Friday, December 07, 2007

Quick, someone give Paul Soglin a bag of emoticons so he has some smileys handy to label his satire :-)

Blue Bike on Ice
Last year was a great year for winter bicycling in Madison. Believe it or not, I took this photo of my bike on Lake Wingra the day after Christmas. Still hard to believe, but that's what the file says.

This year, of course, it's very different. Not only have we had a number of snowfalls in quick succession, but there was a nasty hard freeze in between, so we have a lot of ice lurking under the snow. Just plain ugly -- and it's not even winter yet. Madison's bicyclists are a hardy bunch, however, and a substantial subset have continued biking on the streets, provoking the ire of former mayor Paul Soglin in his blog Waxing America.
The bicyclists who braved the week's second storm should be taken out and shot. Spare them and the poor driver, when they skid on treacherous streets and slide under the wheels of a truck delivering fresh vegetables.

I will give them a pass on the first storm. Not because it was not forecasted (it was), but because every one gets a little giddy and reckless with the season's first major storm.
Soglin's post started quite a tempest in a blogpot, going viral and attracting outraged comments from bicyclists as far away as Alaska, many of them urging a similar treatment for the former mayor. Soglin grouped the responses and replied to them in another very funny post the next day. And today the controversy ended up in the newspaper, as George Hesselberg of the Wisconsin State Journal interviewed Soglin about the flame war.

Soglin had a point. I love to ride my bike, but since I was a kid and sometimes tooled around my paper route in the snow on my big balloon tire Schwinn, I've stayed off the streets in the winter. The blogosphere can be a very literal-minded, humorless and angry place. Would a bunch of emoticaons have helped Soglin? Probably not. :-(

Thursday, December 06, 2007

First trash pickup after the snow

First Trash Pickup After the Snow
A decision needs to be made: Shovel it out, or drag it over the snowbanks? I was going to shovel but said the hell with it and opted for dragging instead. Just another one of winter's little joys in Madison, Wisconsin.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Defining professionalism down

When Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined the phrase "defining deviancy down" in 1993 he launched a linguistic meme that has seen countless words substituted for the asterisk in the construction "defining * down." A few that come up in the 89,000 Google hits are democracy, victory, torture, delinquency, conservatism, decency, smart and depression. And that's just in the first two pages.

"Defining professionalism down" does not appear on the list, but I think we need to add the phrase to the canon. Its time has come.

It seems to be the only way to explain this breathtakingly craven quote by the Washington Post's David Ignatius several years ago, describing the media's role in the buildup to the Iraq war.
In a sense, the media were victims of their own professionalism. Because there was little criticism of the war from prominent Democrats and foreign policy analysts, journalistic rules meant we shouldn't create a debate on our own. And because major news organizations knew the war was coming, we spent a lot of energy in the last three months before the war preparing to cover it -- arranging for reporters to be embedded with military units, purchasing chemical and biological weapons gear and setting up forward command posts in Kuwait that mirrored those of the U.S. military.
If that's what Ignatius thinks of as professional conduct, then he's definitely defining professionalism down. Thanks to Media Bloodhound for this revealing look at the inside of a Beltway journalist's mind.

They used to call it influenza di freddo in Italy for good reason, and now scientists know the reason

As long as the flu has been sweeping the world with its epidemics and occasional dangerous pandemics, people have wondered about its link to the winter season, which may even have been responsible for its name, as Gina Kolata notes in today's New York Times.
As long as flu has been recognized, people have asked, Why winter? The very name, “influenza,” is an Italian word that some historians proposed, originated in the mid-18th century as influenza di freddo, or “influence of the cold.”

Flu season in northern latitudes is from November to March, the coldest months. In southern latitudes, it is from May until September. In the tropics, there is not much flu at all and no real flu season.
Over the years, many hypotheses have been invoked to explain this seasonality, among them, winter crowding indoors, reduced immune efficiency, lower vitamin D levels due to lack of sunlight, lower melatonin levels due to shorter days, and even upper atmosphere air currents. But none have survived scientific scrutiny. Now, Kolata writes, a new study with guinea pigs appears to have pinned down the real reason for the flu bug's fondness for winter. It turns out that the virus is more stable in cold air, and that it remains airborne longer in dry air.
By varying air temperature and humidity in the guinea pigs’ quarters, they discovered that transmission was excellent at 41 degrees. It declined as the temperature rose until, by 86 degrees, the virus was not transmitted at all.

The virus was transmitted best at a low humidity, 20 percent, and not transmitted at all when the humidity reached 80 percent.

The animals also released viruses nearly two days longer at 41 degrees than at a typical room temperature of 68 degrees.

Flu viruses spread through the air, unlike cold viruses, Dr. Palese said, which primarily spread by direct contact when people touch surfaces that had been touched by someone with a cold or shake hands with someone who is infected, for example.

Flu viruses are more stable in cold air, and low humidity also helps the virus particles remain in the air. That is because the viruses float in the air in little respiratory droplets, Dr. Palese said. When the air is humid, those droplets pick up water, grow larger and fall to the ground.
So, if you're worried about catching the flu, should you just stay indoors during flu season and crank up the humidifier? No. Peter Palese, the lead author of the study and chairman of the microbiology department at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, recommends flu shots.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Sometimes the shortest distance between two points is little more than a misplaced faith in technology

I don't have a GPS unit for my car yet, but I've been on business trips where the driver rented a car equipped with a Garmin, and I've seen how compelling that pleasingly authoritarian computer voice can be. It always knows where to go, where to turn, and when -- at least until you're trying to return the rental to the airport counter, and it has a sudden nervous breakdown on the badly mapped local roads surrounding the airport.

Aside from the occasional glitch like that, it's easy to see how motorists could come to depend on them a little too much. Or way too much -- as has been happening in England lately, where truck drivers have been following their "sat navs" with reckless abandon through tiny village lanes not designed for truck traffic, just because their GPS system identifies this as the shortest route.
“I’ve just come from a community today where a lorry had literally lifted the roof off a house as it tried to get past,” Mr. Matthews said.

Some communities have begun putting up signs warning drivers to ignore their G.P.S. devices on rural roads. But signs seem to be less and less effective as people increasingly rely more on G.P.S. systems and less on maps, common sense or their own eyes.

“We’ve heard some very hilarious stories where people just blindly follow the sat nav instructions,” said Vince Yearley, a spokesman for the Institute of Advanced Motorists, using British shorthand for “satellite navigation.” “Like if the sat nav says, ‘Drive into this muddy field,’ they think, ‘That’s weird,’ but they do it anyway.”
Ironically, on the same day that the New York Times ran this cautionary report from the English countryside, their science columnist John Tierney, sounding as if he were a bit punch drunk from too many hours behind the wheel of a lorry himself, wrote a bright-eyed, speculative column on the promising future of driverless car technology.
As the baby boomers cruise into their golden years, I have good news for them — and for everyone else in danger of being run over by these aging drivers. The boomers will not be driving like Mr. Magoo. An electronic chauffeur will conduct them on expressways, drop them at the mall entrance and then go park their cars.


In the near future, guided not just by G.P.S. satellites but by high-precision internal maps and inertial sensors, they’ll know their position so precisely that they won’t even need lane markings for guidance. They’ll communicate with other smart cars on the road, enabling a swarm of closely spaced cars to move in unison (and react more quickly to problems than humans drivers could). A road system filled with these cars wouldn’t even need traffic lights — the cars could just talk among themselves.
Not so fast Mr. Tierney. Keep your hand on the wheel a bit longer. You might want to check out some of those villages in England before giving the keys to your robot driver.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The picnic is over, winter is coming and, no, we're not just talking about the weather

The Picnic Is Over
The early winter storm that swept into Madison from the West over the weekend turned the city into a winter wonderland or frozen wasteland, depending on your point of view and on whether your primary mode of transportation is a sled or a car. The time of easy living is definitely over, and so is the picnic.

This might also be a metaphor for what's happening to the American economy. Just as summer has to end eventually, the artificial financial boom fueled by easy money, cheap credit and relentless deregulation of the Greenspan years was bound to end eventually. For two decades, the country revered this Ayn Rand disciple and free market ideologue as a financial Wizard of Oz, and he could do no wrong. The collapse of the dotcom boom and the the resulting deflation of the ballooning stock market did little to impair his credibility. He continued to preside over the Fed as America's financial markets were transformed into a giant Ponzi scheme. As Avedon noted:
And then I noticed that the same people who had been calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme - which it isn't - were failing to notice that the hot new market they were investing in actually was a Ponzi scheme. (That was obvious to me when I realized that the value of my house seemed to double over night, and banks were telling people that they could afford mortgages that were five times or more what they made in a year.)
For awhile, it was as if Greenspan and his accomplices had invented perpetual motion. Everything would keep on keeping on, getting better and better, and real estate values would keep on going up. By securitizing mortgages, which once had been clearly defined financial instruments with a fairly certain value, and selling them on the secondary market, a housing market on steroids was created. The underlying assets were sliced and diced in so many ways that it became almost impossible to measure their actual value. This was sold as innovation, but as in a Ponzi scheme, investors had little idea what they were buying, and once the whole flimsy structure stopped growing, it just became more and more shaky. Paul Krugman wrote about this crisis of trust and confidence today.
How did things get so opaque? The answer is “financial innovation” — two words that should, from now on, strike fear into investors’ hearts.

O.K., to be fair, some kinds of financial innovation are good. I don’t want to go back to the days when checking accounts didn’t pay interest and you couldn’t withdraw cash on weekends.

But the innovations of recent years — the alphabet soup of C.D.O.’s and S.I.V.’s, R.M.B.S. and A.B.C.P. — were sold on false pretenses. They were promoted as ways to spread risk, making investment safer. What they did instead — aside from making their creators a lot of money, which they didn’t have to repay when it all went bust — was to spread confusion, luring investors into taking on more risk than they realized.

Why was this allowed to happen? At a deep level, I believe that the problem was ideological: policy makers, committed to the view that the market is always right, simply ignored the warning signs. We know, in particular, that Alan Greenspan brushed aside warnings from Edward Gramlich, who was a member of the Federal Reserve Board, about a potential subprime crisis.
Looks like a long, hard winter.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The good news is that this morning they plowed the side streets in Madison.

The Good News Is They Plowed the Side Streets
The bad news is that this morning they plowed the side streets in Madison. Now the real work begins -- digging out the car. Big chunks of wet, compressed snow piled high around the car where the snow plow went by. Hey, it's good exercise, if you don't throw out your back. Also an exercise in applied geometry -- what's the path of least resistance you can carve out with the least effort? After that, the delicate part of the procedure -- pulling out smoothly and gently, without slipping sideways and digging your wheels into the deep snow that accumulated in the gutter, reacquainting yourself with reflexes that have been unused for eight months or so.