, and so on.

The military privates aren't part of this tree of mutual back-scratching. Demographically speaking, if they were well-connected then they probably either wouldn't be signing up (like me), or else they would be signing up as lieutenants rather than privates. But the privates are following the orders of people in the back-scratching tree. Orders to do annoying things like "treat prisoners humanely" and "follow the Geneva conventions" and "Please don't kill civilians if you can help it" ultimately need to come from the top of the command chain, and the problem is that those orders aren't coming. It's not because the kids signing up for the military are bad people. Rather, doing those things to improve international relations is harder than not doing them, and everyone has the capacity to do evil and then rationalize it, given the right circumstances and enough peer pressure. I believe that this probably includes many of the very fine and moral people here, myself as well. But for people who voluntarily joined the military, gave up many of their civil rights, and accepted a program of unquestioningly following orders, maybe it's especially true. I don't know.

But really, the problem is the lax attitude at the top, and nowhere is this better exemplified than in Blackwater. Blackwater is given that sweet deal that nets them over 400 grand a year. They are paid by the US government as if they were a military force, but they are not subject to the military code of justice. In essence, there is no law governing them, which goes some of the way towards explaining why they keep getting involved in incidents like this recent one where they gunned down 14 Iraqi citizens in cold blood.

If the Blackwater employees were soldiers, they would be directly accountable to the their commanding officers and the US government, who still at least have SOME standards of behavior, and have the authority to court martial and imprison the offenders in extreme cases. But no one has any such authority over Blackwater. Even though we're paying them with our tax dollars, they are not required to do anything we ask them to.

And astonishingly, the Bush administration is standing behind them and refusing to give anyone the go-ahead to investigate this incident. Nuri al-Maliki, the US-picked prime minister of Iraq, now wants to ban Blackwater from his country. Only Bush doesn't want to let him.

It's worth pointing out that the head of Blackwater is a member of an evangelical political group called "Christian Freedom International", and is well-connected in politics by virtue of being related by marriage to Amway magnate and Republican gubernatorial candidate Dick DeVos. See? It pays to be connected. Ahhh. Good old Amway.

So, you know, don't blame the military. While lots of bad things are done by military grunts who are required to do whatever they are asked to, even worse things are being done by people who have no orders to follow. They're given free reign of the place, they're not required to follow any international codes of conduct whatsoever, and their only real objective is to do their job in such a way as to loot as much money as possible. Both from Iraqis and from Americans.

The fact that military personnel do bad things does not mean that the institution of the military is the problem. Just like the fact that corrupt crony governments doing bad things does not mean that "government" is the problem and should be abolished. The problem is that we have some really bad leaders right now, who are turning a blind eye towards violations of ethical conduct, if not outright endorsing it.

Monday, October 08, 2007

First draft completed

Yesterday I brought my thesis report up from 23 pages to 45 pages before calling it a night at midnight.

It's not the most spectacular writing I've ever done; it'll need lots of proofing and major details are still missing. But a friend of mine told me "It's better to have a thesis report that's DONE than one that's GOOD." So, I'll reread it a bit tonight and then send it to the appropriate people.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Longest Saturday ever...

And it's not over yet.

I thought I'd just wrap up a few things this morning with the program and then spend the rest of the day writing. As it turns out, the steps to analyze the data are actually non-trivial and require some thought and more programming. Who'd have thought it?

The good news is that I'm done collecting all the results I want for this draft. I have a big spreadsheet made of sites going in one direction and topics going in the other, and each cell has a "weight" given to that topic by a site. That way I can compare the weights and see if there are any interesting patterns.

To be honest, nothing about the table is as interesting as the results I commented on from Digg. For example, USA Today, which has sort of a "Newspaper of the common idiot" vibe about it, does indeed have an excessively high amount of stories on Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. But the point I was making on Digg is that if Digg users accurately represent ordinary newspaper readers (which, you might reasonably argue, they don't) then taking "entertainment" and calling it "news" is not really an appropriate strategy.

A few other unusual results I found: New York Times gives a relatively high amount of attention to Paris Hilton also. Not in their top few stories, but distinctly in the top half.

Also, Fox News gives a surprising amount of coverage to serious news. When I included "Blackwater" in the results, I found that Fox News is the only paper that has recently given that topic higher priority than all the others. However, when I looked deeper into the individual stories they reported, I noticed that mostly they weren't by Fox reporters: they were stories that originated with the Associated Press, and then were just relabeled as "Fox News" and pasted on their site. I don't think anyone even filters it. In fact, Fox News has a much higher presence on Google News than more serious news organizations does, and it seems to be because they just automatically repost anything that comes their way.

I dunno, maybe I shouldn't stretch too hard to look for excuses to bash Fox. If I throw out theories like this then the paper won't seem very objective.

The paper today stands at 26 pages, of which 12 are actual substantive text. I have a long way to go - my eventual target is around 50 pages (including the padding), but I'll be happy with 30 or so pages for this draft. Luckily, I have a lot of tables and graphs to paste in; I have lots of material to steal from this blog; some philosophical discussion of user taxonomies that I can borrow from my term paper this summer; and I can always throw in code samples when I'm describing the program. I think I'll make it, but it's going to be a long night and another long day.

And after that, I get to start studying for my two midterms! Yay!

More 9/11 about 9/11 Rudy 9/11 Giuliani

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, the data analysis for my Master's Report indicated that some of the most well-beloved topics on are about how much Rudy Giuliani sucks. But why does he suck so much?

One of the top recommended stories on that front search page, currently sitting at 2,796 diggs, is a blog entry entitled "Mr Giuliani Please Stop Mentioning 9/11". But give Rudy a break, he can't stop mentioning 9/11 because he has absolutely nothing else to run on. He wasn't a particularly popular leader until, like Bush, the photo opportunity of a lifetime fell in his lap. (The photo opportunity also fell in Bush's lap, I mean. I don't mean that Bush fell in Giuliani's lap.)

Since then he has exploited 9/11 in virtually everything he says and does. Like most of the other Republicans, Rudy talked about 9/11 constantly during his address at the 2004 convention. One of his supporters recently hosted a fundraiser for him asking for donations in the amount of $9.11. When told about asbestos hazards at the site of the World Trade Center, he told reporters "I was at ground zero as often, if not more, than most of the workers ... I was there working with them. I was exposed to exactly the same things they were exposed to. So in that sense, I'm one of them."

A couple of weeks ago Rudy gave a speech for the National Rifle Association. Trying to convince NRA members to support him even though he was a strong gun control advocate when he was mayor, he explained: "I also think that there have been subsequent intervening events — September 11 — which cast somewhat of a different light on the Second Amendment and Second Amendment rights. It doesn't change the fundamental rights, but maybe it highlights the necessity for them more."

But wait, that's not all. During that speech, he pulled a ham-handed political stunt by (in my opinion) pretending to take a phone call from his wife while he was talking. He said some cutesy stuff to her at the podium, and then said "I love you honey," receiving approving applause from the assembled crowd. Later, when Giuliani was asked in an interview why he took that call, he explained: "quite honestly since Sept. 11 most of the time when we get on a plane we talk to each other and just reaffirm the fact that we love each other."

That's adorable. Even more so when you consider the fact that on September 11, 2001, Rudy Giuliani was married to a different woman. (He married his current wife, Judith Nathan, on May 24, 2003.)

And Rudy is the Republican front runner. Right now he's the favored candidate to win the nomination by a significant margin. As much as people apparently love to read stories that bash Giuliani, that means the other candidates are considered even worse.

Speaking as a partisan Democrat, I think that's totally awesome.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Starting to collect results

So far I've managed to scan every story that relates to my chosen topics. When you search Digg for a story, you get a list of all the stories that were ever submitted to Digg with the search words appearing in the title. First somebody submits a page, and then other people come along and recommend the page. The page winds up with a "score" that indicates the total number of people who recommended the same site.

Collected below is output from my analysis that shows how many stories appeared, followed by the average score of all the stories.

Welcome to News Miner 1.0.
The database has been opened.
What shall we do today, hmmm?
1. Get monthly news clusters (one topic)
2. Get monthly news clusters (all topics)
3. Explore current clusters
4. Get new Digg scores (one topic)
5. Get new Digg scores (all topics)
6. Generate results table
7. Analyze results
0. Quit

There were 14 topics
topic "Anna Nicole Smith": size 752, mean 3.5226063829787235
topic "Barack Obama": size 756, mean 6.994708994708994
topic "Blackwater": size 358, mean 9.997206703910615
topic "Britney Spears": size 3019, mean 3.1570056310036434
topic "Giuliani": size 1468, mean 18.582425068119893
topic "Gulf Coast": size 61, mean 3.459016393442623
topic "Harry Potter": size 2502, mean 5.09912070343725
topic "Hillary Clinton": size 996, mean 7.945783132530121
topic "John Edwards": size 566, mean 7.80565371024735
topic "Mitt Romney": size 426, mean 7.030516431924883
topic "New Orleans": size 858, mean 5.970862470862471
topic "Paris Hilton": size 2497, mean 3.644373247897477
topic "Rupert Murdoch": size 127, mean 7.52755905511811
topic "Tiger Woods": size 390, mean 3.546153846153846

I've highlighted a couple of interesting numbers in bold italics. Notice that "Paris Hilton" and "Britney Spears" both have a very high numbers of pages, indicating that many people found stories about those people that they considered were worth submitting. (Most of them, by the way, are jokes or empty promises of smut.) But other people either don't read those stories, or don't like them enough to recommend them.

On the other hand, look which topic is far and away the clear winner of the Digg scoring game: Rudy Giuliani with an average of 18.6. In fact, Rudy's average score is more than twice as high as the average of his next political competitor Hillary Clinton.

So that means that people love Rudy Giuliani, right? Ermmm... not exactly. Look at the headlines on the page showing the all-time highest rated stories about Giuliani.

  • Mr Giuliani Please Stop Mentioning 9/11
  • Rudy Giuliani Constitutionally Ineligible To Be President
  • Anger at Giuliani 9/11 fundraiser "$9.11 for Rudy" in poor taste
  • America's Worst Nightmare: President Giuliani
  • Giuliani: "For Me Every Day Is An Anniversary Of Sept. 11" GET OFF IT!
  • Rudy Giuliani: "Freedom is Slavery"
  • Rudy Giuliani's daughter is supporting Barack Obama
  • DIGG this! Soldier to Giuliani: Have you done your foreign policy homework?
  • Reporter Arrested on Orders of Giuliani Press Secretary
  • Giuliani Closed Off Streets to Avoid 9/11 Victims' Families

Um, yeah. Are you noticing a pattern here? They're all negative. Not some of them. All of the top nine stories. Apparently people love to read about Giuliani so they can reinforce how much they hate him.

To be fair, Hillary Clinton's page has a lot of negative stories too, but certainly not all of them. Many of the hits are anti right wing coverage, and people apparently reacted well to her TV spoof of "The Sopranos" with Bill.

Disclaimer: Digg users are not a representative sample of the general public, but they are my stand-ins for them. Digg users are a self-selected group of active news readers. What Nixon referred to as "The silent majority," aka "People who don't pay attention" are not represented here, and I have no way of knowing which stories they would recommend if they were asked.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Google captured me again

D'oh. I've been CAPTCHA'D.

Sitting here in Texspresso after work. I decided to let my program run at top speed. I wasn't sure whether it would take a fixed amount of time to catch me, or whether it's mainly based on the number of page hits. I reduced my sleep time so that I get a new web page every two seconds. It only took them twenty minutes to make me stop, so the speed at which I hit them is definitely a big factor.

Oh well. In that time I managed to collect 1100 new clusters, which finishes off the month of September 2006 (the month that Paris Hilton got arrested, which make some entertaining analysis). But I only managed to pick up 100 stories, so I've got more to do.

Nephlm mentioned a program called Tor that hides your IP address, so maybe I'll try that and see if it works.

Update: Tor works! It works like a charm! Nephlm, I owe you a beer. Come to Austin sometime and I'll pay up.

Tor is a product of the Electronic Freedom Foundation, and what it does is rout your web requests through various remote servers so that the Google server can't tell where you're really coming from.

But an amusing side effect is: When I logged in to blogger, everything was in German. I must be sending requests through a host in Germany somewhere, and now Blogger sees my destination and thinks I want the German version of Google.

Oh well, who cares, as long as I'm getting my data. :) "Post veröffentlichen" means "publish this post," right?

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Paper abstract

For anyone who's interested. I want to take this opportunity to repeat my thanks to those people who suggested directions to go in when I asked for help earlier this year.

In recent years, major news corporations seem to dedicate an increasing amount of time and space to "fluff," reporting on celebrities, entertainment and crime stories, rather than more essential national and international news. As such news content is increasingly gathered online, it has become feasible to aggregate large amounts of data from a wide range of sites. This report proposes a model for collecting information from news agencies, then applying the techniques of Data Mining to organize this reporting in a way that identifies the priorities of individual organizations.

In addition, the rise of user-based taxonomies has made it possible broadly to evaluate the interests of people who actively read and recommend news. In the final analysis, data collected from users of are compared with data collected from media sites. This provides a benchmark for determining whether the delivery of "fluff" news is delivered is a fair response to popular demand, or whether typical news readers are dissatisfied with the level of serious event coverage found in the media.

Thesis saga continues: It's working

As per my last post, I'm now sitting here in Schlotzsky's Deli, which has free wi-fi, and my data mining program is just blazing along. I have my flag set to yell at me immediately if I get the "Are you human?" warning.

Maybe it's just because I've been listening to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on tape, but my current frame of mind is that this is kind of exciting. Sort of like I'm sneaking around to my safe houses in order to avoid being apprehended by the authorities. It's the nerdiest cloak-and-dagger story you've ever heard, I bet. And by comical coincidence, I just checked my progress and it's looking at a story about Harry Potter from March '06 right now.

In a weird kind of way, this has actually helped me refocus my attention on how to attack the problem, a bit. Previously I was just indiscriminately grabbing all kinds of data, without regard to whether it was useful or not. Now that I know that my time is limited and I could be "captcha'd" at any moment, I've tightened my focus in a way that makes a lot of sense. I'm focusing on stories only within a specific time range, and only bothering to look at clusters of approximately average size. This way, I know that even if I'm interrupted in the middle and can't collect any more data at all, I'll still have plenty of information to work with.

This has also given me some new ideas on how to interpret the data, and I'm looking forward to analyzing it later. Eventually I won't need to worry about what Google thinks of me, because I can just read their stuff from my own private database.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

An unexpected hazard of mining other people's websites for information:

Sorry for the deluge of long computer sciency posts. The thing is, it's helping me to blog about my thesis. Earlier this week when I posted some comments about my research, I pasted the whole post into my paper and got another three pages out of it. Awesome! It needs some editing, but there's plenty of solid material in there. So, let's see if I can get away with writing the whole paper just by blogging. You, dear readers, will just have to decide whether to suffer through these posts or skip them. Unfortunately, tonight's commentary is about a big setback.

My web skimming program has been having a field day with the Google news archive. I'm currently pulling stories from back to a year and a half ago. Before dinner tonight, I picked up 2000 new Google clusters on "John Edwards." I was pretty cheered by this progress.

When I got home, I fired up the program again and started searching the year for clusters of "Anna Nicole Smith"... and got nothing. Not a single hit.

This was kind of bewildering to me. I tried a few more times, digging through it with the debugger. Nothing. So finally I pulled out the URL of the search page my program was looking at, and pasted it into my browser. I got this message:

403 forbidden

We're sorry...

... but your query looks similar to automated requests from a computer
virus or spyware application. To protect our users, we can't process
your request right now.

We'll restore your access as quickly as possible, so try again soon.
In the meantime, if you suspect that your computer or network has been
infected, you might want to run a virus checker or spyware remover to
make sure that your systems are free of viruses and other spurious

We apologize for the inconvenience, and hope we'll see you again on
To continue searching, please type the characters you see below:
[Typical captcha text returned]

UH-oh. I experienced a bit of temporary jumpiness as I realized that Google noticed I've been hitting their server really hard and really fast. I typed in the confirmation text, of course, and it let me view the page. But I tried the program again, and it still didn't work.

I did some research, winding up at this post. I don't really get the details, but it sounds like Google has been targeted by malicious spyware programs in the past, which do tons of web searches that somehow uncover target servers that are vulnerable to attack. Then they install copies of themselves on those target servers, which in turn do more malicious searches on Google's site.

So, yeah, that's pretty neato that they catch bad guys. Unfortunately, they also catch me. That's bad. I have a thesis that needs finishing.

I decided to wait a few hours, and in the meantime I put in some code that makes it pause for five seconds before it gets a web page. I don't want to annoy them.

A few hours later, the spam catcher stopped harassing me. I let the program run for a while longer, and it managed to walk through a couple thousand more clusters, all from the month of March. But then it stopped again, with the same message. This time I had a break in there to kill the program before it started failing a bunch more challenges.

This is going to be a slow process. I want my data. Now. I might consider bumping the delay up to thirty seconds in the morning.

Also, I suspect that Google is making a note of my ISP to determine that I am an evildoer. If that's the case, then maybe I can get around it by wandering around town with my laptop. I'll go from one wireless hotspot to the next, grabbing a few thousand entries here and there, until I've got the whole year's worth of material.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Data mining the news (ongoing work)

My thesis is about using data mining to analyze the relative emphasis that traditional media outlets give to various types of stories. Then I'll be comparing this data to the emphasis that actual news consumers who inhabit give to the same stories. My point is to discover which types of stories are overplayed or underplayed, and come to some sort of conclusions about which types of news sources best reflect the pubilc interest.

To that end, I've written a big Java program around an online MySQL database. In the last few days I've cataloged about 22,000 news pages, although only a small number of them will ultimately turn out to be important to the study. I've labeled roughly a dozen web sites and a dozen news topics as "interesting." The sites are:
The stories are:
  1. Rudolph Giuliani
  2. Anna Nicole Smith
  3. Harry Potter
  4. Tiger Woods
  5. Rupert Murdoch
  6. Barack Obama
  7. Gulf Coast
  8. Mitt Romney
  9. New Orleans
  10. Hillary Clinton
  11. Britney Spears
  12. Blackwater
  13. Ron Paul
Crazy lists, aren't they? There is some method to this madness. With the stories, I tried to get a reasonable sample of popular topics, some of which are serious and some of which are decidedly unserious. I have a lot of presidential candidates in there since I'll be especially interested to compare who's being covered vs. who people WANT to be covered. For instance, my hunch is that expecting that Ron Paul is a topic of interest much more for Digg readers than for media outlets. Ron Paul seems to have some kind of word of mouth campaign going on where libertarian fans of his call shows like C-Span and post on blogs all over the place, whereas the news seems to be largely ignoring him. I'm not a Paul support, except to the extent that I think he's clearly the least evil Republican in the race.

With the web sites, the idea is to have a variety of media sources. Some are considered serious news sites; some are "fluff" news (I picked USA Today specifically for that reason, and it's possible that CNN will tend to fall in that category as well); and several are explicitly right wing rags. To be fair, I really would like to have included left wing rags, but the only ones I can identify are blogs, which are not treated much as news sources. The news is all pulled off of I search for the topics of interests, then read the resulting stories more or less indiscriminately and identify which site each one comes from.

Based on this, I have a total of nearly 2000 "news" sources, ordered by the number of stories found in searches since I started collecting data. In the stories I've pulled so far, after about three days of serious searches on the 13 topics, the New York Times and the Washington Post (my main "serious news" sites) each account for 104 stories. But has shown up zero times, so I guess there's a master list that they're clearly not on. TPM Muckraker and TPM Cafe both show up, and those are both explicitly liberal sites, but there are only 8 stories from them. "The Nation": 9 stories. So, liberal sites = small sample size. No use.

By contrast,, whose "about" page proudly announces that they were founded as a "conservative web community," accounts for 123 stories. Yes, you read that right: for the topics I picked, townhall is treated as "news" more often than either the New York Times or the Washington Post. So, bottom line, I get to pick on right wing news sources more than left wing news sources, simply because left wing news isn't "news."

Almost time for the Daily Show now, so I've managed to procrastinate this long. Go me!

If anyone would like to make further contributions, feel free to suggest other story topics that are in the news. Anna Nicole Smith and Harry Potter aren't actually generating very many headlines these days, so I need more unserious topics that the media uses as padding these days. Suggestions? And if you have more right-wing, left-wing, or "mainstream" news sources that I should be looking at, make some suggestions. I'll check my database and see if there are enough stories represented to get something useful out of them.

This is it. I'm officially in grad school hell.

Bless me father, for I have sinned. It has been two weeks since my last blog post.

So -- ha ha -- did I think that semesters like this one and this one were tough? Bugger that, this one takes the cake. The first draft of my 50-ish page Master's Report is supposed to be done in early October, so I've been focused on that for the week since my last class. Meanwhile, in my next class weekend I have one homework and two midterm exams.

I spend an entire weekend working non-stop on my thesis, then I got to enjoy going back to work fresh on Monday. My boss gave me Friday afternoon off, which was a nice gesture, except of course for the fact that I used it to do schoolwork.

I spent most of Saturday at a coffee shop on campus. Actually driving to campus was a stupid plan, because apparently there was this little football game going on that I wasn't thinking about. I was originally planning to go to the library and renew my TexShare card, but parking turned out to be impossible. So, coffee shop. Nice thing about UT is that it's so wired you can actually get wireless internet from everywhere, included some parking lots.

My work's really taking shape now. I've filled out the 14-page template for my report, which feels like I've accomplished some real work even though only two pages of actual double spaced text are written.

I meant to start working on the homework tonight; however, I've been so brain-fried that I mostly just ran the data collection program, stared at the news for a while, and did a whole lot of nothin' else. Blogging is just another form of procrastination, which I think I will continue to do until the Daily Show starts, at which point I will concede defeat for the evening. There's always tomorrow.

I was going to write more about my thesis in this post, but I'd rather keep this one strictly a post wherein I bitch about the trials of being a grad student, and cleanly separate the stuff about what kind of work I'm doing into a separate post. I think blogging will help me overcome writer's block in adding more detail to the report, so humor me, dear readers. See you in the next post.

Monday, September 10, 2007

I sure did fall for that one!

This weekend I got email from a "Paulraj JY" in India. It said:

Subject: Greetings from a New Friend fm India

Dear Sir and Mr.Russell,

Greetings from India. It was a surprise for me to read your blog and it
is full of surprises. Though you addressed yourself as an athiest, you are full of human virtues and you are a nice person to befriend.
Though I'm a Christian Missionary, I'm interested in your views,
thoughts and way of life.
When you consider yourself to be an athiest it may not be meaningful for me to ask you to pray for our service among children those who are left uncared. These Children are very special to us and we enjoy working with them. You, as I estimate, full of good values for human values and relationship, would be happy to hear more about our work among such children. We would be very happy to win your heart and have you as one of our wellwishers of our program.
You have a beautiful family. Please convey our greetings to them. Bye for now....
With special love and regards
Paulraj JY

Now, it's actually not all that uncommon that I get email from other countries. I am a regular contributor to two podcasts that have some small measure of notoriety, and I get people I never heard of commenting on my blog from time to time.

Nevertheless, there WAS that small voice that said to me, "Hey, this sounds a little bit like the stilted language in some of those Nigerian scam emails." But then I thought, "Nah, those guys mostly shotgun form emails when they're looking for new suckers. This guy was very specific about my blog and my atheism. Be a good atheist emissary and answer him."

So I wrote:

Dear Paul,

Part of the reason why I openly identify myself as an atheist is because theists rarely encounter people who are willing to say that they don't believe in God, and so they may have a lot of misperceptions. While I don't believe that atheists are better people than Christians, I do think that we are just as likely to care about humanity and have compassion.

In any case, thank you for your friendly email and have a good day.

Then he wrote:

Dear Friend Russell,
Thanks for your prompt response, which makes me happy. I just appreciate your openness. Please receive our special love and we really feel proud about your heart full of compassion for mankind....
Since you have a great concern for the betterment of mankind, I think it may not be improper to let you know that we are working with AIDS orphans and we've a formal inagural function our Grace Foster Home on the fifteenth of this month. Please remember us on this special day....
Kindly find an attached picture of our special children with we love to fellowship with and care for their better future.... I'm sure that you will appreciate our work... Bye for now...
lovingly yours friend from India
Paulraj JY

Well, that's a shame. So finally I wrote:

Dear Paul,

I have to give you credit for making the extra effort to personalize your scam email. However, since I now believe that you are a Nigerian con man attempting to perpetrate a 419 fraud, I would like to invite you to kindly go to hell. Of course, I don't believe in hell. But since you are in Nigeria, I reckon that's close enough.

Russell Glasser

Presidential candidate or Buffy villain?

Yeah, we already know I'm a sucker for those side-by-side similarity pictures. The similarity in these pictures at AmericaBlog really is impressive.

If you're not a Buffy fan, you can look here to see who the creepy guys are.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Paradox of omniscience and free will

Lots of theological debates center around the religious idea of free will. Some varieties of theists, i.e. Calvinists, don't believe in free will at all. Some atheists (like my friend Denis Loubet) don't believe in free will either, believing that the notion is incompatible with a completely materialistic universe.

Those are all interesting topics, but one issue I find equally interesting is whether "God," as Christians define him, can have free will. I think I'm borrowing this line of reasoning from an old Raymond Smullyan book, although I can't remember exactly where.

God is supposed to be omniscient. He knows everything about the past, present, and future. In fact, his knowledge is so complete that he must know every action that he himself will take in the future.

Now, suppose you yourself were granted the power of omniscience -- not omnipotence or any of the other useful attributes, but you know everything. Suppose it comes time to make a fairly mundane decision, like what you will eat for breakfast. You can have scrambled eggs or oatmeal. So you wonder, what am I in the mood for? Scrambled eggs, or oatmeal? But this is an easy decision: you are omniscient! Simply use your unlimited knowledge to peer a few minutes into the future, and see what it is that you will have for breakfast. And when you look at your future self, you know, as a matter of absolute certainty, whether you will be eating eggs or oatmeal.

But wait a minute. What if you are in a perverse frame of mind and wish to exercise your free will? So you say to yourself "Okay, here's what I'll do. I'll check the future, but I won't do what it says. If I see myself eating oatmeal, then I'll pick scrambled eggs. If I see myself eating eggs, it'll be oatmeal."

Now what does that mean for your powers? If your vision is guaranteed to be accurate, then you don't have the free will to change your decision. But if you can change your decision, then your vision was wrong, and you are no longer omniscient.

This is one reason why I conclude that no being can be both omniscient and free.