Monday, September 20, 2004

U-Locks for Bicycles 

As a public service I want to link to this site. It is apparently possible to pick some U-Locks in ~1 minute using nothing other than the shaft from a plastic ballpoint pen. If you regularly use these sorts of locks and live in an environment where bike theft is common it might be a good idea to add some other sort of protection.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

On being a scientist and missile defense... 

I am a scientist. So I can say with some (not a lot but some) authority when I say that being a good scientist or engineer really hinges on an attitude. You want to get 'up under the hood' of what ever problem it is that you study with the goal of being able to predict the future. Put another way, if you study bridges you want to be able to understand the materials out of which you build and the stresses bridges experience to be able to predict that, subject to everything you can think of, the bridge won't fall down. If you study the weather you want to be able to understand atmospheric chemistry/physics well enough to predict what it will do next.

There were in the past, and there are today, plenty of really bright, really insightful engineers who try to build better weapons and better protective measures against weapons. And, as fas as missle defense goes, they all say now we can't do it: that we don't know enough about missle propulsion ang guidance to be able to build rockets which will hit incoming nuclear missiles with any degree of certainty.

So why, you might ask yourself, is Bush insisting on going ahead with the deployment of anti-missile missiles? Certainly one possibility is strategic, some protection is better than no protection. But eqaully certainly missile protection seems little like protecting against sexually transmitted diseases: it may well be that implementing not effective defensive measures just serves to increase tension, making crises more, rather than less, likely. Fred Kaplan in Slate has some more guesses as to why the Bush administration has wandered down this particular path, and none of them make me happy.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Some Statistics Resources... 

For the one (possibly two) people who might find it useful, the following statistics related sights are helpful...

Textbooks and Lecture Notes
The Statitistics Homepage
Hyper Stat Online Text Book
Links to Online Texts and Notes for Economic Statistics

Free Statistical Analysis Software
The R Project for Statistical Computing

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

On the relationship of candidates to the issues... 

Mark Schmitt (all of whose stuff we should all be reading) has a new post up about the relationships of political candidates, particularly presidential candidates to the issues. The usual criticism, at least from the sort of 'leftist' cricles I inhabit, of this and most presidential elections is that they don't spend enough time on policy, instead dwelling on nebulous character considerations. Shmitt argues that, in a certain very circumscribed sense, this is exactly as it should be. The US, after all, doesn't have a parlimentary system so when voting for a president we're not really voting for particular policies. Instead it is more accurate to say that we're voting for the person who will respond to policy oportunities (or unexpected political circumstance) in a way that we think is most moral/responsible. It's less important, than, that a presidential campaign be about issues for issues' sake, than that it be about issues for what they tell us about how a candidate conceives of his leadership role: how he'll act when in office.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Hurricane Info... 

For those who might live in the South Eastern US or are just generally interested in hurricanes, the National Hurricane Center website is a good place to start. On it you can get tracking charts you can fill in yourself, model results, satellite imagery and official forecasts and warning all in one convenient place.

If you have questions about the operational issues of hurricane forecasting, e.g. What's it like to fly into the eye of a storm?, or about some of the physics, e.g. How do tropical cyclones form?, Chris Landsea's FAQ has answers to these and all sorts of other interesting and relevant questions.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

On and on and on in Darfur... 

In all sorts of ways the US has a history rife with forgettable, deeply flawed, just wrong episodes in the grand march for social justice in Central and South American, Africa and Asia. Of course we're not alone here, if the goal was to work for social justice virtually all large and powerful countries have screwed up time and time again through history.

None of which really matters for our foreign policy now. To me it seems like it is this sensibility (the same one which requires the "past performance is no predictor of future sucess" you often hear at the end of financial services commercials) which lead many progressive thinkers to oppose the invasion of Iraq, twice. I remember the protests of the hard line anti-war left as pointing out that while we know Sadam Hussein is a bad guy invading the country and forcibly deposing him won't necessarily make things better. Put another way, it may be right to depose Sadam, but the question isn't what's right, the question is what's the best way to bring freedom where it didn't exist before, of creating a civil society with freely elected representatives where before none existed. If this is true the ethical obligation of our foreign policy isn't so much to do the right thing (as it is typically described in most neocon circles) the obligation is to do the thing which improves bad situations, which helps people the world over be better off than before.

In the 8/30/04 issue of the New Yorker Samantha Power published a long piece on the background and much of the current issues in the struggle in Darfur. Some of the things she's described, the ethnic cleansing, the enforced povery and food confiscation performed toward the Darfurians by the janjaweed have trickled out in other places. Seeing it all together - well seeing it all together forced me to try to think about larger solutions, and the results weren't pretty.

How do you convince stop one ethnic group from killing another? How do you allocate finite unworked land fairly? How to you apportion resources for an expanding population in a way that is so essentially equal that it allows all groups to feel a stake in the system? How do you encourage in people a sense of responsibility to the largest possible group which overwhelms allegiances to local familes or tribes? I don't know the answers to these questions in Darfur (heck I don't even know how to get students to assume responsibility for their own work when I teach). But that doen't mean it's not important. In fact, until those questions can be answered the drone just keeps going on and on in the background. It's not particularly encouraging or hopeful, but it's the drone of the right question to ask and the question that all our consciences should pose until it's fixed. How do we stop it and make it better?

Thursday, September 09, 2004

For a nonpartisan take on what's going on in Iraq... 

If you should have an extensive amount of time on your hands, and really want to understand (in a semi-quantitative way) just how poorly the US occupation of Iraq is going, you may be interested in the report just out from the Council of Strategic and International Studies.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Just a Small Reminder about Climate Change... 

It's worth remembering (as most of us drive/walk/bike to work in front of computers or analytical equipment) that the closer your life and livelihood is to the land (hunting/farming), and the higher the latitude at which you live, the more likely climate change is to change almost every aspect of how your life is lived. Keep this handy axiom in mind and this article from the NY Times on the destruction of eskimo communities in the face of changing climate should be little suprise.

Friday, September 03, 2004

Department of Selling Out the Environment... 

I've been meaning to write about some of the issue raised in this article by Bill McKibben for some time. The basic thesis of the piece being that while the Bush administration is making a royal mess of foreign policy (while it's corporate supporters benefit) at least it is doing it for ideological reasons. In the environmental realm, on the other hand, the administration is making a royal mess (while it's corporate supporters benefit) for no reason other than what seems naked political self preservation.

Which is all fine (and relatively uncontroversial amongst most who pay attention to this sort of thing), a small off hand comment by McKibben though made me start thinking in a broader way about conservation in general.

...my wife and I have solar panels on the roof of our house to supply some of our power, and they work well—but their biggest effect is to make us far more conscious of turning off lights. Similarly, my hybrid car saves energy in part because of its brilliantly designed engine but also because it comes with a display that tells me constantly how much gas I'm using and this, as a consequence, has cured me of a heavy foot on the pedal.

So what I'm wondering, then, is whether the behaviour described by McKibben might be more generally applicable. While we know regulations requiring conservation would be likely be brutally unpopular (unless, oh maybe, half the West Antarctic falls into the sea) perhaps regulations requiring companies to show the amount of energy cars, heating, air conditioning use in real time would be politically possible.

Perhaps, if we were really empowered with information which enable descisions to be made about the amount of energy we use in our daily lives we would all ( or mostly all) just start adapting practices which conserve.

I believe enough people would for it to matter, and matter alot.

I don't of course know if any of this is true, but I think it's the most optimisitic take on the possibilty of conservation in a long time.

A referendum on dissent... 

I keep going back to him because I'm so amazed to see the flow of his language - to see him actually advocate a position rather than do horse race analysis - but here's Will Saletan on Zell Miller and Dick Cheney's night under the lights...

If the convention speeches are any guide, Republicans have run out of excuses for blowing the economy, blowing the surplus, and blowing our military resources and moral capital in the wrong country. So they're going after the patriotism of their opponents.

...But the important thing isn't the falsity of the charges, which Republicans continue to repeat despite press reports debunking them. The important thing is that the GOP is trying to quash criticism of the president simply because it's criticism of the president. The election is becoming a referendum on democracy.

In a democracy, the commander in chief works for you. You hire him when you elect him. You watch him do the job. If he makes good decisions and serves your interests, you rehire him. If he doesn't, you fire him by voting for his opponent in the next election.

Not every country works this way. In some countries, the commander in chief builds a propaganda apparatus that equates him with the military and the nation. If you object that he's making bad decisions and disserving the national interest, you're accused of weakening the nation, undermining its security, sabotaging the commander in chief, and serving a foreign power—the very charges Miller leveled tonight against Bush's critics.

Are you prepared to become one of those countries?

The clincher then is...

So now you have two reasons to show up at the polls in November. One is to stop Bush from screwing up economic and foreign policy more than he already has. The other is to remind him and his propagandists that even after 9/11, you still have that right.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

Success in the National Football League 

You'd have to be unconscious, or living somewhere like Key West I suppose, to have missed the central role that the NFL plays in the american cultural obsession with professional sports. Given this obsession, and the attendent rewards for winning, it seems odd that football has not generated anything like baseball's sabermetrics: independent statistical analyses which purport to isolate the ingredients that make good teams good.

In some sense this lack of an external structure makes the game more exciting and changable: the trick being then (if you're a coach or general manager) to modify what you do to best suit the talents of your personnel. However just as clearly it also leads every year to massive copy cat impulses. Other teams see the St. Louis Rams gain success with the 'Greatest Show on Turf' and think, somehow, that this is the next evolution of the game: that they have to change how they play (regardless of whether they have an accurate quaterback and four talented wide receivers) or risk being left behind.

One such remarkably consisent illusion, Aaron Schatz makes the case in Slate, is that a dominating runner is necessary for success. In the piece Schatz offers a number of statistical metrics that stronly suggest that most of the running backs commonly thought of as stars in the league (e.g. Edgerrin James, Deuce McAllister) are just about average (their statistics being wildly inflated by the numbers of carries they receive). While there are actual star running backs (Ladanian Tomlinson, Clinton Portis) Schatz makes the case that it may even in this case pay to do with out the stars in favor of a running back by committee.

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