Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Radio iPod

Here's how to use your iPod Mini as a pirate radio transmitter. Why? Well...
We usually keep a couple tracks of silence ready to go, ever get stuck at a stop light for like 10 minutes and the dude in the next car is blasting the radio? With the super easy iPod interface you can quickly get to the station he's on and send over whatever you want, a couple gentle ocean waves or birds usually works out great.

If you've ever gone to the Gym, or stared in to one from the outside-you'll notice the TVs are muted and set to broadcast on specific FM frequencies, folks then tune in their radio headsets to whatever station to listen to the audio as they exercise. Now we're not suggesting you go around and broadcast over CNN or anything, but we think broadcasting "Aliens have landed today, the President and UN will be making an announcement immediately" could be quite fun.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Dogs playing poker

Here's a cute little publicity stunt -- recreate the famous "dogs playing poker" painting with actual dogs...

Saturday, June 26, 2004

Words we should use more often

Here are the ten foreign words voted hardest to translate:
  1. ilunga [Tshiluba word for a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time; to tolerate it a second time; but never a third time. Note: Tshiluba is a Bantu language spoken in south-eastern Congo, and Zaire]
  2. shlimazl [Yiddish for a chronically unlucky person]
  3. radioukacz [Polish for a person who worked as a telegraphist for the resistance movements on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain]
  4. naa [Japanese word only used in the Kansai area of Japan, to emphasise statements or agree with someone]
  5. altahmam  [Arabic for a kind of deep sadness]
  6. gezellig [Dutch for cosy]
  7. saudade [Portuguese for a certain type of longing]
  8. selathirupavar  [Tamil for a certain type of truancy]
  9. pochemuchka [Russian for a person who asks a lot of questions]
  10. klloshar [Albanian for loser]
Let's all try to make use of these words in everyday conversation, to take the pressure off the translators! "George Bush is such a klloshar. I have such saudade for a candidate I could really get behind...."
Oh, and the ten English words voted hardest to translate?
  1. plenipotentiary               
  2. gobbledegook                
  3. serendipity                                   
  4. poppycock                                  
  5. googly                               
  6. Spam                                   
  7. whimsy                             
  8. bumf                                    
  9. chuffed
  10. kitsch

Friday, June 25, 2004

Brutal architecture

The new Seattle library has things to trip on, signs you can't read, places to bonk your head, surfaces that scratch, and much, much more! Check it out.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

Cheap imports and absurdities

Here's a nice collection of reductio ad absurdums applied to critics of free trade, free charity, and "cheap imports".
When arguing with someone along these lines, I first ask, "So are you saying that it would it be better for the US if foreigners shipped us expensive imports?" This usually causes some hesitation. Then I follow up with what is, in my opinion, a zinger: "So if cheap imports are bad, does that mean foreigners would really be hurting us if they shipped us goods for free?" I think this question makes something click for many people, because no matter how much they've read about domestic job destruction, they still harken back to the childhood truth that it is good to receive presents.
Which eventually leads into the idea that if giving the Zambians free clothing makes them poorer, stealing their clothing should make them richer.

The trouble with reductio ad absurdum is that it appeals to (a) economic intuition, and (b) a sense of humor -- both sadly lacking qualities in your typical debate opponent over this sort of issue. It's great for convincing people who already agree with you, but that's about it. The problem is that the notion of trusting government to solve social and economic problems is already so absurd that there's nowhere you can go that's enough sillier to be disbelieved. Throughout my life, every time I thought I had a solid reductio, within 5 years it was no longer absurd. Banning smoking in public? Absurd! Suing fast-food chains for making people overweight? Ridiculous! Putting people in prison for possession of devices or information that merely could, potentially, be used to commit a crime, even if it wasn't actually so used? Ask Martha Stewart, Dmitry Skylarov, and Tommy Chong how silly those ideas were.

So I still enjoy a good reductio ad absurdum, but I don't expect too much out of them.

Where am I going with this, you ask? Just that I hope this essay doesn't get too much exposure, or we really will see government-sponsored panty raids, intended for the benefit of the country raided and also as a "jobs" program.

Friday, June 18, 2004

Economic illiteracy on the campaign trail

The New York Times reports:
"Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry on Friday proposed raising the federal minimum wage to $7 an hour by 2007, which he contended would benefit working women more than any other group."
Stephen Carson is appropriately despairing in response:
It is moments like this that make me wonder why economists even bother. It would be as if mathematicians impotently watched in horror, year after year, decade after decade, as prominent community leaders talked about 2 + 2 being equal to 5.
Yeah, It'd be really nice someday to be able to vote for a major candidate who understood any economics at all.

And could express any strong beliefs that didn't come from a focus group.

And was willing to declare an end to the War On Drugs and take US troops out of all the 100+ countries where we aren't actively at war with anybody, and hold the line on both military and domestic spending...

And, hey, while we're at it, I'd like a pony.

Free your mind!

If you didn't like Titanic-with-bunnies, you probably won't like this Matrix takeoff either...

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Flying below radar, literally

Isabella V has some nice drug smuggling stories.
My favorite pilot used to just file a completely legitimate flight plan, switch to VFR at some point over the Texas or Arizona desert and drop his load from the air over a waiting team on the ground. Somewhere before landing he would toss out the waterbed he used for extra fuel and stick in the two removable chairs that had been wedged back into the tail to make room for the bags of drugs. Now the "innocent" looking plane would land at a point of entry airport, pass customs and spend a few days in the states before flying back. He always made this run with a lovely twin that had been bought from a DEA/Customs auction. It had been seized from another cocaine smuggler. I asked why he only used that plane (there were planes that I thought would be better for the job). "If they use dogs and the dogs get a hit on the plane for cocaine I have paperwork that shows why. That coke smell never gets out of carpeting, you know. Damnedest thing."

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Titanic in 30 Seconds

...and re-enacted by bunnies!

"Got to get you into my life" is about POT?

Paul McCartney finally fesses up: all those songs you thought were about drugs were indeed about drugs.

As were a few you didn't.

Ski Bums and immigrants: more quintile analysis

Various comments in Brad Delong's Journal didn't really get my point, so I'm trying again...

The yacht article writer assumes it is a bad thing that America has a higher variance - the difference between the top and the bottom of the distribution at any given time - than do many European countries. My chief point is that this is not a self-evident claim. You'd need to look deeper into the stats to give meaning to them than this writer has done in order to convince a skeptic like me that there's something fundamentally wrong here.

I'm not claiming there aren't any poor people in the US or that they all have secret trust funds and never suffer or anything like that.

What I am claiming is that some percentage of the poverty that makes us look "worse" than Europe is highly beneficial to the poor people in question. Without establishing how much of it fits into that category, you can't make a straight comparison and say whether our society is better or worse or in need of change in any particular direction.

There are two categories of "beneficial poverty" that leap to mind. First off, there's the "ski bum" category of poverty I hinted at before. Second, there's recent immigrants for whom poverty in america is wealth by their former standard of living.

More on ski bums: America is so rich that middle-class-or-better americans have the luxury of being able to take a year or more off to write a novel, get a degree, travel around the world, "find themselves", start a business or what have you, living off savings for a while, relying on family, friends, loans and perhaps the possibility of an emergency backup job for support. Followup point: The richer we get, the more Americans will be financially secure enough to do this. If you know you're employable at a job with salary to spare or have sufficient savings, there's less downside in taking time off to do something fun or experimental. The ideal american economy as far as I'm concerned would be one where nobody is poor involuntarily but many are poor by choice for a while because they like being a ski bum or pursuing a phd or whatever. But that society would show up as "bad" to the sort of person who does quintile comparisons.

More on immigrants: Every immigrant who comes here from central america to work in our fields and restaurants and dry cleaning establishments, starts out with a miserable standard of living but one that is vastly better than what they had in, say, Mexico. They are experiencing upward mobility moving from "poor in Mexico" to "poor in the US", and that's only the beginning. Any effort to prevent such people from showing up in our poverty statistics via redistribution would probably generate a huge political backlash against immigration in general. We'd close the borders tighter than they already are, making all the new immigrants WORSE off than they are by denying them the option of coming here and improving their life. Far better to allow open immigration, and allow them to be "poor" by our standards for a while, even if it does makes our numbers look worse than those of Finland for a while. It's worth it.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Things you shouldn't do to baby chickens

Title says it all...

Monday, June 07, 2004

Quintile Analysis is Silly

Brad Delong links to an essay called "The New American Economy: A Rising Tide that Lifts Only Yachts".

It turns out to be based on quintile analysis. That's where you divide the population by income and say things like "the top 20% is getting richer" or "the economy isn't helping the bottom 20%". Which is fine rhetoric, but silly economics.

Why is it silly? Because it wrongly implies that the top or bottom quintile is the same group of people each year as it was the previous year.

If you compare segments of the population based on what they SPEND rather than what they EARN, you find much less disparity. A big chunk of the people who are in the bottom quintile or who are "living in poverty" by any official definition are just starting out, are having a bad year, are spending down savings, or have outside help (or off-the-books income) that allows them to maintain a decent standard of living despite having little official income.

The top quintile and the bottom quintile are often the same families in different years. Most college students are in the bottom quintile a couple years before they graduate, and every salary earner is likely to be in the top quintile the year he sells his house. Given the fact that the same family passes through multiple quintiles over time, it is not at all clear that the rising tide doesn't in fact lift most of the boats. If it lifts you a lot when you're doing well, you have extra savings to cover the periods when you doing poorly or to help raise up the neighboring boats when they need help.

Why Mr. T would go to hell

A teacher relates the following amusing anecdote:

I taught "Merchant of Venice" to seniors one year; in it there's a line where one character is insulting another, by saying something along the lines of "He damns the ears of all who hear him, by calling him 'fool.'" One of the kids asked me what that meant, so I explained that one of the lesser-known verses of the Book of Matthew has Jesus saying that anyone who calls another a fool will be damned. I went on to talk about the very funny use Voltaire made of that in his essay "The Jesuit Berthier" (an angel tells a priest to stop giving his stupid, boring sermons, because instead of winning souls for God he's endangering the souls of all who hear him, because they all call him a fool), and explained also that this is why cartoony villains in movies developed the habit of using "Fool!" as their default insult; for people familiar with the Bible, the fact that the villain always says "Fool!" is just one more proof that this is an evil, evil dude.

"So anyway," I said to the class, "back in Shakespeare's day, when people were far more familiar with the Bible than they are now, instead of insulting someone by saying 'You are a fool,' you'd say 'You are a--well, I can't SAY what you are because then I'd go to hell.' That's what he's doing in the play."

Next day I get called into the principal's office; some parents were FURIOUS that I had told their kids that Jesus said anyone who says 'fool,' will go to Hell.

"But he did," I pointed out.

"It doesn't matter, Jennifer. You can't insult kids' religions."

"Well, the kid asked me what that line from the play meant! What was I supposed to do?"

"Just tell him you don't know."

It turns out the relevant verse is Matthew 5:22: "But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, 'You good-for-nothing,' shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, 'You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell."

Saturday, June 05, 2004

Structured Procrastination

John Perry has a good essay on how to use procrastination as a productivity tool.
I have been intending to write this essay for months. Why am I finally doing it? Because I finally found some uncommitted time? Wrong. I have papers to grade, textbook orders to fill out, an NSF proposal to referee, dissertation drafts to read. I am working on this essay as a way of not doing all of those things. This is the essence of what I call structured procrastination, an amazing strategy I have discovered that converts procrastinators into effective human beings, respected and admired for all that they can accomplish and the good use they make of time.

All procrastinators put off things they have to do. Structured procrastination is the art of making this bad trait work for you. The key idea is that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, like gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they get around to it. Why does the procrastinator do these things? Because they are a way of not doing something more important. If all the procrastinator had left to do was to sharpen some pencils, no force on earth could get him do it. However, the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.

Structured procrastination means shaping the structure of the tasks one has to do in a way that exploits this fact. The list of tasks one has in mind will be ordered by importance. Tasks that seem most urgent and important are on top. But there are also worthwhile tasks to perform lower down on the list. Doing these tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list. With this sort of appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.
I recommend reading the whole thing.

...Especially if you have something more important to do. :-)

China Airlines: The turkey has landed

Here is a video of the worst landing I have ever seen.

Heck, compared to that landing, this approach to Hong Kong Airport looks downright sensible!

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

David Brin Was Right!

A man is accused of murder. He claims to have been at Dodger Stadium watching a game at the time of the crime. Can his lawyer prove it?

(David Brin wrote a book called The Transparent Society that focuses on the benefits of living in a society where cameras are ubiquitous. In this case, cameras happened to be in the right place at the right time to save a wrongly accused murderer.)

Bouncy bouncy!

Powerskip! I tried one of these at a party last year and it's great fun. Once you're up, it's just like walking, only you cover ground a lot faster. The tricky part is getting down off the things without breaking your head.

(Thanks to Raymanfu of AtlantiGeeks for the pointer.)