Saheli*: Musings and Observations
Sunday, April 30, 2006
 
ElectroTaps
by ToastyKen



This is an automatic bugle that plays Taps all by itself. Here's the full text of the caption:
The U.S. military has found the perfect way to demonstrate that it's purely the thought that counts. This bugle emulator sits in a real bugle and plays a collection of calls, including "Taps." Due to a shortage of actual bugle players, the Pentagon had already ordered 700 of these to be used at military funerals in 2003.
Is it just me, or does "shortage of actual bugle players" sound like a euphemism for "a surplus" of, well, the need for bugle players? :P Morbid, yes, but, on the other hand, I also find the phrase "shortage of actual bugle players" kinda hilarious, too. It just sounds so ridiculous. :P

(Found via /., where some comments point out that military funerals have been using CD players more and more, so this is an improvement.)

(Whoa! Another /. comment points out that there's actually an organization of volunteer bugle players called Bugles Across America. Now this post is actually linked to the activism theme of this blog. :) )
 
Thursday, April 27, 2006
 
A Little Optimism
By Scotto

I just noticed that today is the (12th) anniversay of the post-apartheid elections in South Africa. In other words, the first elections ever held in South Africa without racially restricted voting rights.

Change -- for the better -- is possible! Happy Freedom Day, South Africa! Nkosi sikelel' bonke abantu.
 
Tuesday, April 25, 2006
 
Off the backboard, through the Internet, across to the UN, over the Atlantic, into Africa, NOTHING BUT NET
by ToastyKen

A Sports Illustrated column titled, Nothing But Nets, is asking people to go donate to the UN Foundation to help buy mosquito nets for Africans to fight malaria. I can't vouch for the UN Foundation's effectiveness or anything, but I love the tie-in aspect of calling it "Nothing but Nets", and I love that it's a in a Sports Illustrated column, of all places. At the very least, the column's novelty factor has helped it to spread the word (This blog post is a case in point!) about just how big a problem it is. (A couple million deaths a year!)
 
 
Happy birthday to containers and Chernobyl
by Colin

Sorry to bump ToastyKen off the top of SSRBlog, but I can't let this day go by without noting the anniversary of two critical moments in 20th century history. The first is the 20th anniversary of the explosion at Chernobyl, which spewed radiation across Eurasia and killed (by various estimates) thousands to hundreds of thousands of people. It remains the worst nuclear disaster in history. Today is also the 50th anniversary of the first use of the now-ubiquitous cargo container, the hidden heart of global commercial integration that means we drink water from Fiji and wear clothes made in Bali. Historians will argue which event was more calamitous.
 
 
Virtual Iraqis
by ToastyKen



You've probably heard of Massively Multiplayer Online Games like EverQuest and World of Warcraft. There's also a smaller market for MMOGs that don't center around violence. I interviewed at one such company a couple of years ago, called There. (Yes, it led to many "Where?" "There." "Where?" "There." jokes. :P) They don't seem to have done as well as Second Life, possibly because Second Life actually allows users to write their own scripts to introduce new behaviors into the game. (Though I think it's more likely due to the fact that they didn't hire me. ;) j/k )

Anyway, There eventually announced that they got a military contract to adapt their game for military training. This I found really interesting. Eventually, that became the focus of the company, which then changed its name to Forterra Systems. The old There product languished and eventually spun off into its own company. Forterra has a couple of interesting videos on their site: Company Video and Defense Video.

Now, using computer games for military training is nothing new. I think the military's even used modified versions of Quake for training. There are two new things here: (1) many people from all around the world can participate in a single simulation, including off-duty soldiers, and (2) in addition to combat tactics training, their software also has a focus on the non-violent and cultural interaction that are big parts of our deployment in Iraq today.

On that second front, I recently saw this Wired article titled, Troops Learn to Not Offend. A company called Tactical Language Training, spun off from USC research, is writing computer games to teach soldiers nonverbal cues and cultural taboos. From the article:
Ironically, although the game was developed for the military, it contains no weapons or combat situations. It emulates a civil affairs mission and develops like a multipart story in which soldiers must gain the trust of the people they interact with in order to rebuild communities. "I got a kick out of removing the weapons and replacing them with gestures," Vilhjalmsson says.
I'm glad, too, that the military is spending at least some fraction of its research budget on cutting edge technology that actually tries to reduce violence. :)

In somewhat news, I randomly heard on Live 105 a mention of mydeathspace.com. " Only three things are certain in life. MySpace, Taxes, and Death. If you have a MySpace account and you die, this is where you will end up." Disturbing! The directory summarizes reasons for death, and most are because of car accidents, unsurprisingly. The relatedness? There are a few entries where the reason is listed as "Iraq": Sgt. Akers killed by an IED, Lance Cpl. Modeen and Sgt. Stevens killed by an IED, and Sgt. Jakoniuk killed by "Non-Combat Related Injuries". (He was a Blackhawk crewman, so presumably it was some sort of helicopter accident.)

You can click on their pictures to get to their old Myspace profiles. *shudder*
 
Friday, April 21, 2006
 
One Step Closer to Being Human
by Scotto

Outside of driving, nothing gets me more frustrated than dealing with the terrible customer "service" you get calling most companies. This is frequently (though not always) due to the computer voice trees they set up.

If you have to deal with the same, then I heartily recommend Paul English's GetHuman.com, which offers ways to escape these computers in the form of better phone numbers, special key combinations and other tricks. The recent interview with English on KQED (to which I would link, but I can't find it) made note of the common policy of "trapping" calls -- deliberately trying to stop callers from reaching a human, so as to save on costs. The cost it increases -- angry customers -- seems to only gradually be appearing in the corporate calculus.

Right now the site has a lot of US companies up, and are hoping to expand into Canada. What they need to expand are some volunteers to test submissions. These guys are are heroes, so if you're looking to do something good out there, this isn't a bad place to try.

UPDATE by SAHELI: Scotto noticed that this is the blog's 1001st post, so I'd like to thank all the humans, robots, marsupials, otters, cephalopods, insectivores, pirates and ninjas who read and write for this blog. Thank you for participating!!
 
Tuesday, April 18, 2006
 
Cephalopod Sex Update
by Scotto

As much as well all love the darn things, it turns out some squid are kind of ***holes.
... in general, [southern dumpling] squids tend to be solitary, unromantic animals with a propensity to cannibalise their neighbours and take sexual favours by force.
Who knew? Apparently Dr. Sinn of the University of Tasmania, who studies squid personalities. Apparently, "within that profile" these suckers are may be relatively bold or shy cannibal rapist misanthropes. Miscephapodes?

And you have to trust a guy named Dr. Sinn.
 
 
Happy Survival Day, Homeland Mine

100 Years today ago the city I'm in shook and burned, and the region as a whole went through a lot of shock and trauma, but it survived. Here's to survival.

Be prepared, and help your community prepare.
 
Monday, April 17, 2006
 
Pigs now fly, planes now don't
by ToastyKen

Patrick Moore, a founding member of Greenpeace, has written a WaPo article advocating nuclear power.

In related news, some Chicago company is turning Lear Jets into Limos:



That appears to be a CGI mockup. Here's what the real thing looks like so far.
 
Thursday, April 13, 2006
 
Google Calendar

I'm not sure what I think of the new calendar.google.com. Admittedly by its very nature it's impossible to evaluate in a day--you have to see how it performs over an extended period of time. But the sharing of calendars immediatley strikes me as a bad idea--do I really want to know what friend-so-and-so thinks is a better thing to do than hang out with me? How many times Miss X does laundry? When Buddy Joe Smith is going to his dermatologist? Do I want them to know about my movie watching habits? What a weird concept.
 
Tuesday, April 11, 2006
 
That's So Cool!

I'm still bouncy and grinning because on the way to work this morning I saw the neatest combination of cool, geeky, cute, and good--a Brompton folding bike. This lady just wheeled it over the escalator, went up with me while she told me how it worked, unfolded it, and biked away. Totally worth the trans-Atlantic, trans-continental shipping costs!!
 
Sunday, April 09, 2006
 
The Inside Track on the 2007 Oscars
by Colin


It was pissing down rain yesterday in DC, so I spent the afternoon watching Spike Lee's Inside Man, a Denzel Washington/Jodie Foster/Clive Owen/Willem Dafoe/etc bank heist flick that gets my vote for this year's Oscar. That's not because it's a great film, because it's not, but because it's the first picture to figure out what made Crash so popular. And that is a new, positive, trend in American cinematic taste.

I know I've complained about Crash in a previous post, and I still think it had plenty of problems. But with Inside Lee has caught onto Crash's timbre of a multiethnic, pluralistic portrayal of America, however clumsy. The actors come in all shades of the rainbow -- black, white, Latino, Asian, and even a Sikh -- and get into at least a cursory discussion of race throughout the movie. It's not the most sophisticated dialogue ("So then this bl-- er, African American -- kid pulled a gun on me ...") but it's a hell of a lot better than, say, Charlie's Angels. At one point white SWAT cops mistake the Sikh, a released hostage, for an Arab and rip off his turban, which leads him to complain about losing his civil rights. (Denzel counters by saying "Well at least I'll bet you can get a cab!") Later when Denzel and colleagues are trying to decipher the bugged robbers' conversations, he says "This is New York -- somebody out there on the street's got to speak this language!" In fact, the hero of this multi-headliner is just as much American diversity itself as any of its stars.

The other plus is that it's a clever film, with an intricate plot. Any time American tastes run toward the complex it's a good thing. This is pretty much the complete opposite of NASCAR. There are explosions and some gratuitous shooting, but by and large the film is psychological and pleasantly unpredictable.

I hope we get more films like this, smart and multiethnic with an undertone of celebration to that diversity, and I'm glad it's getting good reviews. Go see Inside Man, at least as a matinee. Especially if it's raining.
 
Saturday, April 08, 2006
 
Le Sigh

I'm a bit worn out. I've been firing off black humored emails to my friends with rants and vignettes like this:

Person, tidying up a hospital room, holds up small bottle: Is this bottle something we should take home? What do we do with it?
Saheli: Well, what does the label say?
Person: It says, "All kinds of dangerous."

And calling them up late at night with inane requests for advice because I can't think straight. C'est la vie. Somehow, we have to make sense of it and do the best we can. Ah well, please be patient.

Anyway, you'll note that I have added a blogbadge to the right-hand sidebar:it's a link to a CIVIC/GiveMeaning campaign to raise money for medical care for two Iraqi women, Manal & Aliyah, who are civilian collateral damage from our little adventure there. I'm afraid I can't compose an eloquent appeal beyond asking you to read their stories. The director of the campaign emailed me personally to ask for help, and I cringed when I saw that the day they'd been shot by American troops in a checkpoint misunderstanding had been my birthday.

Anyway, below the fold, find some thoughts on the 62+ comment thread about Petroleum and Breakfast.

Continue Reading Here.



First, to the main point at hand--how can we better engineer our consumption to be more sustainable?

I think a lot of this discussion is being skewed by our not being practiced at holding multiple causes in our heads. In particle physics we would always talk about modes of decay--multiple phenomena could lead to the final event recorded in our detector, and our job in analysis was very often to tease out how much of the signal was due to cause A, how much to cause B, cause C, etc.. If the interactions of the tiniest particles can have so many components, much more complex phenomena, like ecology and behavior, almost certainly do. I don't want to *demonize* anything, but sprawl AND highways AND inefficient vehicles (AND computers AND agricultural subsidies AND. . .etc..) are all to blame in various amounts. My original plaintive request--for a little "engineering"--was essentially a request for some hardheaded tools of analysis for teasing apart these modes of destruction, figuring out where there was leverage and how an individual can figure out how their life interacts with those points of leverage, and how they can best exert the personal energy and resources they have to devote to the cause in the most optimal way. That's what I mean by engineering, not building a better car or better solar cell. Engineering as the systematic, quantitative solving of problems.

Rishi wrote: Echan brings up a great point, which is when you start to question any particular energy expenditure, the cost / benefit value of the use versus the environmental cost (assuming we value the environment very highly) seems to make any activity wasteful. . . My point is not mass suicide, of course, but to point out that when you start to think of any action on a micro level, including your drive to the store, or eating your bowl of cereal in the morning, you are never going to find an environmentally efficient one. It is only on the macro level that these questions even make sense.

This is true, but its truth shows that I did not express my original quest very well. Reductionism is always dangerous if you don't keep the big picture in mind. But reductionism is a tool for holding the big picture in your mind in the first place. It can't be dismissed out of hand. Spherical cows are also absurd, but they can still be useful.

Michael brought up the footprint calculator, which was actually sent to me by Peter during the initial conversation that led to the blogpost. I agree with TK that equal sharing of all resources is a useless and unnecessary thing to strive for--some poeple don't even want to have the what would be their equal share of the whole, and what you work for has to be taken into account somewhere--but I disagree with him that this makes the footprint calculator fallacious. Even if we were the average world consumers, the equality assumption in the calculator would be a good metric of how sustainable our consumption was. As it is, we are almost certainly at the high end of consumption. Our high demand is driving up the price for everyone so that some people can't even surive. Also, as Michael replied, we already have the 6 billion people. Even rapidly declining birthrates isn't going to decrease that number without equally drastic amounts of death and suffering. I'd like to find some other way.

When you actually think about the mechanics of the problem, it mostly has to do with things like habit, convenience, and imperfect information. So I'm actually interested in building practical tools. I'm thinking of actual calculators, software for a cellphone, notebook templates and worksheets for keeping track of purchasing choices, 12-step programs, diets, something--to make for better habits and routines. There's a lot of hyperbole about going on a "shopping diet," but it's actually a powerful analogy if you're willing to get beyond faddish advice. For example, I've lately had to think a lot about how to construct a very specific diet for someone with a lot of health issues. What was before a casual, effortless thing--eat three times a day, what you mostly feel like, trying not to make it too horribly unhealthful--has now turned into a carefully recorded and planned excercise in adding up calories, grams of protein and percentages of potassium, and balancing that against palatability and ease of preparation. When someone is healthy, anything goes. When someone is sick, you have to engineer their diet. Our planet is sick.

Finally, I'm not going to contort myself into philsophical knots trying to defend my desire to make sure the environment isn't irreparably damaged and the planet lasts for a good long while, despite the eventual heat death of the universe. Of course we have to balance that with other concerns--but we're wasiting time in doing that complex balancing act if we're still arguing about the validity of the concern. I just assumet that it is a valid concern. Conversations have to have some basic assumptions and that's mine. :-p

And I'm tired, so I'll talk about more meta-matters of social activism, capitalism, and the like later.
 
Thursday, April 06, 2006
 
Ding, dong the witch is dead?
by Colin


It looks like it's finally starting to happen. Five and a half years into what has been possibly the worst administration in modern American history, the calcified wall of silence surrounding the Bush White House cracked a little this morning. As reported today on the Washington Post web site, Lewis "Scooter" Libby testified to the grand jury before his indictment that President Bush authorized him to leak classified information about Iraq. It wasn't just Rove or Cheney -- the order to divulge secret information in blatant violation of the law came straight from the Oval Office.

This comes on the heels of the guilty plea by Tony Rudy, former deputy chief of staff to Tom "The Hammer" Delay, to charges of bribery and corruption. Delay's former chief of staff Edwin Buckham was named in court papers released last week by DOJ as having collaborated with Rudy and Abramoff (now sentenced to six years in prison for corruption), and Delay himself still faces major corruption charges in Texas, the reason he cites for not running for re-election. And let us not forget former Republican San Diego Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham, who was sentenced to eight years for bribery and corruption last month.

I'm not saying it's over, not by a long shot. The Republican grip on power is still strong so long as they hold both chambers of Congress, the White House, and possibly the balance of votes on the Supreme Court. But as the election season approaches we're going to be seeing more and more revelations of corrupt and unconscionable Republican behavior. Democrats, veterans, journalists and every other concerned American needs to hold the Republicans' feet to the fire on these issues, and get out the vote to take back DC.

(The only slight bright spot for Republicans this week was the flap over Rep. Cynthia McKinney's brouhaha with the Capitol Police, which allowed them to briefly deflect attention at a news conference.)
 
 
Four Things I Wish To Make Known

1. I really like the discussion going on in the post about petroleum and breakfast, despite its cantakerousness, and I hope it continues.
2. I have a lot of things to say about it.
3. I'm horribly painfully busy and cannot yet organize my thoughts on the subject. So please keep it up without me.
4. This video, courtesy of Apostropher at Unfogged, is simply one of the most wonderful web videos I have ever seen*. (I've linked directly to the video, but Apo's intro's funny too.) If you want snarky commentary and interpretation (gay, hot, sexy, whatever--these things are not my concern) Unfogged can do that much better than I can. All I can say is that I was having a no-good, very bad, quite awful day, and this thing made me laugh--appreciatively!!!--so hard that I dropped the keyboard and almost fell off the chair.

*The closest competitor that comes to mind is Matt is Dancing Around the World. In case you haven't noticed, I have a weak spot for dancing.
 
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)
ChennaiCentral
ClimateBoy
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
Ennis
Ephemera
Cyrus Farivar
Finding My Voice
Forsv
Neil Gaiman
Ganesh Blog
Geeky Chic 2.0 (Echan)
Geomblog
Green Ink!
Heliolith
Alexandra Huddleston
Iddybud (Jude Nagurney Camwell)
Indeterminacy
India Uncut
InSpiteOfEverything
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)
1Locana
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)
Reneebop
Rhinocrisy
Scott Rosenberg(Salon.com)
Rox Populi
Felix(&Rhian)Salmon
samVaad
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
Subjunctive.net:klog
Talking Points Memo: Joshua Micah Marshall
Tech Policy
TiffinBox
A Tiny Revolution
To The Teeth
TreeHugger
Unfogged
VatulBlog
Venk@
Manish Vij
Vinod's Blog
War and Piece
Nollind Whachell
Wonkette
WorldChanging
Matthew Yglesias:Old
Yglesias:Tpmcafe
Zoo Station:Reuben Abraham
Ethan Zuckerman
Zwichenzug



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
Eschaton(Atrios)
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
Wonkette
Yglesias:Tpmcafe

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

Columbia Journalism Folks
Apartment Therapy
Back To Iraq 3.0 (Chris Albritton)
Campaign Desk (CJR)
Ranajit Dam
Cyrus Farivar
Alexandra Huddleston
InSpiteOfEverything
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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