Saturday, April 22, 2006

Spontaneous symmetry breaking

Spontaneous symmetry breaking is a more general and scientific term for what is often called a tipping point. Wikipedia:
A common example to help explain this phenomenon is a ball sitting on top of a hill. This ball is in a completely symmetric state. However, it is not a stable one: the ball can easily roll down the hill. At some point, the ball will spontaneously roll down the hill in one direction or another. The symmetry has been broken because the direction the ball rolled down in has now been singled out from other directions.
These two scenarios for an early end to the Bush presidency existed until the last election, when spontaneous symmetry breaking took place, and one was eliminated. Ever since it’s all been downhill, with possible impeachment at the bottom. One out of two ain’t bad.

Friday, April 21, 2006

When the world revolves around you, it's easy to mistake a person for a Kleenex

Shakespeare’s Sister posted a Reuters photo of George Bush's boorish behavior toward Chinese President Hu Jintao at their meeting the other day. It reminded me that Bush has never been what you'd call a people person, but it also reminded me of something else...

Something I thought I saw on the Letterman show during the 2000 campaign -- something so weird that I originally thought I had imagined it. It was George Bush latching onto a woman producer’s shirttail during a commercial break and using it to wipe his glasses. That couldn’t have really happened, could it? Presidential candidates don't do things like that, and if they did, it would be a big incident, wouldn't it? I must have imagined it in a fit of partisan pique.

Nope, it really happened. Here's the video.

Blogs as career accessories for the clueless

Is blogging good for your career? Well, duh -- yes and no. It depends. The Boston Globe’s recent article, “Blogs 'essential' to a good career,” drops the qualifiers and offers some simplistic bullet points -- blogging is great training, blogging provides more opportunities, blogging can move your name up in Google rankings, etc., etc.

The problem isn’t with what the Globe says. If people are looking for obvious tips, these are as good as any. What’s more troubling is the suggestion that we all want to be relentless corporate networkers with everything in our lives -- blogs included -- dedicated to constant career advancement.
''I used to have liberal politics on my website as well, but my mentor said, 'Dude, you gotta trim that off.' Which was fine because in the world of liberal politics I was just another piece of noise."

Now his blog is all about software development with an emphasis on technologies such as NHibernate and C#.
Sounds like someone’s been to a corporate reeducation camp and come out bland and harmless. Fortunately, it’s probably a self-limiting trend. Blogging that has become just another business card exchange is boring blogging that won’t find much of a readership.

Will bicycle bell use become mandatory? Should it?

We’ve been too busy with other matters in Madison, Wisconsin to make bicycle bells mandatory and think about sending out the bicycle bell police, but it’s probably only a matter of time. The bike paths are crowded. Already, across the pond, the Pedal Bicycle Safety Regulations Act makes bells mandatory equipment in the UK, a Thatcher era experiment in bicycle bell deregulation having proved too injurious. (“In 2002, 170 pedestrians collided with a cyclist - three of those died, and 40 sustained serious injuries, according to the Royal Society.’) Ditto for some of our neighbors to the north.
In parts of Canada, bell-less cyclists can be pulled over by the police and fined up to $100 - about £40. One rider familiar with the traffic-clogged roads of Toronto says she thought the law was an ass - until she took to two wheels herself.

"I found I used the bell all the time. I rang the damn thing like a maniac, and I think it saved me more than once."
Bring it on, I’m ready. Mine was a gift, and I fell in love with it. Not only is it cheerful, but its tone, muted by the plastic, is less intrusive than the more insistent metallic bells. And it’s responsive -- if I brush the wheel lightly with my finger, the bell makes a tactful little “pling.” Which often is all that’s required. A more aggressive turn of the wheel gives all the warning I need in a real emergency.

What’s your warning technique on a crowded bike path that mixes walkers, roller bladers and everything from casual bikers to road racers in training? Do you find “on your left!” too abrupt, almost rude? Is “excuse me” too defensive? What’s better? Do you use a mechanical device -- or just hold your breath and hope for the best as you dodge silently through traffic?

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Is anything as despicable as hiding behind the skirts of a federal judge and using “intellectual property rights” to curb free expression?

One look at the face of the Benevolent and Honourable Site Master of the Unofficial Site That has Nothing to Do with [Redacted] said it all. He looked like a beaten man and sounded even worse.
So, the banner's changed a bit here at the...uh.. well, you know where you are. This post was supposed to be about a foot article I found - I do NOT have a foot fetish. I just found this funny story, but... And then we were going to relay our beliefs that "the guy who this site was named for" had ties to all sorts of horrible moments in history -- AS A JOKE, MR. NO FUNNY! I guess the judge wouldn't find that amusing.
The soul of his website had been ripped away, its very name effaced by the legal minions of a certain Official Site of [Redacted] whose owner shall remain nameless. Under a barrage of restraining orders, Sitemaster seemed about to give up his battle and pack it in altogether. Fortunately, it seems that our bit of moral support helped him buck up and regain his fighting spirit. We’re confident that he will see this struggle through. Restraining orders are as nothing in the face of such grit and determination. Fight on, Sitemaster!

As for the owner of the eponymous Official Site, all we can say is, “Have you no shame, sir? No shred of decency?” Predatory legal maneuvers like yours are exactly what will reduce this once great nation to a state of intellectual gridlock. If these maneuvers in the name of intellectual property rights are allowed to stand, soon a person will no sooner have a thought than another person (with power and money) will get an injunction. But for now, it’s still a free country and we intend to keep it that way. Our readers will be keeping a sharp eye on your machinations and hovering protectively around the Unofficial Site That has Nothing to Do with [Redacted], via the links at right.

Nikon had to do something to stay in the game, so they decided on an edgy look

The consumer digital photography market is viciously competitive, and some famous camera makers like Minolta have already gotten out of the business. For Nikon, marketing its reputation as a producer of legendary professional gear hasn't been selling nearly enough point-and-shoots. They knew they had to try something different.

The Nikon version of a Hail Mary pass was to get edgy. Once edgy meant looking bad. Now it means being bad. Bad in the sense of Kate Moss, whose fondness for the white powder was the talk of the tabloids some months ago, almost wrecking her career. Almost, but not quite, as the NYT explains.
"It shows how relevant she is," Jenn Ramey, Ms. Moss's American agent, said this week, just days after Nikon introduced a new campaign for its Coolpix S6 digital camera built around a series of photographs of a mostly naked Ms. Moss.
FOR Anna Marie Bakker, the director of communications at Nikon, Ms. Moss seemed an obvious choice to promote a brand aggressively trying to shed its fusty image and seduce the notoriously fickle imaginations of young consumers. "Part of the appeal is that she is truly an enduring style icon," Ms. Bakker said. "But most importantly, she appeals to Nikon as we try to move our product forward, because she has an edge."
The idea is not just sexy, in a dubious but distinctly transgressive fashion. It is also a shrewd exploitation of brand. "From the minute her name came up, we loved the idea of Kate endorsing a camera," said Mr. Oberlander, the McCann Worldwide executive. What could be better, Mr. Oberlander said, than giving a camera to the woman who has spent her life as the focus of its gaze and letting her "take the lens and turn it on the audience?"
The question is, will the audience notice? More specifically, will it notice the camera?

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

You can’t go wrong blaming illegal immigrants for falling wages, or can you?

Illegal immigration as a wedge issue has mostly divided Republicans against each other, but it’s also proving troublesome for liberal Democrats. Several weeks ago, Paul Krugman added his influential voice to the chorus of critics saying illegal immigration depresses wages. (Link to his Op-Ed here if you have Times Select access.)
Because Mexican immigrants have much less education than the average U.S. worker, they increase the supply of less-skilled labor, driving down the wages of the worst-paid Americans. The most authoritative recent study of this effect, by George Borjas and Lawrence Katz of Harvard, estimates that U.S. high school dropouts would earn as much as 8 percent more if it weren't for Mexican immigration.

That's why it's intellectually dishonest to say, as President Bush does, that immigrants do ''jobs that Americans will not do.'' The willingness of Americans to do a job depends on how much that job pays -- and the reason some jobs pay too little to attract native-born Americans is competition from poorly paid immigrants.
Liberals hate being called intellectually dishonest, especially if that puts them in the company of George Bush. But did Krugman overstate the economic case against immigration?

Apparently so, according to Eduardo Porter’s piece in the Sunday NYT (this one has free access.
As Congress debates an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws, several economists and news media pundits have sounded the alarm, contending that illegal immigrants are causing harm to Americans in the competition for jobs. Yet a more careful examination of the economic data suggests that the argument is, at the very least, overstated. There is scant evidence that illegal immigrants have caused any significant damage to the wages of American workers.
Porter gives a dramatic example, contrasting what has happened to low wage jobs in California (lots of illegals) and Ohio (very few):
California may seem the best place to study the impact of illegal immigration on the prospects of American workers. Hordes of immigrants rushed into the state in the last 25 years, competing for jobs with the least educated among the native population. The wages of high school dropouts in California fell 17 percent from 1980 to 2004.

But before concluding that immigrants are undercutting the wages of the least fortunate Americans, perhaps one should consider Ohio. Unlike California, Ohio remains mostly free of illegal immigrants. And what happened to the wages of Ohio's high school dropouts from 1980 to 2004? They fell 31 percent.
Most of the article is about shortcomings in the study by Borjas and Katz cited by Krugman, with the two economists conceding that the impact is much less than they calculated. Other experts say that when all relevant aspects are taken into account, there’s virtually no impact on wages.

Which is not to say that low-wage workers aren’t being left behind by our supposedly booming economy. They are. But the reason has more to do with the economic, fiscal and social policies favored by many of the same politicians who are scapegoating illegal immigrants.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Warming up?

As the globe keeps warming without the Bush administration doing a damn thing about it, Al Gore jokes don't seem so funny anymore -- and the president we really elected is starting to look more and more capable than the one who was handed the keys to the White House by the Supremes in 2000. He might look even better next month after his global warming documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," makes its nationwide debut. The New Yorker's editor, David Remnick, attended a screening recently.
It is past time to recognize that, over a long career, his policy judgment and his moral judgment alike have been admirable and acute. Gore has been right about global warming since holding the first congressional hearing on the topic, twenty-six years ago. He was right about the role of the Internet, right about the need to reform welfare and cut the federal deficit, right about confronting Slobodan Milosevic in Bosnia and Kosovo. Since September 11th, he has been right about constitutional abuse, right about warrantless domestic spying, and right about the calamity of sanctioned torture. And in the case of Iraq, both before the invasion and after, he was right—courageously right—to distrust as fatally flawed the political and moral good faith, operational competence, and strategic wisdom of the Bush Administration.
You don't actually run into the adjective “noble” in The New Yorker all that often. Remnick uses it this week to describe the way Al Gore has conducted himself since his last -- but perhaps not final -- run for the presidency.

Gore's nascent campaign, if that's what it is, may be warming up with the climate. Global warming could be the wild card of the 2008 election. And nobody is better positioned to play that card than Al Gore.

Service economy makes work for academics, or is it academic make-work?

OK, so this is how it’s going to work -- we ship off our science and engineering jobs to lower-cost producers in Asia, and then we replace them with majors in “services science”? The NYT on the new academic discipline that hopes to fill a gaping void:
The push for services science is partly a game of catch-up — a belated recognition that services now employ more than 75 percent of American workers and that education, research and policy should reflect the shift. "Services is a drastically understudied field," said Matthew Realff, director of a new program at the National Science Foundation to finance university research in the field. "We need a revolution in services."

Kurt Koester, a 24-year-old graduate student in engineering at Berkeley, is eager to take part. Yet engineering alone, he observes, can often be outsourced to lower-cost economies overseas.

Mr. Koester's special interest is biomedical engineering, which combines engineering and biology. He is also taking the services science course at the Haas School of Business at Berkeley. He figures it will someday help him manage teams of technologists, spot innovations and new markets, and blend products and services.

"I love engineering, but I want a much broader and more diverse background," he said. "Hopefully, that will be my competitive advantage."

His personal strategy, according to economists, is the best way to prepare for an increasingly global labor market.
And then when those jobs go overseas as well, perhaps we can start training “meta-service scientists” to manage the service scientists whose jobs moved to India. It’s a plan.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Will the real Grant Miller please stand up?

A self-identified tax-dodging plutocrat who commented here on procrastinating taxpayers, he maintains an "official site," which appears to be engaged in a protracted and ugly battle with a darkly mysterious "unofficial site."

Confusion abounds in the blogosphere. Will the "real" (see usage note) Grant Miller please step forward?

Young Sisyphus tries to move the world

Sisyphus never was a good listener and tended to hear things out of context.

"Give me a place to stand and I will move the world," said Archimedes. He was talking about the lever, which he had invented.

Sisyphus heard the part about moving the world, but never got the thing about the lever, dooming him to a life of futility, an eternal losing battle. If he had just listened and used a lever, everything would have been different. Countless authors would have had to find new metaphors, and Camus would have had to rewrite the entire damn essay.

Christmas in April: With the help of Bush administration tax policies, Santa helps those who help themselves

Now that the taxes are in (TurboTax "congratulated" us on having our e-file returns accepted by IRS and the State of Wisconsin), there's some time to read about the part tax policy plays in the growing economic inequality in this country. As the LA Times explains today, we basically have the flat tax that Malcolm Forbes used to rant about -- and which very much helps those who help themselves.
But as millions of Americans face the deadline for filing their federal tax returns, they are operating in something very close to the world Forbes and other flat-tax visionaries proposed. Without any fanfare or philosophical debate, millionaires and middle-class Americans now pay taxes at almost the same rates. Has leveling out federal income tax rates produced a cornucopia of financial benefits? The answer is probably yes — if you're a millionaire. And probably no — if you're almost anyone else. Flattened, and thus lower, tax rates have contributed to huge increases in the wealth of the wealthy, but so far most people haven't seen significant economic improvement.

"It's as if Santa Claus dropped bags of money down everybody's chimney," said Leonard E. Burman of the private Tax Policy Center. "Only he dropped extra-big bags in rich people's homes, and extra-small ones in smaller homes."

Though most pay at least somewhat less in taxes than they did a few years ago, the Federal Reserve Board, in its latest three-year examination of family finances, found that average family income fell by 2% between 2001 and 2004 after adjusting for inflation. In the previous three-year period, average family income grew by 17%.

Thanks to more credit card debt and borrowing against their homes, the 25% of Americans at the bottom of the wealth scale had negative net worth in 2004. On average, these families owed $1,400 more than their possessions were worth.
A growing number of the bottom 25% are actually bankrupt, but the law will no longer allow them to declare it. The ranks of the homeless are bound to grow -- which at least promises a form of equality. As Anatole France wrote, "The poor have to labour in the face of the majestic equality of the law, which forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread."

Procrastinators had a crowded 3-day weekend as Easter bumped up against the income tax filing deadline

The good news for procrastinators this year was that April 15 fell on a Saturday, giving them 2 extra days to prepare their taxes. The bad news for some was that Easter fell on the same weekend. Procrastinating Easter celebrants found themselves a) putting the taxes off until Monday but ending up obsessing about them on Easter Sunday; b) taking time away from the festivities to do the taxes on Easter and leave Monday for unanticipated glitches; or c) getting a head start on Saturday, thus cutting into the procrastinator’s traditional time to procure Easter basket goodies.

In case you’re wondering how the date of Easter is calculated, you’ll find a wealth of information at Calendar & Easter Topics -- probably more than you want to know. Be warned that it’s written by an Australian who gets quite exercised about references to Easter being tied to the “vernal” equinox, because for him it's not. He's also unhappy about a certain lack of precision in the everyday way of talking about full moons.
Sadly, many definitions of Easter on the Internet and in Encyclopaedias and Almanacs are misleading, ambiguous and just plain wrong! This is obvious with the application of plain commonsense. A typical wrong definition is:

Easter Sunday is the Sunday following the full moon after the Vernal Equinox. This is wrong!

Vernal means spring, and countries in the Southern hemisphere have opposite seasons to those in the Northern hemisphere. Of course, Easter is not celebrated in September in the southern hemisphere! Most astronomers interpret "Vernal Equinox" to mean the March Equinox, but even that is equally wrong in this definition, but for different reasons (see below).

Also, I think that almost everyone reading this would assume that "full moon" refers to an astronomical full moon date. An astronomical full moon (AFM) occurs at one instant in time, and therefore occurs on 2 dates around the world (consider countries either side of the international dateline!). Again, countries do not celebrate different Easter dates based upon their own full moon dates!
How often does it happen that the filing deadline is the Monday after Easter? It happened 8 times in the 20th century (most recently 1990 and 1995) and will happen 8 times in the 21st century (2001), but on an irregular basis. It will happen again in 2017 and 2028, but after that your Easter weekend will be free of worries about Monday filing deadlines until 2063.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Easter showers...

... bring May flowers.

Names for a networked world?

Are these people using their children as fashion accessories, or is something more fundamental going on? The NYT on child-naming trends among the rich and famous:
Not that a name like Apple Martin stands out among celebrity children anymore. The director Peter Farrelly plucked that very name for his daughter before Apple Martin came along. Even that name seems drab compared with Hollywood baby names like Pilot Inspektor, cooked up by Jason Lee, the star of "My Name Is Earl," or Banjo, the inspiration of the "Six Feet Under" star Rachel Griffiths, or Moxie CrimeFighter, a name chosen last year by the comedian and magician Penn Jillette for his daughter.
While names like this may seem to reflect the excesses of parental ego, perhaps these parents are just trying to prepare their children for life in a networked world. One thing about a name like Moxie CrimeFighter is that it will definitely stand out on Google.

Feinstein speaks out on Iran

The Bush administration's disingenuous threats of a preemptive nuclear first strike against Iran remind me of small children playing with matches, children with no idea of the harm they could cause. California Senator Dianne Feinstein provides a warning in the LA Times that a lot more is at stake than kids burning down their house.
There are some in this administration who have been pushing to make nuclear weapons more "usable." They see nuclear weapons as an extension of conventional weapons. This is pure folly.

As a matter of physics, there is no missile casing sufficiently strong to thrust deep enough into concrete or granite to prevent the spewing of radiation. Nuclear "bunker busters" would kill tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of people across the Middle East.

This would be a disastrous tragedy. First use of nuclear weapons by the United States should be unthinkable. A preemptive nuclear attack violates a central tenet of the "just war" and U.S. military traditions.
I sure hope somone is listening.