A news tidbit not to miss.

Tom DeLay, formerly R-Texas, the former House majority leader who helped build and control the Republican majority for years, was sentenced to 3 years in prison for money laundering, in what was essentially a political malfeasance case. (It had to do with illegally funneling corporate contributions into campaigns)

Two things are important to remember about this story.

First, it’s not a small deal. The former House majority leader is going to prison for crimes directly related to the way he operated his office. While the story might be somewhat buried at the moment because of our recent spasm of political violence, it’s something which belongs on the front pages.

Second, what’s very interesting in this case is that DeLay’s defense essentially said that this was a political witch-hunt, charging him criminally for doing what “everyone was doing.”

There are a lot of things worth parsing in this defense. First of all, I’m fairly certain that everyone was not, in fact, doing it. If they were, then we have a much more serious problem on our hands, of the complete failure of the rule of law; and if everyone in the House was doing that while he was majority leader, it suggests a much deeper malfeasance.

But also, note the implication: it admits that there was a widespread (among whom?) perception that corruption was widespread and acceptable, and that this was a normal and legitimate way of running the government. Remember, this is what one of the operational leaders of the party was saying — it’s not some random guy in the street. If the leaders feel this way, then the members will follow. And you get the party you pay for.

(Of course, this is from the same party whose chairman got caught spending a couple thousand of the party’s money at strip clubs, ostensibly to woo donors.)

Published in: on January 10, 2011 at 15:25  Comments Off on A news tidbit not to miss.  

Books of the Year, 2010

This year I followed Amy’s lead from last year and kept a log of the books I read. Apart from being a fun exercise, and making it easier to remember what I read and when, it gives me a natural opportunity to write a “best of the year” post.

So first, some statistics: this year’s haul included a total of 101 books fully read, plus about 20 more partially read but abandoned. (Not all because they were bad; some because I wasn’t in the mood, or whatever. And the worst of the lot were actually finished.) Of the fully read, there were 38 SF, 26 fantasy, 18 lit fic, 13 nonfiction; only 15 of them were re-reads. 6 were YA, 5 middle-grade. I would say that 30 of them were good enough to recommend, with the ones below especially noteworthy. There were plenty of mediocre ones, but only one terrible enough to make me want to claw my eyes out of my head. And I added two writers, Kazuo Ishiguro and Theodora Goss, to my list of “writers whose work I will read the moment it comes out,” an unusually good crop for the year.

And so: Twenty books worth reading and one worth setting on fire. (more…)

Published in: on January 3, 2011 at 09:00  Comments (4)  
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Notes towards a universal stew

Winter is coming, and this is an excellent time to be experimenting with stew. I’ve been experimenting with it a good deal lately, and figured that a public platform such as a blog is the obvious place to share my working notes: Towards a Universal Stew Recipe.

Unfortunately, this is not (yet) a stew which contains the entire universe. It’s more of a template stew recipe, from which one can easily improvise something yummy. Apparently most stews can be reduced to a few common things. The recipe below takes about two hours from start to eating, and makes six servings. I’ll give the universal template along with two successful instantiations of it, a beef stew (a more informal cousin of Boeuf Bourguignon) and a chili.


Published in: on November 5, 2010 at 09:00  Comments (5)  
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Fifteen years.

Today marks fifteen years since the murder of Itzhak Rabin.

I feel that I should say something, but it’s hard to make the words come. Twice in twenty years of a “peace process,” there may have been a real chance at peace; twice, the chance was taken away, once by the angel of death, once by Apollo’s arrows. How did peace become so fragile and evanescent a thing, that such a small action could end even its hope?

I heard about his death on the way home from doing research in the CU library in Boulder, going past NIST. First they said he was shot, and my heart caught. A few sentences later they confirmed he was dead. Then there was that terrifying minute of wondering who had killed him, which side he had come from and what the consequences might be. A mixture of relief and anger when they said it was an Israeli, a right-wing extremist. Relief, because had it been a Palestinian, there would have been nothing that could have stopped a war and a terrifying bloodshed; anger, that one of our own would do this, would try to destroy our last hope for peace. It took days for the consequences to sink in; so many people thought that perhaps now, in honor of his death the peace process would have to go through. I remember hearing an angry settler on the news, cursing Igal Amir for killing him and “giving the peace process, which should have died on its own, the authority of the Angel of Death,” and hoping — but not quite believing — that he was right.

And of course, he wasn’t. Shimon Peres was no Rabin. He couldn’t make his own government move forward in a straight line, much less negotiate a peace. Then Bibi, with his slick lies and nasty populism. By the time Barak was in office and could try for peace, the opportunity had passed; Arafat wasn’t really interested, and the Camp David negotiations went down in flames. It wasn’t until 2005 that there would be a chance again, and then we lost that, too.

Why are the best of us always taken first?

Bill Clinton has a eulogy and remembrance of him in today’s Times. He and Rabin were friends, and there is perhaps no-one better to speak on his behalf today.

שלום, חבר.

Published in: on November 4, 2010 at 10:46  Comments Off on Fifteen years.  
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Update on the quantum mechanics experiment

Some of you may have noticed a dearth of quantum mechanics posts in the past month. The project isn’t dead, it’s simply been delayed due to a great deal of other work piling up in the time which would normally go into it.

However, I’ve also been looking through the past posts in the sequence, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the approach needs to be overhauled. Teaching with and without a room full of students is a pair of very different propositions; I may have underestimated how much of what I do is normally based on the back-and-forth with people, and being able to see in real-time what is and isn’t being communicated well. As it stands, I can’t follow all of my own arguments in some of those posts (the derivation of the Uncertainty Principle being one of the worst offenders). Clearly some rethinking is in order to improve coherence.

So, the project will continue, but in a somewhat modified form and at a slightly later date. Stay tuned.

Published in: on November 3, 2010 at 11:30  Comments (2)  

Monte Carlo methods in History

I just finished re-reading Jared Diamond’s magnum opus, Guns, Germs and Steel. It’s amazing how well the text holds up on re-evaluation; the analysis is deep, and the number of cases he covers is wide enough to convince me that there is a real meat to his argument. It did, however, get me thinking about some interesting ways to extend his work. He proposes several in the epilogue, including all of the obvious further data searches and analyses which would need to be run to confirm or refute the hypothesis, and these are surely in the hands of people far more qualified to think about them than I am. But he raised one point obliquely which got me thinking about the one thing I have most trouble with in the argument, and it gave me a thought for how to answer the question.


Published in: on October 28, 2010 at 18:09  Comments (10)  
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A Reminder: Public data is really public

Just a friendly reminder for y’all: The Internet is basically a giant machine for making sure publicly available data is easily searched and found.

There are crawlers continuously scanning the Net for each of the major search engines; for each of the minor search engines; for ad companies; for other net companies which want the data; for academia; for government agencies. Heck, writing and running a crawler is a fairly standard class project for advanced undergrads. The time between a document becoming visible and at least one crawler grabbing a snapshot of it is getting smaller and smaller.

Which means that if you make something publicly visible on the Internet, even for a few minutes, it’s pretty much impossible to undo that. The internet archives and replicates everything.

So always make sure to check security settings three times before posting anything that isn’t meant to be a general-public, on-the-record broadcast.

ETA: Not only is this post number 666 on this blog, but WordPress has assigned an internal ID number of 1337 to it. Apparently the tendency of the Internet to preserve public information as public is both l33t and evil.

Published in: on October 13, 2010 at 16:54  Comments Off on A Reminder: Public data is really public  

The Desert Spreads

Interesting news article about spreading droughts in Syria and northern Iraq. This has the ring of permanent desertification due to a combination of climate shifts, increased use of the Euphrates water by Turkey (which is due in part to Turkey’s population growth), and general incompetence and corruption.

The Syrian government doesn’t appear to actually be doing much about it, although the article estimates over 100,000 people have been displaced so far. That’s not entirely surprising; it’s very much Syrian style to consider the problem being if anyone threatens the government, but to not deal with anything prior to that because frankly they have bigger issues.

Long-term, Syria is likely to end up as desertified as Jordan, with an even more thorough population and economy crash; not that it’s got a huge population or economy right now. This may ultimately reduce the likelihood of major conventional wars in the area, but in the short term it creates yet another large, easily radicalized population, and an even further power vacuum into which Iranian agents can easily step.

NB also that this is almost entirely a problem of human making. If you stand at the border of Syria and Israel, it’s shocking to see how the terrain is green on one side, and grayish brown on the other. They don’t even look like part of the same planet.

Published in: on October 13, 2010 at 16:39  Comments Off on The Desert Spreads  

U. S. Copyright law: A modest proposal

America’s copyright law has been amended several times over the past few decades, each time increasing the effective term of copyright. As a result, the current “public domain horizon” is 1923 —only a small fraction of works published since then have ever left copyright, and no new items are scheduled to enter the public domain until 2019. This has been largely at the instigation of some large rights-holding companies, most notably the Disney Corporation, who have a very strong reason to want to keep some of their old copyrights active. But the cost to the rest of society has been high; more and more works are going out of print (especially as the publishing industry suffers and cuts down on its backlists), becoming permanently unavailable, or becoming “orphans,” with no clear copyright holder and so no possibility of ever making their contents available to anyone.

I have a modest proposal.

A simple reduction in the term of copyright is, quite simply, never going to pass Congress. The legislative history, and the amount of money being funneled in to lobbying this issue, has ensured that. But consider what the owners of these copyrights really want to protect. Disney wants to protect the copyrights on Mickey Mouse because, frankly, they’re worth a fortune to them — the heart of their corporate identity. But a publisher holding on to a mid-list book or film right from the 1950’s isn’t doing so because it’s worth a fortune; it’s because it’s better to hold on to it than not. The actual value to the publisher of these works is trivial, even negative if one considers the cost of bringing them back into print.

So: I propose that we amend the copyright code so that the duration of copyright is set to 56 years, twice the duration specified for the first copyright term under the old 1909 Copyright Act; and following that, the holder of copyright may extend the copyright annually and without limit on duration — but that each such extension incur a fee which is significant but not exorbitant; say, $500 (to be adjusted for inflation) per year, and that this be applied retroactively (if at all possible; this may be difficult to implement) to all works copyrighted in 1963 or later.

(Why 1963? Because then the first term expires in 2019, exactly like it does under current law)

Any work which is still in “active use” by its publisher is presumably worth far more than this; the cost is trivial and the rights-holder basically gets an indefinite copyright on it. But any work which isn’t – which includes the overwhelming majority of all works – would expire after the 56-year window. The registration fee requirement would eliminate the need to define “active use” by statute (a problem in orphan works law) by simply leaving it up to an individual rights-holder to determine whether they still consider this right to be of value. This is a fairly long window, and I would personally prefer if it were somewhat shorter, but it does achieve the principal purpose of copyrights – to ensure that the creators of works are compensated during their lifetimes – while allowing a steady flow of works to enter our common treasury.


Published in: on October 11, 2010 at 22:38  Comments (16)  
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De mortuis nil nisi veritas

A few weeks ago, a fellow by the name of Jack Kershaw died in Nashville. The Dickson Herald, one of the nearby papers, has this obituary of him, hailing him as a renaissance man, an “artist, sculptor, homebuilder, farmer, lawyer, lecturer, Southern historian and Vanderbilt graduate.” It talks especially about his poetry and the lit mag he helped found, describing it as “one of the most influential publications in the history of American letters.”

What’s strange about this obituary is that, apart from a glancing half-sentence mention, it doesn’t say anything about what Kershaw was most famous for: being the attorney for James Earl Ray, the man who killed Martin Luther King. It gives similarly short mention to his great work of sculpture, a 27′ equestrian statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a general most famous for his war crimes during the Civil War; he was particularly noted for the systematic slaughter of any black soldiers who surrendered to his troops, and was later the first Grand Wizard of the KKK. I should note that Kershaw was not alone in considering Forrest a hero, a fact which in itself is rather alarming; but reading this man’s history, and the things he fought for, makes putting up a statue of this guy is something akin to putting up a statue to an Einsatzgruppeführer.

The New York Times has its own obituary of Kershaw. This one gives  a little more context into the fellow who just died, including his most famous quote — “Somebody needs to say a good word for slavery.”

Lovely fellow. Couldn’t be happier to see him in a box.

Published in: on September 24, 2010 at 11:43  Comments Off on De mortuis nil nisi veritas  
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