Saturday, August 12, 2006

Where did all the stuff go?

According to the Seattle Times it was like Christmas in August at Sea-Tac.
Several janitorial employees at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport said Friday that a search of the garbage near security lines was "like Christmas."

"It was like shopping," one man said. Pricey perfumes, lipsticks, unopened toothpaste and bottled spirits were among the most common hauls, he said.

But the goods were all but gone Friday when savvy passengers packed their toiletries in their checked luggage instead.

"It was just a one-day sale," an employee said.
At other airports authorities threatened serious disciplinary action against employee trash pickers, though it's not clear that the severe strictures were ever enforced before travelers accommodated to the new security rules and the bonanza disappeared.

Today's Air Security Trivia Quiz: Assuming all the items confiscated by TSA had been properly disposed of instead of taken home by airport workers, how far would the contraband reach if all the individual containers had been laid end-to-end?
A. From Earth to the moon and halfway back again.
B. From New York City to Omaha.
C. From New York City to Washington, D.C.
The correct answer, based on Madison Guy's back-of-the-envelope calculations, is C.

Back-of-the-envelope Calculation Methodology: Figure roughly 1 million passengers brought liquids or gels with them to the security lines before word got out to leave this stuff at home or put it in checked baggage. Estimate combined length of items carried by average passenger, keeping in mind that some normally check all their baggage, and some don't. Figure this averages 1.2 linear feet for each passenger. Divide 1.2 million linear feet by 5,280 feet per mile. Result: 227 miles. NY to DC distance via Yahoo Driving Directions = 232 miles. Close enough. Washington it is.

None of this answers the real question: Why now? Since Al Qaeda terrorists first planned to use liquid explosives in the 1994 Bojinka plot over the Pacific, have we been vulnerable all this time? Has this laissez faire attitude toward bottled water, perfume and lip gloss been endangering air travelers for years? And even the nutballs in London -- they've had them under surveillance for 18 months and they just confiscate liquids now? Why were they OK on Wednesday and potentially lethal on Thursday?

Maybe this has something to do with it. Associated Press reports that the Bush administration was trying to divert bomb-detection money as recently as this year.
Lawmakers and recently retired Homeland Security officials say they are concerned the department's research and development effort is bogged down by bureaucracy, lack of strategic planning and failure to use money wisely.

The department failed to spend $200 million in research and development money from past years, forcing lawmakers to rescind the money this summer.

The administration also was slow to start testing a new liquid explosives detector that the Japanese government provided to the United States earlier this year.
Which leads to this Bonus Quiz Question: How confident are you that Michael Chertoff and his Bush administration cohorts know what they are doing?
A. Highly confident.
B. Somewhat confident.
C. Can you spell Katrina?

Friday, August 11, 2006

Let’s talk about real estate for a moment, shall we? (Don’t worry, the dots all connect in the end.)

We briefly interrupt our regular coverage of the Forever Campaign and the Forever War to talk about the collapsing housing market, though in the end it all seems to tie together.

Lew Scannon at Unbrainwashed had a good post on this subject the other day that caught my eye. He talks about the growing mismatch between net worth and earnings and wonders if we’re finally seeing the end of the suburban dream, or worse. His post is titled It Doesn’t Take a Clairvoyant and has some good links.
The housing bubble is dangerously close to popping. Housing sales have declined for the past nine months in a row. And those are new houses, older houses, refinanced at new housing prices are expected to take a hit if the bubble bursts. If the bubble does burst, it could plunge the economy into a recession.
We’re just seeing the beginning of this process. As the economy slows, there will be hell to pay. Probably the only way politicians in Washington can escape their constituents' wrath is to keep that Forever War stoked and at a fever pitch. (As noted, the dots all connect in the end.)

On to Iran! Nuclear bunker busters! Armageddon! Glory be!

Compare versions for yourself: AFP waters down its story on Bush benefiting politically from British airline terror plot

This is priceless. Agence France Press came out Thursday with a scathing report on White House manipulation of the news of the foiled British airline plot. Reading it was like lifting a rock and seeing some very unpleasant creatures scuttling around. The article documented how Cheney, Bush and other officials coordinated their partisan statements around their foreknowledge of the arrests in London, to the obvious delight of Republican partisans.
"Weeks before September 11th, this is going to play big," said another White House official, who also spoke on condition of not being named, adding that some Democratic candidates won't "look as appealing" under the circumstances.
Nothing was edited out in the later, softened version. Far from it. Instead, they simply balanced the Cheney and Bush quotes with some Democratic comments by Harry Reid and John Kerry. That seems fair enough, doesn't it?

Not really. Think about it -- the first article made a pretty strong case that the White House used its inside information about the terror plot for partisan gain. The Democrats didn't have any inside knowledge. By adding some Democratic commentary -- and changing the headline to reflect the new, more "balanced" approach -- the revised article made the whole thing look like just another example of partisan political bickering.

Here are the URLs of the two versions, labeled with their two different headlines. Comparing them provides an interesting vantage point on so-called "objective" mainstream journalism as it's practiced today. Judge for yourself.

"Bush seeks political gains from foiled plot"

"Bush, foes seek political gains from foiled plot"

And that, kiddies, is how the game is played.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Deja vu all over again?

"We live in a nation of dummies," says Shakespeare's Sister, commenting on news reports stating that 30% of all Americans have forgotten which year the 9/11 WTC terrorist attacks took place.

If those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, we're in trouble. Big trouble.

News about new version of old Bojinka plot raises more questions about timing of new terror alert than it answers

According to the New York Times , the airline bombing plot uncovered by the British authorities leading to the new security precautions announced this morning bore a distinct similarity to the 1994 Al Qaeda plot foiled by the Clinton administration to blow up airliners over the Pacific. Like the current plot, the "Bojinka" plot involved liquid explosives.
The Bojinka plot was anything but nonsense. At an apartment in Manila, Mr. Mohammed and Mr. Yousef began mixing chemicals, which they planned to put into containers that would be carried on board the airliners, as the London plotters are said to have been planning to do.
Question: Given Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff's stunning performance during Hurricane Katrina, how much confidence should we have in his handling of this situation?

Question: If the government knew all along that Al Qaeda had once plotted to use liquid explosives on planes, why wasn't this previously reflected in airline security procedures? Why now? Can you spell politics?

UPDATE: Joe Lieberman seems to have answered that last question.
“If we just pick up like Ned Lamont wants us to do, get out by a date certain, it will be taken as a tremendous victory by the same people who wanted to blow up these planes in this plot hatched in England,” Mr. Lieberman said at a campaign event at lunchtime in Waterbury, Conn. “It will strengthen them and they will strike again.”
Looks like Karl Rove really is running his campaign ...

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The trouble with the conventional wisdom is
that it's conventional

And so it’s the last to catch on when there’s major change in the air -- the cluelessness of Dylan’s Mister Jones.

Thomas Kuhn would probably call it a paradigm shift, but in politics we usually talk about generational change. A tidal wave is sweeping through American politics, and it's expressing itself in strong anti-incumbent sentiment. Joe Lieberman was a casualty, but not the only one, and there will be many more this November.

In politics old ideas don't die, they just exit center stage and make way for the ideas of a new group of players. Although McGovern lost in 1972, his supporters became the core of Democratic Party boomer politics for the next thirty years.

Now it's time for a new crew. I, for one, look forward to it. It's not as if the boomers, as a group, have anything better to offer. And they've messed things up pretty good.

Time for a change.

Enter Marcos Moulitsas and his netroots generation. In his morning-after post, Kos lists the winners and losers as he sees them. Leading the winners:
People-powered politics. At YearlyKos, caught up in the moment, I foolishly made the following prediction in my keynote address:
Lieberman is going to lose.
Why was I so confident?
Just today we get news of a new poll out of Connecticut. A month ago, a Quinnipiac University had the Senate Democratic race at 65 percent Joe Lieberman, 19 percent Ned Lamont.

Today's poll? Lieberman's lead has shrunk to 55-40 amongst likely Democratic primary voters.
See that? Insanity. I saw Lamont losing by 15 points, and somehow that foreshadowed Lieberman's loss. But I was excited because we had just seen Jon Tester crush his opponent in Montana despite being tied in the polls. People-power propelled him to victory and I expected the same would happen in Connecticut. Tonight we saw that people-power is not just a Montana phenomenon but a national one, and it can move mountains.
We’re just seeing the beginning of this paradigm shift, this generational transformation. But for the time being, here are my own winners and losers.

Winner: Kos, who had this nailed very early on, long before most of us thought it was possible.

Loser: Joe Lieberman. Americans hate sore losers and usually laugh them out of town. November is many Colbert, Stewart and Leno shows from now. Lots of good material in the website saga alone. Pay $1,500 to a consultant who sets you up with a cheapo $15/mo. hosting service and pockets the rest? Pretty funny. The FBI report should be even funnier.

But the real loser is an older political generation that, like every generation before it, had its chance, made its contributions, but now is starting to head for the exits. And the real winner is America.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Santa comes early for the netroots as "deer" old Joe crashes and burns and incumbents everywhere cry, "Oh! Oh! Oh!"

No wonder they're worried. Looks like one of those years when a tidal wave of discontent will sweep incumbents out of Congress and hand control of both houses to the other party.

Here's how to make this optical illusion work

Taking photos like this is one of the most primal of photographic impulses, probably because it plugs directly into that undercurrent of magic on which the photographic enterprise rests -- we wish we could pick up tall buildings with our hands, and briefly, the camera makes it so. But usually it doesn't work. The illusion isn't this seamless. Usually, the picture just looks silly. But this one works (posted by Dave Gray at Visual Communication).

What makes this photo work? It's the tilt of the Washington Monument that tricks your eye. Dave, or rather Dave and his unseen partner behind the camera, made sure he was leaning toward the monument and that the horizon line was not clearly visible. Then, by cropping the photo at the waist, tilting it and aligning it along the axis of his torso, the monument comes out tilted.

We see what we expect to see. If the monument were photographed in its "original upright, vertical position," the eye would see it as the Washington Monument and the hands as an intrusive trick. Break that alignment, and the monument looks like a toy in Dave's hands.

A very nice effect, and one that could be cloned with many different background objects. Remember to 1) Lean toward the object; 2) Crop at the waist; 3) Make sure the horizon line isn't visible, so viewers can't see at a glance that you're going to 4) Tilt the picture, aligning along the axis of the subject's torso. Enjoy!

Fueling terrorism fears -- last refuge of scoundrels?

They used to say patriotism was the last refuge of scoundrels, but these days the appellation should probably go to the people who use all the means at their disposal to whip up fears of terrorism. Cory Doctorow comments on a recent study in BoingBoing.
From the number of fatalities produced by terrorism to the trends in terrorism death to the fact that almost no one has ever died from a military biological agent to the fact that poison gas and dirty bombs in the field do only minor damage -- this paper is the most reassuring and infuriating piece of analysis I've read since September 11th, 2001.

The bottom line is, terrorism doesn't kill many people. Even in Israel, you're four times more likely to die in a car wreck than as a result of a terrorist attack. In the USA, you need to be more worried about lightning strikes than terrorism. The point of terrorism is to create terror, and by cynically convincing us that our very countries are at risk from terrorism, our politicians have delivered utter victory to the terrorists: we are terrified.
The study was authored by Ohio State University's John Mueller and published by the Cato Institute (hey, they’re not wrong about everything -- and the study quotes Michael Moore favorably). From the paper, which is available here as a pdf file:
Filmmaker Michael Moore happened to note on CBS’ popular “60 Minutes” last year that “the chances of any of us dying in a terrorist incident is very, very, very small.” His interviewer, Bob Simon, promptly admonished, “But no one sees the world like that.” Both statements, remarkably, are true -- the first only a bit more than the second.

It would seem to be reasonable for someone in authority to try to rectify this absurdity. In Kunreuther’s words, “More attention needs to be devoted to giving people perspective on the remote likelihood of the terrible consequences they imagine.” That would seem to be at least as important as boosting the sale of duct tape, issuing repeated and costly color-coded alerts based on vague and unspecific intelligence, and warning people to beware of Greeks bearing almanacs.
Fortunately, whipping up hysteria only works so long, and then the public seems to tire of it. We seem to have reached that stage. Of course, that doesn’t mean the cycle can’t start all over again with a new terrorist incident here at home. Can you spell October Surprise?

If I weren't so damn lazy and so in need of instant feedback, I'd be doing some Holga photography

Years ago I bought an old box camera from the St. Vincent De Paul Society, threw in a roll of 120 film that was lying around and started shooting away. The results were wonderfully bizarre photos, with a strange, out-of-focus softness (due to cheap lens) and wild, surreal color fringes around everything (again, due to cheap lens).

Shooting with a Holga is kind of like that, but more so. With the Holga, you can add circular, often off-center vignetting to the mix, weird perspectives from a wide-angle lens, as well as random light streaks from sloppy construction that is far from light tight. But I'm lazy, addicted to the instant feedback of digital photography, and can't stand to wait for film prints to come back from the processor. Sometimes I try to outfox the machine intelligence of my little Minolta Dimage X and fool it into Holga-like ways, sometimes by moving the camera quickly while pressing the shutter. More often I'll deliberately try to take pictures where there's not enough light.

But it's not the same. There's something about a photograph taken with a Holga that is completely different from anything by any other camera, and that look is the basis of the "Holga esthetic."

I was reminded of my fondness for Holga photographs by some I saw on the Alphabitch blog. The first link goes back to when she started with the Holga a few months ago.
A while back Ms. Twisty mentioned that she'd acquired a Holga, and I started reading about them and decided I absolutely had to have one. Judging from the comments at Twisty's place, I was not the only one.

As you can see on this photo of my neighbor's lawn, the camera does all kinds of amazing things, what with the light leaks, and odd shadows around the edges, and the unpredictable focusing. I think this one, like the one below of poor dear Pirate Jenny, was shot on expired slide film and cross-processed. [Update: but the gal at the place where I had it processed says that they wouldn't have done that, that it must have been negative film, not slide film. But the negative says "fujichrome" on the edge, and all the other rolls of fujichrome film I have are slide film. Whatever. It looks cool.]
More photos are at this link, including the one at the right. Most of her photos are in color (expired color film she bought on eBay), but I like the slightly ominous starkness of this black and white shot, even though it doesn't show the full Holga color effects. I think what gives it the strangeness is the wide-angle effect of the lens, which (along with the Holga's inherently poor resolution) makes it look a bit like a pinhole camera shot.

"Whatever. It looks cool." -- that's about the best description I've seen yet of the Holga esthetic. Call it "Holgatude."

Unbelievable growth of the blogosphere -- like Moore's Law on steroids

According to Technorati founder and CEO David Sifry, Technorati tracked its 50-millionth blog on July 31. I won't try to summarize his report, other than to say the blogosphere has been doubling roughly every six months. Just go here and read it.
Technorati has been tracking the blogosphere, or world of weblogs, since November 2002, and I'm constantly amazed at the growth over the years. The blogosphere has been doubling in size every 6 months or so. It is over 100 times bigger than it was just 3 years ago.

Whenever I write about these statistics, I'm always asked by people, "Can it continue to grow this quickly?" Frankly, I can't possibly imagine it continuing to grow at this pace - after all, there are only so many human beings in the world! It has to slow down.
What can I say? Double a few more times and we won't even have enough people left to fight the Forever War in the Middle East. Everyone will be hunched over a keyboard.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Rest easy. Things could be a lot worse. The Rapture Index is holding steady at about 158, or thereabouts

All hell breaking loose in Lebanon. Continued chaos in Iraq. Now the Alaska pipeline going down and jacking up gas prices some more (thanks, BP). It's getting kind of spooky. Are these the End Times? Should I be bracing myself for the sudden heavenly ascent of thousands (millions?) of people, probably not including me? Fortunately, thanks to Alphabitch, I can rest easier. She guided me to the invaluable Rapture Index, about which she wrote three weeks ago:
We're at 157, apparently. It seems that a reading of 145 & over means that there is indeed some very heavy prophetic weather, though the site's author(s) are careful to note that the index is "designed to measure the type of activity that could act as a precursor to the rapture." So yeah, the peace process is back to zero, and whaddya know: global turmoil, liberalism, and Russia (!) are all on the rise.

The record high index reading, 182, occurred 9/24/01, while the all-time low (57) was 12/12/93. This year it's been running pretty steadily in the 150s. We're moving pretty briskly in the direction of the "pre-tribulation rapture."
Well, we may headed in the direction of "pre-tribulation rapture," but I personally take comfort from the fact that, as of today, the index stands at 158, up only one from Alphabitch's post three weeks ago, despite all the intervening chaos. It's well short of the high of 182 recorded in September 2001.

Here's the LINK. Consider it your apocalyptic early warning weather radar during these difficult days. Load it into your wireless PDA or browser-enabled cellphone. Don't leave home without it.

Lebanon ceasefire resolution seems designed to fail

Dead on arrival. That's the way Robert Fisk views it in the Independent:
So the great and the good on the East River laboured at the United Nations Security Council - and brought forth a lemon. You could almost hear the Lebanese groan at this draft resolution, a document of such bias and mendacity that a close Lebanese friend read carefully through it yesterday, cursed and uttered the immortal question: "Don't these bastards learn anything from history?"

And there it all was again, the warmed-up peace proposals of Israel's 1982 invasion, full of buffer zones and disarmament and "strict respect by all parties" - a rousing chortle here, no doubt, from Hizbollah members - and the need for Lebanese sovereignty. It didn't even demand the withdrawal of Israeli forces, a point that Walid Moallem, Syria's Foreign Minister - and the man the Americans will eventually have to negotiate with - seized upon with more than alacrity. It was a dead UN resolution without a total Israeli retreat, he said on a strategic trip to Beirut.
It figures. Can you think of anything with John Bolton's fingerprints on it that has actually worked?

Monday sunrise blogging

Roof of the Conservation Carousel, Henry Vilas Zoo, Madison, WI.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Once again a major magazine analyzes the blogosphere and falls on its face when all they needed to do, really, was some reading

I love The New Yorker. It's a great magazine, and where would Seymour Hersh find a home to continue his probing reports without them? They even use the Internet, grudgingly it seems, by usually posting major stories like the Hersh reports online. But like all print publications, they feel threatened, their business models are quaking in their boots, and they periodically wrestle in print with the issue of the blogosphere's new upstarts. The latest effort involves putting Nicholas Lemann on the case, in an article titled "Amateur Hour: Journalism Without Journalists."

The essence of Lemann's methods in "Amateur Hour" is to identify some straw men (and women) he calls "citizen journalists" and then beat the shit out of them.
The category that inspires the most soaring rhetoric about supplanting traditional news organizations is “citizen journalism,” meaning sites that publish contributions of people who don’t have jobs with news organizations but are performing a similar function.

Citizen journalists are supposedly inspired amateurs who find out what’s going on in the places where they live and work, and who bring us a fuller, richer picture of the world than we get from familiar news organizations, while sparing us the pomposity and preening that journalists often display.
Unfortunately, Lemann doesn't find that "fuller, richer journalism." Instead, he finds small town suburban gossip.
Barista of Bloomfield Avenue, the nom de Web of Debbie Galant, who lives in a suburban town in New Jersey and is one of the most esteemed “hyperlocal bloggers” in the country, led with a picture from her recent vacation in the Berkshires. The next item was “Hazing Goes Loony Tunes,” and here it is in its entirety:

Word on the sidewalk is that Glen Ridge officialdom pretty much defeated the class of 2007 in the annual senior-on-freshman hazing ritual yesterday by making the rising seniors stay after school for several minutes in order to give freshmen a head start to run home. We have reports that seniors in cars, once released from school, searched for slow-moving freshman prey, while Glen Ridge police officers in cars closely tracked any cars decorated with class of 2007 regalia. Of course, if any freshman got pummelled with mayonnaise, we want to know about it.
Come on, Nick! Open your eyes. If all you're seeing is unfiltered, trivial gossip, that's because you seem to find it reassuring to find just that. There's a whole world out there, connecting in ways it never has before, but if you don't have the time to find something good to read, here are a couple you can start with:

How Do You Know What You Know? by Meteor Blades. It's just the best thing I've read, bar none, about the tragic conflict in Lebanon -- personal, deeply knowledgeable, sensitive and heartbreaking, all while managing to sidestep the name-calling on all sides that keeps sabotaging discussion of the issues.

Summer of Goodbyes by Riverbend in Baghdad Burning: I’ve said goodbye this last month to more people than I can count. Some of the ‘goodbyes’ were hurried and furtive- the sort you say at night to the neighbor who got a death threat and is leaving at the break of dawn, quietly. We've had many brave journalists in Iraq, and many have died doing their jobs. But there's nothing like the first-person account of someone who has to live there and cannot go back to a (semi)safe hotel at night and increasingly has to worry about masked men coming to the door with death on their minds. From the beginning, Riverbend has been sending out these notes in a bottle over the internet, and if you want to know what George Bush and his gang have done to this country, just sit down and read her blog from beginning to end and watch the early flickers of hope dim and go out.

That's just a couple, Nick -- but there are more than you could read in a lifetime. This is why people are so passionate about the blogosphere and will never again settle for a few gatekeepers as the arbiters of what is important and true.

Develop your powers of visual thinking by drawing stick figures

You can learn a lot on the Web -- like how to cultivate your inner artist and develop your powers of visual expression by mastering the universal language of drawing stick figures. Dave Gray writes about this at Squidoo.
The stick figure is one of the most common types of sketches. It's extremely useful to convey many thoughts and ideas. The stick figure is also used in many international symbols, to convey important information to those who can't read the local language.
At Communication Nation -- a fascinating blog about the intersection of art, design, creative thinking and business -- Dave tells how to draw them. Note his first point:
1. Most people start a stick figure by drawing the head. This is a mistake. Since a stick figure represents the whole person, the best way to draw it is the way you see a whole person. Think about what you notice first when seeing someone from a distance. Always start with the body. The body is the center of gravity and motion. By starting with the body you will capture the essence of the gesture you want to convey.
But in art, rules exist to be broken.

Moral Turpitude is a young woman law blogger in Madison, WI. She clearly never saw Dave Gray’s rule, or if she did, she’s breaking it. The stick figure cartoons that accompany her blog posts are all head and stick and no body at all -- except for the cats. There’s no way you can represent a cat as a stick. The low-res, brightly colored computer-drawn cartoons are accompanied by brightly-colored short bits of humorous text about the mundane details of everyday life, little more than captions. In fact, the blog is basically a series of very funny cartoons about everyday life -- with a bit of stuff thrown in about the travails of getting started in practice for yourself (while holding down a job for the health insurance).

But you never can tell what will happen when someone starts thinking visually. Moral Turpitude had an earlier blog, one that was also funny but more conventional in structure. Now that she's blogged her way into cartooning, how long can those law books hold her?