Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Tuesday, May 31, 2005

I can't do a proper blog about my photos right now, but I'm putting some at Flickr and will talk about them more later.

Who would have known that getting online would be more difficult in Paris than in Zurich or Tokyo? Well, okay, anything technological should be more difficult outside of Tokyo. But actually, the problem is not that my charming French Hotel backwards and out of date, but that it is nominally extremely convenient--every room has an ethernet cable. The one in mine just happens not to work. But of course, with every room wired, there is much less incentive to have a kiosk in the lobby, so with a broken outlet, I have no alternative. The wacky economics of technology.
Paris doesn't feel that old, especially after all the time I spent in the compact, windy streets of the old City of Zurich. Admittedly I'm staying in the outer 13e Arrondissment, near the famed Les Gobelins tapestry factory, and my concierge says most of the buildings date from the late 19th century. We've been told to spend time walking around, but after Manhattan this strikes me as a very car friendly city. We gave into a taxi ride to and from the Eiffel Tower yesterday, and got some magnificent views from the backseat, and gorgeous music from the front. Surprisingly , I seemed to earn points with one driver when I exclaimed that I had a particular Cheb Mami song in my collection of home and am quite a fan. You'd think the driver would be used to tourist fans. He carefully repated over and over again the station number, but without a radio to tune in with it now escapes me.
I haven't been to the ancient heart at the Ile de la Cite yet, but all across the huge wide boulevards Eric informs me were blasted open in the 19th century to make them less vulnerable to revolutionary mob blockades, and more tractable for artillery-bearing guards. The people seem more interested in horrifying their leadership with votes now--if I didn't have the BBC on at night I'd have had little sense on Sunday of the magnitude of the No vote on the European constitution. On Saturday when we got here we saw people campaigning in the streets, mostly for no, some for yes (somewhere tucked in a pocket I have what I think is a sheet of yes Cartoons, though they might be sarcastic). Not many more campaigners than you might find petitioners on a random day in Berkeley, though.
One thing that reminded me of Berkeley also was seeing Rue Jeanne-D'Arc repaved, with stacks and stacks and stacks of huge blocks of cut and polished granite waiting to go in. The granite's a bit different than the Sierra granite I'm used to, and also, I think, different than the granite that Columbia University's built of. It's kind of amazing that the French still insist on using stone everywhere, I suppose the Alps provide an endless supply.

A couple of random notes. Does anyone with regular access to BBC World think that correspondent Jeremy Howell, whom I watched interview some kind of Dubai businessman on a Middle East magazine show, is either channeling or aping Rob Cordry of the Daily Show? He's got the weird slanty eyebrow motions and the jerky nodding that's characteristic of Corddry's wacky mock-interviews. It was disconcerting to see it in a serious context. Also, if our best alternative for reformed healthcare is the French Medical System, I say, bring it on!
Friday, May 27, 2005

I'm sitting in a hotel lobby in Paris, waiting to check-in. If you told me that when, one day, I'd finally get to Paris all I'd want to do is take a shower, I'd have called you crazy. But it's early and smoggy and I'm sort of unpleasantly aware of my lungs and eyeballs. The sleeping compartment ride over from Zurich was oddly creepy, three strangers stacked on each side of the wall, thrown together in the dark. It should be no worse than flying, but somehow lying down turns on my high-alert extincts, making it difficult to sleep. After my paen to water yesterday, I somewhat ludicrously ran out and was terribly thirsty. I'm travelling with Eric and Ruchira, and the glass of Orange Juice that Eric got me in the lobby was one of the sweetest I've tasted.

First impressions: Dirtier, but grand. Muggy. And it's deeply pleasant to be confronted by signage in a language that I at least theoretically know. Hopefully that rusty French will come back quickly. Though so far the hotel staff is so fluent in English I haven't had a chance to try. I noted the real-estate magazine in the lobbies--isn't it trendy for Americans to buy land here?
A Watery Crossroads Through the Ages

It occured to me that the extrordinary thing about Switzerland is the combination of high altitude, allowing a temperate climate, combined with tons and tons of water melting from the glaciers. So the countryside is the kind of lush, fragrant green I've come to associate with rainy places like Bengal or the British Isles, but with a fraction of the insects or mud. There's plenty of water, all neatly dripping out of the mountains. I wonder how worried the Swiss are about the potential effects of global warming on their nicely ordered landscape, but for now the water is all clean and organized.

Organized might seem like a weird word to apply to the torrents of the Rinefall--Switzerland's widest fall, apparentl a breathtaking 150 meters across--but even as I was awed yesterday by its roar and mist and shimmering gush, I noted that the giant rock in the middle of it has a Swiss flag planted on it, there's an elegant bridge at itshead, the edges are carefullz walled and railed, and at least part of it has been diverted for a charming turbine. This is glorious nature, domesticated. There even seem to be a small group of local seniors who calmly fish off of one of its diverted channels.

It's hard to imagine what the Switzerland of the Seduni and Helvetii was like, what kind of raw wild greeted the Celts and the Romans. I've just exited the Swiss National Museum, and even they seem to have a hard time casting their imagination that far. Richly curated, detailed (even in English) exhibitions on the Medieval era give way to an almost random array of ancient archeological finds, oddly labeled and often displayed amid dirt, as finds, rather than in any plausible historical context. What was clear is the antique position of this place as a crossroads. I was impressed by bronze-age amber all the way from the Baltic sea.

The Swiss seem much more comfortable with their Medieval heritage, and today I happily stumbled upon a miniature Renaissance Faire like event in the shadow of the Fraumunster, with puppets, calligraphers, smiths, a glassblower and an archerz booth. I eagerely tried six shots with a bow and arrow, perhaps the first time I've gotten to try one since I was 12 or 13. I remember than it was discouragingly difficult to pluck the bow, and despite my adoration of archery I haven't reallz had a chance to try since. I was surprised at how easy it was to pull the string. I didn't hit the the bull's eye, but instead got a cluster of arrows all in the same spot at the edge of the second ring. It was so much fun I almost impulsively tried to buy a bow right there, but luckily in the time it took for the owner to understand what I was asking, I came to my senses. I was probably overcome by the fact that I was at a Medieval faire in an actual medieval setting--it was very easy to imagine a similar event occuring in the same space 800 years ago, sans T-shirt clad, camera-armed tourists. We filming tourists were an extremely diverse crowd, particular dense with Asians of all hues. If it wasn't for us, the illusion would have been much more complete, but we were the ones consuming it!

Yesterday on my way to the Rhinefall a gentleman in a suit who appeared to be African asked me if I spoke English. He had a number of grocery bags and bottles of water with him, and had just gotten off his cell phone. He said his friend was supposed to meet him and help him carry all the groceries to the bus, but would not make it, and could I please watch the water while he carried some of the bags, since he could not carry all of them at once. I think he said he was from Botswana, as he ran to load the bus with some bags, maybe to explain why he couldnät ask anyone else in German. I'm not sure though. He ran back, thanked me profusely, then ran off to catch the bus. I wish I knew what his story is. One of those random interactions of the modern age.
Wednesday, May 25, 2005
Swiss Sunshine

I'm sitting in an internet cafe in Zurich's Hauptbahnhof, or main train station, a Grand Central-like behemoth that has a river of sunshine jetting into its main pavillion. The sky here is almost criminally blue, matched only by the swan-laden Zurichsee. (aka Lake Zurich.) All that light is being put to good use, reflecting off of street after street of charming buildings. I've stuck to the old town of Munsters, cobblestoned streets, and shopping plazas today and I have yet to see a building that isnt lovely. I'm amused that many of the traffic islands and similar spots for urban greenery are simply planted with chunks of meadow. Good Swiss branding?

That graf was a lot harder to type than it would been because Swiss keyboards have switched the position of y and z. So I keep typing Yurich and skz. Blogger also appears to be country specific so all the buttons are in German. I'm relying on my memory to guess that Mitteilung veröffentlichen means "Publish Post Now", which makes me ponder how deeply divergent languages with common ancestors can get. There are a lot more comfortable English speakers here than were in Japan, and a lot more words I can figure out, but once again I feel a little enjoyably lost. Honestly given the absolut fluency of all the Swiss I've known in the US, I'm surprised my "Sprechenzie English" (phonetic spelling) line has already provoked three or or four apologetic Neins today.

I never knew that Marc Chagall worked in Stained glass, but I am now officially a fan. The only Swiss creation that I can complain about so far is the marvelously easy to use credit-card pay phone by the Zurichsee. The problem? The glass walls make it into a greenhouse beneath the Alpine torrent of photons, and I was drenched after a five minute conversation. But it was worth the thick vision of Spring.
Greetings from Zurich
I'm sitting in a hotel lobby in Zurich, staring at a rather large plastic cow with a Swiss cross on her side. She's nibbling plastic flowers out of a tin bucket, in a sort of static, statuesque way. I thought white cows with black spots were the pride of Jersey (the Channel Island, not the state), not of Switzerland, so I will have to keep my eye out for real cows. So far the taxi driver and half the other people I've spoken don't actually appear to be Swiss, but that's a grand total of 2. It's sort of mindbogglingly sunny and blue and bright and green and pretty here, so hopefully some photos will go up soon. It's kind of amusing to try and piece things together out of German, since I know none but it is a linguistic relation. On the train from the airport I saw a rather intimidating sign: "Jeder Missbrauch wird bestraft." "Every abuse will be punished."
Monday, May 23, 2005
Blacklight Ball (Updated)

This is a bit late, but I just uploaded some photos from last weekend. I dropped by the 2005 San Francisco Blacklight Ball with some friends, mainly to see my buddy Osbo the Magnificent perform some glow-in-the-dark magic. I didn't really know what to expect except darkness and lights, and I was surprised to the good effect that the Black Lights were put too. There are people in San Francisco who are almost criminally creative with neon/fluorescent paint and dye. Good use was also made of neon lights, phosphorescent glow sticks, reflectors, fiber optics, and a thumping dance floor. At one point my sandal split open, but luckily my friend Scott is a professional expert at the use of duct tapes in emergencies. (I'm not being facetious, by the way, he actually is.) Some samples from my Flickr Photostream:

I rather liked the view from the mezanine.

I wish I brought a tripod, but the blur was cool in itself.

Man with a fiber optic wig.


Justyn Zolli painted this thunderbolt on my arm and was very gracious after we sort of attacked his supplies, letting Nori finish her opus before working on the rest of us.

There were DJs.



Scott McCormick, frequent wielder of duct tape and occasional shoe-fixer, models the fluorescent properities of Nori Heikkinen's face painting job and his own design for the new Aikido Institute t-shirt.
Friday, May 20, 2005

I've got some broadband issues, so check out this link:, and tell me what you think. From their about: is a community website featuring free public v/blogs with free upload space for hosting video, communal aggregation of external vlog feeds. It is running on Relevanta software, which is available for commercial licensing.
They are friends of friends, and I'm excited about investigating this when I have a more stable connection. On the front page now:
Linux Devices is reporting that a team at the University of Essex are developing robotic flying machines complete with autopilot and the capability to perform parallel computing tasks at altitude while travelling 120 miles per hour.

I rigged a lipstick camera on my bike helmet, plugged it into a camcorder, strapped it between my shoulder blades, and took off on my bike to Prospect Park. here's the 35 minute ride edited down to 4 minutes. enjoy!

Thursday, May 19, 2005
Cleaning Up Kolkata

Sepia Mutiny's Anna points out a startling article from the BBC: the City of Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta, is giving owners of pre-1990 motorized vehicles one year to convert their guzzler to either Liquefied Petroleum Gas or Compressed Natural Gas--or get off the road:
Transport department officials say more than 50,000 vehicles will have to be taken off the roads after the ban comes into effect. . .A recent study by the Calcutta-based Chittaranjan Cancer Research Institute and Calcutta University indicated that close to 50% of the city's residents suffer from major respiratory disorders. Cases of lung cancer are also increasing throughout the city because of the high level of air pollution.
People are already decrying the effect on the economy, but I think the potential rise in tourism and sheer productivity could very easily make up for it. I know that when I've been in Kolkata days when I would have happily been shopping or touring the museums were instead spent cooped up inside, traveller's flu badly aggravated by the soot. Maybe the residents of Harlem should read about this.
Visualizing Crime Stats in Chicago

Geeky Chic 2.0 sent me this set of Google Map-powered visualizations of reported Chicago crime statistics (from a citizen database). I think if I was familiar with Chicago it would hypnotically interesting to note things like the clustering of Attempted Robbery with a knife or cutting instrument. If I was buying a house or setting up a business in Chicago I would definitely take this for a spin.
Wednesday, May 18, 2005
Han Solo Breaks Open The Echo Chamber

A perennial criticism of the blogosphere is that it's an echo chamber---you tend to read people you basically agree with. Snarkmarket's Matt Thompson was recently quizzed about this phenomena on MSNBC, regarding his and Robin Sloan's creation EPIC. I think this is a bit of a false analysis because I tended to read people I agree with when I was mostly consuming print media--there's so much of it, it was easy enough to skip past the Thomas Sowell or Ann Coulter column which I knew would just piss me off. I certainly feel like I get a good sampling of people who disagree with me, based on how frequently I end up commenting in an argumentative fashion. Most of those are in the comments sections however, and I'm realizing they're frequently rather subtle disagreements. My argumentative comments are rarely confrontational. The problem with methodically trying to find influential writers for me to strongly disagree with, however, is that since I have a tendency to try and harmonize and understand, anyone who provides material strong enough to incense me is equally likely to actually give me a near-aneurysm. Material tends to curve sharply upwards in the offensive range when it gets that far out there. And habitually looking at the stuff is a recipe for a bad day. But maybe it's good for you. Do I really want to live in my own little GoogleGrid?

I just took a look around, and her Immigration Blog (more like an anti-Immigration blog.) My stomach didn't feel upto reading her books right now. That led me to the infamous LittleGreenFootballs. (What the hell is up with that name?) Some more clicking found me this open letter to George Lucas:
You might be aware that all of us who saw the "Star Wars" trilogy throughout the communist world saw it as an entertaining, yet still nonetheless powerful commentary on the current world events. We simply couldn't escape the conclusion that the militaristic and freedom-crushing Empire with its legions of stormtroopers is a futuristic version of the Soviet Empire, which had conquered and enslaved hundreds of millions of people like myself. . . .[citing Lucas]"In terms of evil, one of the original concepts was how does a democracy turn itself into a dictatorship," Lucas told a news conference at Cannes, where his final episode had its world premiere[end of cite]. . . . Yes, we were very wrong indeed - to you, the Empire was the United States of America, and if that's the case, then the brave rebels could only be all those people around the world fighting the American Empire - the Castros, Che Guevaras, Ho Chi Minhs, Pol Pots, and by extension, the Brezhnevs and the Mao Tse Tungs of this world.. . .You might well think that Anakin Skywalker's painful transformation into Darth Vader is somehow a perfect analogy for the political journey of George W Bush, but I have a sneaking suspicion that movie fans in Baghdad will have already recognized Darth Vader as one of their own - with a moustache rather than a black helmet. He, too, had two children, although they didn't turn up quite as cute as Luke and Leia. They names were Uday and Qusay. . . I will still go and see "The Revenge of the Sith" when it opens in Australia in a few days' time, and I will not stop enjoying the other five films just because I read their message differently to what you intended. (Emphasese mine.)
Someone seems to be a little unfamiliar with the concept of Science Fiction here. Also forgetful of their Roman history. Now, I'm about as unexpert about Star Wars as it's possible for a geek to be. I have not even seen Episodes I & II yet. (I was basically waiting on a verdict for Episode III.) However, you don't need to have your own Slave Leia or Elvis Storm Trooper Costume to realize that it's possible to have a movie set in a galaxy far far away, about what could happen to democracy gone awry, as a way of criticizing the direction we're going in, without actually thinking that we are, in fact, the Evil Empire and the communists of the world are, in fact, the Rebels. Instead you could be saying--hey, watch out--if we don't watch our act, our system too could become an Evil Empire and then we would have to be rebels! Just, you know, a thought.

Note that this outraged person still insists on seeing Revenge of the Sith. Brand devotion triumphs over willfully obtuse partisianship. Echo-chamber? Pshah!
Tuesday, May 17, 2005
Newsweek and the Quran story

Slate's Jack Shafer says almost everything that needs to be said about the alleged desecration of the Quran at Gitmo. Anonymous sources, tacit confirmation, and projected document quotes are all bad ideas. Lexis-searching for a meme is a good idea. Rhinocrisy points out a Juan Cole post that does give the story some teeth, but Shafer's analysis of Newsweek's use of anonymous sourcing still stands. It doesn't seem like we can say it happened. I also agree that the violent riots aren't Newsweek's fault. Of course, as Rhinocrisy points out, we are losing sight of the forest for the trees.
Monday, May 16, 2005
Trouble in Tashkent

Saurabh at Rhinocrisy does a good job of pointing out how we should all be paying more attention to Uzbekistan. I'm having a hard time figuring out exactly what went down this weekend, partially because reports are so murky and journalists have been expelled from the region. But apparently in Andijon, Uzbekistan, on Friday a mass demonstration somehow converged with a 2,000-strong jailbreak and the notoriously oppressive dictatorship fired on the crowd, killing anywhere from 50 to 500 people. (New York Times article.)

The Uzbeki dictator, Karimov, allows us--the United States--to maintain a base, and in exchange clearly expects our silent cooperation. The base is nominally important to us because of Afghanistan, but also because it's a "lilypad" surrounding a planned U.S.-built hydrocarbon pipeline from Central Asia through Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Arabian sea. There is a lot of suspicion that we also use Uzbekistan for the despicable practice of extrordinary rendition, essentially outsourcing torture. With items like boiling two men alive on his resume, Karimov is unusually qualified. (See this Guardian article by the former UK Ambassador to Uzbekistan, who says he was sacked for trying to stop MI5 from exploiting Karimov's skills; link from Rhinocrisy.) Karimov labels all opposition as Islamic extremism and waves his flag from alliance in the war on terror, and we seem to be going along for the ride. (If we are doing some backstage maneuvering to make this all better, that's great, but it's not what's being perceived by the billions watching us.) Many of the people of Andijon might have been much more interested in having a remotely free market for the commerce they need to survive.

By blindly labelling them as Islamic terrorists we may only succeed in making them yet another recruiting tool for actual Islamic terrorists. This is basically a textbook example of problematic American foreign policy: Support a dictator for extremely narrow economic and military gain, thereby helping that dictator violently oppress his own people, and creating a breeding ground of America-haters. And then the lack of journalism makes sure that the average educated, politically active American has no idea what's going on in his or her name.

The narrative doesn't have to go exactly this way though. Even if we can't change the way the Administration reacts, we can at least try to make it more clear to the world that some American people are paying attention and that we aren't thrilled about this. You can find out more about what's going on from Wanderlustress, a Peace Corps worker in Uzbekistan, and blogs Registan and blogs Registan and Scraps of Moscow. If the American reaction bothers you, write a letter to the editor of your local paper. Write to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the LA Times, encouraging them to invest more in reporting on Central Asia. If you vote in Nebraska, Rhode Island, Virginia, Minnesota, Ohio, Tennessee, New Hampshire, Alaska, Florida, or Indiana, you have a Majority (Republican) Senator on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Bug them. Bug your friends and relatives from those states. (Bug the Democrats too. Minority Senators are supposed to still have plenty of powers of oversight, even though this State Department likes to break the law and ignore them.) Let more international news forums like the BBC and The Economist know what you think as well.
Thursday, May 12, 2005
The Internet Movie Script Database

It exists and I thought you should know. It has a lot of scripts. I can't quite tell if it's legal or not. But it's pretty cool. I hope it stays around because now I can do things like correct and link to the quote from Shakespeare in Love:
But I have to pay the actors and the authors.
A share of the profits.
There's never any
Of course not!
Mr. Fennyman, I think you may have hit on something

I think they were wise to put in a semi-crappy HTML format. If anything, this is probably only going to make me more eager to buy bound, published scripts. So if you're a script publisher out there--please leave them alone! They'll help bloggers talk about your products. A lot of them are drafts, anyway. Just a few examples I randomly thought to look for--they've got versions of L.A. Confidential, The Godfather, The Godfather II, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Rushmore, and The Sting--the last very amusingly hawking a poster of Sting, the rockstar.
Robots Building More Robots

Cornell scientists Hod Lipson, Viktor Zykov and Efstathios Mytilinaios have published a report in Nature detailing their self-assembling robots. From the Cornell news release:
Their robots are made up of a series of modular cubes -- called "molecubes" -- each containing identical machinery and the complete computer program for replication. The cubes have electromagnets on their faces that allow them to selectively attach to and detach from one another, and a complete robot consists of several cubes linked together. Each cube is divided in half along a long diagonal, which allows a robot composed of many cubes to bend, reconfigure and manipulate other cubes. For example, a tower of cubes can bend itself over at a right angle to pick up another cube.
The cubes have a degree of freedom along the diagonal which makes the stacks amazingly wiggly. The video they've posted (wmv, no sound) is hypnotic to watch, and shows one stack of three aseembling into two stacks of three and then turning each into four. This is all these robots can do, but I'm still glad the computer program will probably just crash if it mutates! Otherwise you wouldn't want to leave a pile of these cubes alone for very long.
Wednesday, May 11, 2005
Mansions for Munchkins

These tiny houses, from the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, make all the in-law units and cottages I've ever seen seem like palaces. The smallest one is 50 square feet. From the description of the XS model: Because the exterior dimensions of this structure are well within the legal limits for travel on U.S. roadways, the XS-House can be taken almost anywhere. The porch and awning fold up for added convenience. Folding porches! Sadly, they don't really seem Manhattan-friendly, the one place I'd see this being really useful.
Tuesday, May 10, 2005
Math Music

For some reason, the other night Dave Bacon's Quantum Pontiff blog came up. I should have known visiting it would only cause trouble. Ladies and Gentlemen, I present some math music. A Capella, of course. I think the function describing your enjoyment of it should be something like half a period of a cosecant minimized at the midway point between a mathematical illiterate and a math major--that is, if you're close to being either of those, it probably won't be so bad. Where I sit, it's a bit painful.
Advice If You're Ever Elected To Congress

Don't go on golf trips to St. Andrews in Scotland if they aren't paid for by you or your family. It doesn't really matter how someone else pays for them---whether illegally, through a lobbyist group, or legally, through a charitable group--it just looks bad. Though I suppose you can make a case that the Capital Athletic Foundation's vital purpose of existence is to send needy congressmen to Scotland to perfect their swing. Perhaps that's what Ohio Republican Bob Ney was thinking when he asked lobbyist Jack Abramoff to arrange for him to check out the bonny lawns:
[Ney] explained that the lobbyist had invited him "to go on a trip to Scotland, which Mr. Abramoff said would help support a charitable organization, that he founded, through meetings with Scottish Parliament officials." That charitable outfit was the Capital Athletic Foundation, an Abramoff front. Why Ney would have to go golfing in Scotland or visit the Parliament there to assist an American-based charity remains an unsolved mystery . . .
This of course is tied up with the Indian-Casino lobbying scandal in which Abramoff, a close associate of Tom DeLay, seems to have cheated a tribe of millions of dollars by fraudulently describing his lobbying efforts for the reopening of their casino which he himself helped lobby to close--check out the American Prospect article excerpt. Don't they have golf courses in Ohio? I bet they could use a little business. Maybe from a new retiree.
Monday, May 09, 2005

Max and Sara-Kate at Apartment Therapy opened a new tube of toothpaste and took friendly blog-comments bets on how long it would last between them (a brush each, twice a day). They guessed 33, and documented the tube's lifecycle over the ensuing days. Check out mood effects that variations in lighting and context create in the resulting slideshow, particularly around days 16 and 27.
The Huffington Post

Has gotten off the ground. Nice clean layout, impressive cast of characters. Plenty of the kind of serious policy you'd expect: Harvard Professor Elizabeth Warren on unfair credit card debt, Congressman Ed Markey on nuclear proliferation, and Activist Laurie David on Ford's inept advertising of its rather latecoming hybrid Escape are just three of the 57 (!) blogposts which have been posted today. That's right, 57. The archiving and sort functions leave a little to be desired; maybe as they collect more author bios and people add multiple posts there will better ways to sort so many articles.

Nothing particularly novel has caught my eye, except John Cusack memorializing Hunter Thompson. He's one of my favorite actors these days, the rare kind who seems to animate his roles with more inner grit than mere Method would allow. It's not often that I see an admirable performance and think I'd particularly like to hang out with the actor who gave it. (Note that this is usually the opposite with stage performances.) Cusack is a major exception to that. It will be fun to see if he keeps up this blogging thing.

In general though, this seems to be merely collecting the voices of people whom we already hear from. It's an interesting, high quality condensation of what would normally be diluted in a hundred op-ed and MyTurn pages, and the ridiculously high frequency makes it a good instant source of punditry. But it doesn't feel fundamentally bloggy to me. There's no trackback, and very little opportunity for commenting. Blogs thrive on things like unusual experiences, oddly angled points of view, photographs, snippets of obscure information thrown into relevant relief, and reader participation. What's really needed is a forum of this calibre where it becomes obvious that the writers are paying attention to the readers responses. If Arianna can pull that off, then I'll be really impressed.
Hollywood Economist

Slate has a new series called Hollywood Economist by Edward Jay Epstein, and this morning's article is a great look at the Governator's outrageously lucrative Terminator 3 contract. To paraphrase some of my favorite lines from Shakespeare in Love, with Geoffrey Rush as the hapless producer Henslowe whose feet are tied up over coals by the scheming financier Fennyman, played by Tom Wilkinson, who has just decided to extract Henslowe's debts from a new play by one William Shakespeare:
Geoffrey Rush: But what will we pay the actors?
Tom Wilkinson: A share of the profits.
Rush: But there are never any profits. . .?
Wilkinson: Exactly.
To sum it up, Schwarzenegger used his absolute indispensability to the project to extract both a large base pay (~$30 Million) and 20% of the gross receipts for all profits after forcing a more sensible definition of what was profit. Despite my antipathy to the Governator, I'd normally shrug and say its his lucrative image to milk for what it's worth.

Two points gave me an icky feeling: Schwarzanegger's bull-dozed definition only applied to him and actually further decreased the possibility that anyone else (like writers) would ever see any royalties. Secondly, it's not Schwarzenegger who got paid but a made-up company that's his tax front, Oak Productions, which then lent his services to the movie. I can imagine all kinds of great tax breaks
Schwarzanegger could get from that--Oak Productions might be able to hold the money in some low-tax manner and then dole it out "to" him at an optimal rate. Or just buy him all kinds of perks and write them off as expenses? Who knows. It's kind of disgusting since of course the average salaryman or woman can't afford that kind of financial gymanstics to lower their tax rate, while Schwarzanegger could pay the maximum load and still be sitting pretty, and now of course, Schwarzanegger's political allies use that salaried resentment to push through taxcuts that probably benefit him a lot more than the average wage-earner. I suppose you can't expect anything else, but it's hardly heroic behavior.

The other three items in the series, so far, are pretty fun too: Michael Moore's profits on Farenheit 9/11, Eisner's Career at Disney, and the use of German tax shelters to finance most big budget movies. Epstein is the author of a "The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood," and it's hard to tell if these tidbits are new material on top of that or what. The series does amount to an ad for his book, and I'd like to find reviews of it to form a more educated judgement. Epstein does seem like a bit of an odd character, based on his website, complete with several pages devoted to 9/11 mysteries. He seems to be a fan of the theory that it was state-sponsored, and the state was Iraq. Still, it's all very interesting reading.
Friday, May 06, 2005
Notes From Correspondents

Brian Gerke wrote to me in consternation about this New York Times article about the British elections, quoting:
The voting seemed not to have been disrupted by an explosion outside the building housing the British Consulate in New York just after polls opened across the country at 7 a.m. local (2 a.m. Eastern time) The polls close at 5 p.m. Eastern time.
Brian wondered, "Why on earth would a tiny and amateurish explosion in New York (nine floors below the consulate, it should be noted) have any effect on the British election?" Pity even the Times is so Americentric--or perhaps it's just really Manhattan-centric. He continued, "I am, however, left with a very amusing mental image of a middle-aged woman in Leeds fretting to herself, saying, 'Oh dear, they've blown up a flower pot in the States; how shall we ever vote now?'" I'm guessing middle-aged, because of course anyone older would remember the Blitz and be quite unimpressed.

In other colorful imagery, Rishi sent me a decision by U.S. District Judge Samuel B. Kent, JOHN W. BRADSHAW, Plaintiff, v. UNITY MARINE CORPORATION, INC, that includes this:
Both attorneys have obviously entered into a secret pact — complete with hats, handshakes and cryptic words — to draft their pleadings entirely in crayon on the back sides of gravy-stained paper place mats, in the hope that the Court would be so charmed by their child-like efforts that their utter dearth of legal authorities in their briefing would go unnoticed. Whatever actually occurred, the Court is now faced with the daunting task of deciphering their submissions. With Big Chief tablet readied, thick black pencil in hand, and a devil-may-care laugh in the face of death, life on the razor's edge sense of exhilaration, the Court begins.
And it just goes on from there. It's posted on National Review, and I was concerned it was more conservative bashing of Judges, but Kent was appointed by Bush the First, and I think they just posted it because it's kind of unusual.
Thursday, May 05, 2005
Feliz Cinco De Mayo!

It's fifth day of the fifth month of the fifth year (and the fifth day of the week) * of these wild 2000s, and the 143rd anniversary of the defeat of the 8,000 strong French Army of Napoleon III by just 4,000 Mexican troops protecting Independance. This rather sweet and sappy sight outlines the story in a very happy, Pan-American way.

When I was a kid one of my favorite places to hang out was the Pasadena Public Library's main branch on Walnut Street, which has a wonderful children's library that's almost bigger than many branch libraries around here. I still remember that one of the first books I ever checked out from there was a novelized biography of Carlotta, Empress of Mexico, whose husband's doom was first heralded on Cinco de Mayo. Despite myself, I'm still rather moved by accounts of his last minutes: I forgive everybody. I pray that everybody may also forgive me, and my blood which is about to be shed will bring peace to Mexico. Long live Mexico! Long Live Independence!, he shouted in Spanish - the last words of the Austrian Archduke now so far from Vienna.

It is a bit odd to have such a happy holiday which celebrates a battle, but I guess plenty of time has passed, so have a good fiesta!

*Since most of the Spanish I remember is from Sesame Street, I think it's fitting that I should now have stuck in my head the classic song "Give me 5! Oh give me 5! Give me 1,2,3,4 but if you love me more, Give me 5!"
Wednesday, May 04, 2005

What kind of New York Times Article file name is that? A health-related one, it turns out. Let us set the scene, figuratively. A student walks into her advisor's office. The rustle of papers pauses. Her academic future is being crafted by the decisions they will make. Her professor has told her he has a research idea for her to pursue. A project for her to take responsibility for. What will be her contribution to human knowledge? What intellectual adventure will he send her on? What must she do?

She must go to supermarkets, decide if she thinks a child is ugly, and then see if they've been properly strapped to their parents' shopping carts.

Alright, so honestly I have no idea if that's how the project was conceived at the University of Alberta, but I gotta imagine that there was some interior drama when researchers were informed this was how they would spend their days. Back to the facts: According to Nicholas Bakalar, author of today's NYT article, "Ugly Children May Get Parental Short Shrift," Dr. W. Andrew Harell led a research team that went to 14 supermarkets, observing 400 child-parent interactions, rating each child's attractiveness on a 10-point scale. (That's right, children of Alberta, stumbling upon this blogpost in a few short years when you're old enough to search the internet--those childhood grocery store trips you remember so fondly? That guy with the clipboard and the funny mustache who was standing behind the lettuce? He was deciding if you were ugly or not. And you thought all Canadians were so nice.) Sorry. The facts, again, from the article:
When a woman was in charge, 4 percent of the homeliest children were strapped in compared with 13.3 percent of the most attractive children. The difference was even more acute when fathers led the shopping expedition - in those cases, none of the least attractive children were secured with seat belts, while 12.5 percent of the prettiest children were. Homely children were also more often out of sight of their parents, and they were more often allowed to wander more than 10 feet away.
The study hasn't been published yet, so there's no quick way to get at the details of their methods and data. I'm not convinced by the statistics, but I'll leave that alone for now. The method as described seems a bit weak, though. Did the same researchers who rated the children aesthetically also rate the parents' safety precautions? That hardly seems like a double blind study. In such a perception-heavy field, that seems like it leaves a little too much discretion to the perception of the reseachers. Click the timestamp/permalink for more of my experimental critique. Here's what I would have done: Take a little video of each interaction, along with a good snapshot of each child. This is perfectly possible with today's little digital cameras, if not necessarily legal. Index them to each other, blur the faces in the videos, and then give one set (photographs) to one group of researchers to rate for ugliness, and another set (videos) to another group of researchers to rate for neglect or danger.

I felt a bit of experimental angst reading this data exactly because of the statistics. Since it is so very perceptive, it seems to me that you would want to duplicate this experiment many times in different places, with different people, before you ever said anything. Then you could at least look at the standard deviation of the results, etc. etc. As it is, you are basically stuck with the statistics of a survey. The researchers seem to have rather arbitrarily labeled their subjects as following into one of two catogies, A & B ( pretty and ugly) and then are basically interrogating those subjects (not literally, but figuratively) for a binary measure of neglect: yes or no. At best the relevant sample size is 400, and the confidence bars should go 1/SquareRoot(400), or 5%. But the 13.3% and 4% figures are each of the subgroups, ugly and pretty. Assuming, nicely, that there are 200 of each we are left with 7%. Which is just a bit to close to the actual difference (9.2%) to make me feel this is an earth-shattering conclusion. I'd also be more convinced if it wasn't plausible there was something special about the 9.2% difference that the researchers hadn't noticed. Or if the study was done of fraternal, same-gendered twins. But it's good enough for Maureen Dowd to get a clever column out of today.

This reminds me of the Akbar's wiseman Birbal. Akbar asked Birbal to find him the prettiest child in the capital. Birbal went and found what the courtiers thought was an extremely ugly child. They were standing around staring at the child, confounded by Birbal's choice, making the child very uncomfortable. The child started crying, and his mother ran out--after chastising the men for bothering her child, she took him on her lap, covering him with kisses and calling him her beautiful one. The Emperor got Birbal's point: to many a mother, their children are the prettiest. So far, my guess is still that Birbal is usually right.

Link from Slate's human nature by William Saletan.
Tuesday, May 03, 2005
"Man, That Recruiter is Aggressive!"

I was just telling some friends that I really enjoyed the recent Doonesbury sequence where young Alex Doonesbury talks to an Army Recruiter, horrifying her Dad and Stepmom Kim, who then try to keep the guy out of their house. It was funny and seemed perfectly exagerated for comedic effect--making fun of all the young Alexes for being so easily swayed by a signing bonus, affectionately ribbing a properly enthusiastic recruiter, and mocking her somewhat conservative Dad for his sudden apathy to the military. Sadly, it turns out it wasn't an exxageration but an understatement: check out this CBS news story about 17-year old high school journalist David McSwane and the tapes he made of his local recruiter (in Golden, CO) giving him advice on how to fake a diploma and fake out a drug test. Well, if the Army won't be recruiting this kid soon, I hope a college with a good daily paper will be. Link from Rishi.
Monday, May 02, 2005
Feeble Younger Brother

Back in February I blogged about Sony's QRIO robot, which aims to be "an entertainment robot that lives with you, makes life fun, makes you happy." Apparently, according to this Japan Today article, QRIO now spends some time with toddlers in a San Diego nursery school:
"While the children were at first apprehensive about Qrio, they now dance with it and help it get up when it falls. "The children think of Qrio as a feeble younger brother," researcher Fumihide Tanaka said."
I wonder if they happened to choose a nursery school that was bully-free.
Drip Drip Dry: The Oil Is Running Out (Revisited)

My friend Climateboy highlights what sounds like a great little book: Out of Gas by David Goodstein:
The book is political only after it makes its reasoned, scientific arguments. Essentially Goodstein recognizes the impending global energy crisis, makes conservative estimates of how far away this crisis will be (following the more statistically and logically sound reasoning of Hubbert and followers), and concludes that the world can't keep going like this much longer. We must find an alternative to fossil fuels. Keeping a strong grounding in fundamental physics, giving some of the relevant physical and historical context, Goodstein reviews the pros and cons of known alternatives, and finds all of them lacking.
Good stuff, and Climateboy has more on the book's clarity of argument and careful use of freshman-level physics to explain things. Last July I blogged about the yearly British Petroleum report on the world's energy reserves. Our estimate of the grand total amount of fossil fuels we can possibly ever squeeze out of this planet is referred to as the ultimately recoverable reserves, or URR. After a long preamble about the error bars on the URR, the report gave us this bit non-reality based thinking:
Economists often deny the validity of the concept of ultimately recoverable reserves as they consider that the recoverability of resources depends upon changing and unpredictable economics and evolving technologies.
As I said then, denying the concept doesn't make it go away. We will run out. It might be in 50 years, it might be in 100 years, it might be in 200 years, but it will be sometime in that time range. Its something we need to think about. As I blogged in August, we can't rely solely on the shell-game of hydrogen fuel-cells. They're just very nifty batteries, but the energy supplying them has to come from somewhere.

Personally, I still hold great hope for solar energy and think that the lack of dollars we put into researching it is biggest obstacle to making it real, though I'll have to see what Goodstein says on the topic. Climateboy writes:
Out of Gas is a call to engineers, physical, social, and even life scientists to wake up and start to address this problem immediately. The stakes are high, and the rewards of successfully averting the coming catastrophe are even greater.
This reminded me of Tom Friedman's recent appearance on the Daily Show, where he said that American society needs to inspire young people to become engineers, and that this generation's man-on-the-moon promise could be alternative energy research. I often quibble with Friedman's liberal use of metaphors, but this basic point clearly holds. What's also clear is that this administration is not going to be making the necessary clarion call anytime soon: The Department of Energy's solar energy budget for 2004 was $83,393,000, and they're actually asking for $80,333,000, 3.7% less in 2005. (See this pdf, page 5.) So it's upto us to pass information like this around, encourage young engineers, and put pressure on our politicians to start digging us out of this mess. Keep an eye on Climateboy's blog for more conjunctions between science and politics.

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Goodstein, a physics professor and the Vice Provost of Caltech, when I was a child--he and his charming wife Dr. Judith Goodstein sat with my family at my sister's graduation banquet, which was also the school's centennial celebration. Judith Goodstein is a historian, and she kept me thoroughly entertained all evening with Tech tales. Years later I met Dr. David Goodstein again at the 1999 American Physical Society centennial conference, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that he remembered me. I look forward to looking for his book.
Saheli Datta started this when she was a journalism student at Columbia in New York. Now she lives in the Bay Area. *Old people call me R. New people, call me Saheli. Thanks! My homepage. Specifically, my links. Email me: Saheli [AT] Gmail [dot] Com


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Blogs I Read (Or Try To)
113th Street
american footprints(Nadezhda & Praktike)
ANNA's Diary
Apartment Therapy
Armchair Generalist
Back To Iraq 3.0 (Chris Albritton)
Dave Barry
The Bellman
Mine's On The 45 (Brimful)
Campaign Desk (CJR)
Combing the Sphere
Crooked Timber
Daily Dose of Imagery
The Daily Rhino (Bong Breaker)
Dark Days Ahead
The Decembrist
Brad DeLong
Atanu Dey on India's Development (Deeshaa)
Daniel Drezner
Cyrus Farivar
Finding My Voice
Neil Gaiman
Ganesh Blog
Geeky Chic 2.0 (Echan)
Green Ink!
Alexandra Huddleston
Iddybud (Jude Nagurney Camwell)
India Uncut
Intel Dump: Phillip Carter et al
The Intersection (Chris Mooney)
Jesus Politics
John and Belle Have a Blog
Mark A. R. Kleiman
KnowProse (Taran Rampersad)
Maenad (Nori Heikkinen)
Scott McCloud
Mind Without Borders
Electrolite: Patrick & Teresa Nielsen Hayden
Corey Pein
Political Animal(Kevin Drum, formerly Calpundit)
Kevin G. Powell
QuakeHelp (South Asian Quake)
Radiation Persuasion (Nick)
Scott Rosenberg(
Rox Populi
Nick Schager
Idea Spout: Daniel Sanchez
Sepia Mutiny
Amardeep Singh
Snarkmarket (Robin Sloan & Matt Thompson)
South-East Asian Earthquake and Tsunami Blog
SreeTips: New To Sree
Steprous (Bear)
Robert Stribley
Talking Points Memo: Joshua Micah Marshall
Tech Policy
A Tiny Revolution
To The Teeth
Manish Vij
Vinod's Blog
War and Piece
Nollind Whachell
Matthew Yglesias:Old
Zoo Station:Reuben Abraham
Ethan Zuckerman

Some Categories

Blogs focusing on policy, politics, and national security:
Armchair Generalist
Back To Iraq 3.0 (Chris Albritton)
The Decembrist
Brad DeLong
Daniel Drezner
Green Ink!
Iddybud (Jude Nagurney Camwell)
Idea Spout: Daniel Sanchez
Informed Comment: Juan Cole
Intel Dump: Phillip Carter
The Intersection (Chris Mooney)
Irregular Analyses
Jesus Politics
Mark A. R. Kleiman
Liberals Against Terrorism(Nadezhda & Praktike)
Political Animal(Kevin Drum, formerly Calpundit)
Talking Points Memo: Joshua Micah Marshall
War and Piece

Photo Blogs
Daily Dose of Imagery
Alexandra Huddleston
Radiation Persuasion (Nick)

Columbia Journalism Folks
Apartment Therapy
Back To Iraq 3.0 (Chris Albritton)
Campaign Desk (CJR)
Ranajit Dam
Cyrus Farivar
Alexandra Huddleston
Corey Pein
Nick Schager
Zoo Station:Reuben Abraham

Literature, Fiction and Entertainment
Dave Barry
Neil Gaiman
Electrolite: Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Scott McCloud

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