Thursday, September 30, 2004

Asia Times roundup

Much good stuff from Asia Times lately...

  • Bruno Giussani explains why it will be difficult even for Kerry to get Europe to contribute ground forces in Iraq. MoJo also blogged this recently.
  • Conversely, Stephen Zunes analyzes why Bush's recent UN speech was received rather frostily by the international community. Whatever problems Kerry will have in drumming up international support, Bush will have it worse; and there are other forms of international support besides "boots on the ground".
  • David Isenberg reports on the difficulty of securing Iraq's oil infrastructure --- one reason that "Iraqi oil money will pay for reconstruction" plan hasn't panned out.
  • Syed Saleem Shahzad reports on the highly alarming possibility of significant latent al Qaeda forces in Pakistan. In related news, Shahzad also reported recently that Pakistan's recent assassination of terrorist Amjad Farooqi may have been stage-managed to produce the illusion of progress in the war on terrorism.
  • Indrajit Basu reports on why Kerry's leading among Indian-Americans, despite the unpopularity of his anti-outsourcing rhetoric amongst the business classes of India. IMO these two factoids aren't terribly surprising.

    More surprising, and alarming, is the article's final suggestion that some conservative Indian-Americans support Bush because they oppose Kerry's strong nuclear non-proliferation stance. Can they really be oblivious to the fact that, in a world with abundant nukes, a nuclear terrorist attack in Madras, Mumbai, or Delhi seems at least as likely as a nuclear attack on downtown Manhattan? America's protected from the operational and recruiting centers of the Islamic fundamentalist jihadists by two oceans and friendly neighbors. India shares a long, twisty border with Pakistan, and... well, see the previous bullet.

Debate the first

Now, I am hardly an objective witness, but one hour into the debate, Kerry is reaming Bush in every way imaginable. Bush's flop-sweat, hunched-monkey posture, nervous stuttering, head-rolling, and awkward, prolonged silences are playing terribly on television. (Then there's all the facts, but I'll be shocked --- albeit pleasantly --- if the media gives a shit about fact-checking any more this time than in 2000.) Bush is recapitulating his broken-record non sequitur repetition tactic from 2000 (remember how many times he said "fuzzy math"?) and Kerry is landing some very palpable hits.

Followup: PBS commentators: Mark Shields says "narrow split decision for Kerry"; David Brooks says it's a draw; the three historians (Richard Norton Smith, Michael Beschloss, and Ellen Fitzpatrick) spout platitudes about both candidates, with their verbal remarks on balance displaying (in my opinion) a narrow pro-Bush bias. Michael Beschloss says Kerry projected the demeanor of "the smartest kid in the class" whereas Bush looked like the "world-weary older teacher" (hey Beschloss, does your definition of "world-weary teacher" behavior include freezing up for several seconds with a panicked look on one's face, whilst trying desperately to remember the talking points?).

Now, when I was flipping around among CBS, NBC, and ABC right after the debate, every single instant poll gave Kerry a large margin in the "who won the debates" question (CBS News: Kerry 43%, Bush 28%, tie 29%; ABC News: Kerry 45%, Bush 36%, tie 17%; note that the CBS poll was among uncommitted voters, whereas the ABC poll was among debate viewers). Every single person on NBC's panel of six hand-picked undecided voters said Kerry did better in the debate. KIRO 7 Eyewitness News at 11 ran a clip of an undecided voter from North Seattle saying that Kerry clarified his position more than Bush did.

I think it's pretty clear what's going on here. Right-leaning pundits are shameless, and liberal pundits are gun-shy, and so the obvious outcome of the debates gets obscured. Yeats comes to mind. It will be interesting to see how media coverage in the coming days pans out.

Day-after followup (1 Oct.): M. Yglesias points to Democracy Corps memo (3.17KB PDF), summarizing thusly:

Republicans think Bush won, Democrats think Kerry won, and Independents think Kerry won. That's the way elections are won, provided we don't see a Gallup-esque oversample of Republicans at the voting booths.

Who won the debate? Kerry 45%, Bush 32% among all viewers, and Kerry 51% vs. Bush 20% among undecided voters. Solid gains all across the board for Kerry on a variety of issues. Even Bush's "mexed missages" [sic.] label didn't stick: 11% fewer independents viewed Kerry as a "flip-flopper" after the debate; or, in other words, Bush's single biggest talking point, the one his campaign has been flogging for months, and the one that he hammered on at every opportunity during the debate, actually lost traction among independents. That's called a win for Kerry, folks. Admittedly, this is a Democratic source --- James Carville, no less --- so it should be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. But it seems to confirm, mostly, the trailing polls I note above.

p.s. Pudentilla rounds up press links on the debate.

p.p.s. Garance Franke-Ruta of TAP reports that CNN/Gallup polls say 53% think Kerry won, with only 37% for Bush.

p3.s. On the other hand, USA Today shows that Bush still leads on many important questions.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

Michael Shamos voting testimony

Michael Shamos's July 2004 testimony before the House of Representatives regarding electronic voting machines. He is obviously a longtime electronic voting proponent. I link the testimony here in the interest of fairness, but I don't have time to rebut all his claims now, beyond saying that most of the arguments he attributes to DRE voting machine opponents are straw men (albeit subtly constructed straw men).

Most thoughtful DRE voting machine opponents acknowledge that electronic voting machines, in some form, can be superior to other forms of voting. We object to the bad design and lack of verifiability in the current generation of DRE voting machines, as well as the lack of transparency on the part of the voting machine manufacturers.

Unfortunately, Michael Shamos's testimony reads as a full-throated defense of electronic voting, with calls for verifiability and trustworthiness only coming at the very end. It therefore gives a misleading impression to lay readers.

p.s. Michael Shamos is a professor at CMU's School of Computer Science (though not, it is worth noting, in the Computer Science Department itself); but the list of computer scientists who have endorsed the contrary Resolution on Electronic Voting is rather more impressive. The older, hand-maintained version sorts by rough seniority and, well, if you recognize any of the names on that list, you'll see what I mean. Yes, OK, the appeal to authority is a fallacy, but Shamos seems to like putting "Ph.D., J.D." after his name, and his testimony is full of logical problems itself, so it's worth pointing out that we should not accord Shamos any special credibility because of his own credentials.

Electronic election idiocy from Tom Zeller Jr.

A few months ago, I wrote, regarding journalistic reactions to F9/11:

...perhaps subtle concepts like "common interest" are lost on most journalists. Perhaps their imaginations are delimited to the much simpler movie logic of "sinister white-haired men smoking in darkened conference rooms and plotting world domination". Perhaps if you don't have incontrovertible video evidence of a claque of sinister white-haired smokers in a conference room, then you have no point.

Now, I really hate to quote myself, but Tom Zeller, Jr. demonstrates, in a Week in Review article on trustworthy voting, how utterly right I was. He writes:

In fact, while most experts appear to agree that electronic voting has real problems, few argue that they could completely undermine the November election, or that they are products of a dark conspiracy.


The fear that electronic voting represents a corporate conspiracy is probably overblown, experts say. Too many people would have to cooperate on too many levels - from the programming labs at each company to the warehouses where machines are stored to precinct floors on election night. "It would be a heist on the order of 'Ocean's Eleven,' " said Michael I. Shamos, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University who spent 20 years testing the integrity of election systems. "It would make for a fascinating movie, but it's not reality."

What a load of crap. Just because there isn't some massive world-spanning conspiracy to rig the election --- just because there isn't a sinister claque of smokers convening in a darkened room --- that doesn't mean we should trust these electronic voting machines. Evidently, the concept of "shoddy engineering" is as foreign and inscrutable to journalists as the concept of "common interest". It didn't take a conspiracy to produce hanging chads, and it won't take a conspiracy to produce "hanging bits" (contested or untrustworthy votes in a critical district) with electronic voting machines.

Furthermore, CMU prof Shamos is either wrong, or being misquoted (somehow, given Zeller's evident cluelessness, I suspect the latter). As any working programmer knows, in the absence of extremely tight code review procedures, it is, in fact, trivial for an individual programmer to sneak a few lines into the code for which (s)he has primary responsibility. And the nature of computer code is such that the addition or deletion of a few lines --- even, in many cases, a few characters --- is sufficient to make a machine vulnerable to attack. All the publicly available evidence about Deibold's software engineering should make any competent programmer very skeptical of claims that their code review processes are tight enough to catch such a hack.

And once the exploit exists in the software, it's irrelevant how many people can inspect the physical machine --- unless you think that the guys who operate the forklift at the warehouse have magical X-ray vision and other mutant super-powers that enable them to (1) penetrate the machine's case, (2) read the magnetic bits off the hard disk, (3) decode the raw binary data into machine code, (4) reverse engineer the source code from the machine code, and (5) derive the semantics of the entire program and prove it correct in their heads.

Note that computer scientists who work in program verification find (5) by far the most hilariously impossible of these five steps, which gives you a sense for how tricky it is to determine whether a program is correct, even given access to full source code.

No computer scientist whom I know, who has thought hard about direct recording electronic (DRE) voting for more than a few minutes, has come away with a strong confidence in these machines or the companies who sell them. Zeller's article massively misrepresents the evidence and the conclusions that scholars draw from them. The Week in Review editor really should not be assigning this sort of article to somebody who's so clueless about software engineering.

My friends know that I've blogged this several times before; links: one, two, three, four, and a bonus link from South Knox Bubba.

Times Magazine highlights

However, aside from Tierney's douchebaggery, this week's not a bad issue:

John Tierney: Credulous stenographer for right-wing think tanks

Today's Times Magazine has a really infuriating article on the "social, moral, and environmental case for driving more", penned by John Tierney, which approvingly cites ideologues such as:

all without ever mentioning that all these policy institutes are right-wing think tanks. The slant of these organizations may be well-known in public policy circles, but general readers will be utterly in the dark. For example, how many readers will know that (from Disinfopedia):

Robert D. Tollison, Richard E. Wagner and Thomas Gale Moore are members of the Board of Advisors at [The Independent Institute], Gary Anderson, Robert Ekelund, Dwight R. Lee, Mark Thornton and S. Fred Singer are Research Fellows at TII and Richard Vedder is Senior Fellow at TII. Most of them have a long history of working for the Tobacco Institute (TI) and/or Philip Morris and all nine were also members of the 'Academic Advisory Board' for the pro-tobacco junk science report 'Science, Economics, and Environmental Policy: A Critical Examination' published by the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution (AdTI) on August 11, 1994. AdTI received money from both TI and Philip Morris. (See: AdTI-Funding)

This doesn't necessarily mean that Randall O'Toole is a fraud, but how far would you trust someone employed by a think tank that's run by, and employs, scholars who take money from the tobacco industry to publish junk science about the environmental effects of tobacco? How far would you trust an organization that takes money from Microsoft while Microsoft is under antitrust investigation, then publishes a book about antitrust regulation, and then lies about how much money Microsoft gave them?

Enough about the "Independent" Institute. As for CEI and AdTI, I'm a computer scientist, and I can say that basically everything I've ever read coming out of the Competitive Enterprise Institute or the Alexis de Toqueville Institution about computing technology issues has been bullshit (for example, the AdTI's recent hacktackular critique of open source software).

And Heritage? Don't make me laugh.

Throughout the article, Tierney frames the debate as one between (1) woolly-headed feel-good liberals who love cities because of their elitism and desire to control everybody else's lifestyle, and (2) serious scholars who've done the "number-crunching" and debunked the "myths" and favor automobiles. Tierney never mentions that all the people he quotes in category (2) are employed by self-consciously ideological, structurally dishonest institutions.

BTW this is the same John Tierney who wrote, regarding the fake, Republican spin-driven NASA bunny suit pseudo-fiasco, "If there was anything Senator John Kerry's strategists were hoping to avoid this week, it was the image of a Massachusetts liberal in funny headgear." I'm not sure whether Tierney's a right-winger himself, or he's just a totally gullible moron who lets himself get spun by right-wing operatives because he doesn't know any better. Either way, to borrow Jon Stewart's phrase, he's a douchebag.

Holy shit, I just turned to the Week in Review, only to find another John Tierney byline heading up an equally ridiculous article that pounds repeatedly on the "John Kerry is a flip-flopper" line while masquerading as news analysis. Shallow horse-race campaign coverage ahoy! America would objectively be a better place if somebody briskly paddled the Week in Review editor's ass with a cricket bat every time (s)he ran an article on the tactical maneuverings of a political campaign instead of the substance of the issues.

Friday, September 24, 2004

Fetching your blogspot blog to your local hard drive

In the name of writing something useful for once, here's a magical wget incantation, useful on *nix boxen or Windows machines with a port of wget (e.g., via Heiko or Cygwin), for fetching the entirety of your blogspot blog to your local hard drive:

wget -m -k -nH -p

Now you can poke your blog with grep and all the other neat-o tools on your local machine.

UPDATE 20 April 2006: Since Blogger now supports uploaded images, here's the new recipe (which will fetch photos as well; note that the following should all be on one line):

wget -m -k -nH -p -H -e robots=off,

Note that Blogspot puts my photos on, but you may need to substitute whatever host Blogspot puts your photos on.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Quick movie notes

Saw a rash of movies last weekend with SL and AM...

  • Collateral: Michael Mann brings us another slickly glittering, trashy thriller that nevertheless manages to surprise with bursts of lyricism. Also, great soundtrack. p.s. My brief experience with Los Angeles nurtured no love for that city in my heart, but Mann makes it look gorgeous, mysterious, compelling, even to this jaded expat New Yorker. Quite a trick.
  • Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: Pretty visuals. Snappy dialogue. Acceptably entertaining story, which faithfully replicates the plotting of an old-fashioned pulpy comic book. Absolutely featherweight, with not an ounce of pretention to be anything else, and therefore unobjectionable in itself; however, I suspect that the movie's success augurs the rather odious prospect that writer/director Kerry Conran will be given free rein to produce a string of even more comic-book-geeky, obsessively detailed, and thoroughly empty reconstructions of his fantasies. One movie of this sort is harmless fun. Ten movies of this sort, without a single idea or even a genuine emotion among their pretty little heads, would be a colossal waste of animators' talent and labor.
  • Also caught the tail end of Seattle's first annual Independent South Asian Film Festival:
    • Autumn's Final Country: a deeply affecting documentary, shot in bare-bones style, in the format of four 15-minute face-to-face interviews with South Asian women. The women directly address the camera and matter-of-factly tell their stories of displacement, violence, abduction, slavery, etc. in Kashmir.
    • Above film was preceded by the short Battle for Blue Gold, a no-budget 20-minute short about how Coca-Cola's Indian subsidiary is illegally polluting and draining a local village's water supply. I found this film interesting but ultimately frustrating, as the budget limitations prevented the filmmaker from doing much research beyond interviewing the village women. The BBC and others have covered this issue in greater detail.
    • Indian Cowboy: the festival's closer. Most festivals reserve the closing spot for a film that's expected to be a big draw, to send the festival out with a bang. So it's probably understandable that they chose a rather conventional romantic comedy feature that allegedly sends up Bollywood conventions. (All the hipsters know that Bollywood movies are fun! It was in Ghost World!) Unfortunately, Indian Cowboy sucks. It's probably one of the worst movies I've seen this year, which is saying rather a lot, since I watch a lot of movies. Boring, interminable, predictable plot, triter-than-trite dialogue, sloppy pacing, lackadaisical and confused character development. Gaaaagh.
    • Above was preceded by Portrait of an American Hostess, a low-budget short that, although rather obvious at times, still had effective moments, plus a generally deft feel for character that was sorely lacking in the feature that followed it.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Windows worm vulnerabilities

Just to followup the news from the last Crypto-Gram that most Windows PCs get hacked within 20 minutes of connecting to the Internet, here's a story that my friend SL told me yesterday.

Our advisor recently bought our research group a brand-new ThinkPad, with Windows XP Professional, fresh from the factory, for SL (and others) to use on the interview circuit. SL plugged the laptop in, connected to the UW-CSE wireless network, and immediately went to the Windows Update web site to download the patches. After it finished downloading, he rebooted. Crash. The notebook was already infected with a worm.

He had to wipe the ThinkPad and restore its original configuration (fortunately IBM provides a fairly convenient way to do this), and install Service Pack 2 from a burned CD-ROM.

This is amazing. You read the studies, but you think: "Well, OK, it won't happen to me." But it does happen to you. The vast majority of Windows users worldwide who aren't served by an active IT support team --- which is to say, basically all home Windows users --- are probably infected already.

Microsoft Windows: Unsafe at any speed.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Friday, September 17, 2004

Digby: Too soft on Bush, for once

Digby writes:

You know, I don't know why Atrios is so upset about people like Woodruff and Gergen and Carlson obviously spewing RNC talking points about how Kerry has to come up with a plan for Iraq in order to win, but Bush doesn't. The logic is obvious.

Suppose you hired a contractor to put on a new roof and he ended up creating a huge hole in it instead. The contractor simply denies that a hole exists and keeps telling you to relax that your new roof is coming along just fine. The other contractor in town drives by and says he can fix that hole in your roof. You ask him how and he says, "well, I'll have to take a look at it and see how much damage is done but I have years of experience and a lot of good workers and I can get the job done for you. I'll tell you one thing, that guy you've got working on it doesn't know what he's doing. The hole's getting bigger while we stand here looking at it."

Gergen, Woodruff and Carlson would pick the first contractor because they know his work. (And he's a blast to have a beer with at the end of the workday.) The second guy refused to say exactly what he would do without looking at the damage up close so he can't be trusted.

But actually, even this analogy is too easy on Bush. Iraq didn't have anything to do with al Qaeda. Iraq didn't have nuclear weapons or even an active nuclear weapons program, and the U.N. inspection process was functioning perfectly well in preventing it from developing one. And now, because we've simultaneously damaged the international nuclear inspections process (by showing that compliance won't spare you from U.S. invasion) and tied down our military in Iraq, we're in an incalculably weaker position w.r.t. defense against nuclear proliferation, and hence nuclear terrorism.

What Bush has done is more like if you hired a contractor to put on a new roof, and the first thing he does is blast a huge hole in your basement, blowing into a nearby water main, flooding your basement, and creating dangerous water-filled cracks in your walls that are going to be a big headache when they freeze next winter.

"Oops!" he says. "My bad... wait, no, I mean, my good! It's all good!" You remember having reservations when he hauled the dynamite into the basement, but he assured you that it was necessary to fix the roof, and that it would basically pay for itself. This struck you as a non sequitur, but he went ahead anyway. After a while, the flooding damage starts to get out of hand, so he asks you for more money, which you reluctantly give him, and a few months later under continuing flooding, you find out that he hasn't even spent the money you asked for. You even find out that he took some of the money you gave him to fix the bathroom and spent it buying dynamite. Now, at this point, you get really fed up and call in an independent auditor, who estimates that it will cost three times as much money to fix the basement as Bush told you it would. You ask Bush if the roof's ever going to get done, and he says "I don't think about it much anymore." And the water in the basement just keeps rising, and the outlook just keeps getting worse.

But even this analogy isn't tough enough, because, although a flooded basement is bad, it doesn't involve killing anybody.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

September Crypto-Gram highlights

It's Crypto-Gram day again. Yee haw! Actually today's issue is less thrilling than usual. But, here are some of my favorite highlights:

  • The Man in the Snow White Cell: a sobering article on the limits of interrogation, from the CIA's Studies in Intelligence 48(1), unclassified ed.
  • Apparently, a typical Windows PC gets hacked 20 minutes after it gets plugged into the Internet. This is down from 40 minutes they measured last year; and it's less time than it takes to download the patches that would keep your computer secure. This is terrible.
  • From reader comments, an official from Houston Airport System defends the Airport Rangers program which Schneier criticized last month (a criticism with which I agreed, perhaps prematurely):

    Mr. Schneier appears to base his opinion on simply reviewing the Houston Airport System website's page(s) about the Airport Ranger program, which by the way has over 450 volunteers that have passed background checks. . . . [deletia] . . . It would appear that Mr. Schneier may believe that we depend on the Airport Rangers program as a primary means of perimeter security; if so, this would be a tremendous misassumption. We have numerous technological and professional security force resources involved in protecting our perimeter and are constantly reviewing the latest trends and techniques. I am forbidden by federal law to disclose in any further detail our present techniques and as to which new techniques we are leaning.

    George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) has approximately 11,000+ acres of land and was built on what, not too long ago, was a rural area close to the City of Houston. . . . [deletia] . . . For many years, as the area where equestrians could ride has been greatly reduced due to the development that occurs around airports, the equestrian community in North Harris County has ridden around this area without having proper permission or documentation. Houston Airport System (HAS) thought it better to work with the equestrian community than to fight it. After all, the land is owned by the taxpayers, and as a result a "win-win" situation developed. The equestrians now have a nice place to ride as the Houston Airport System has done a number of improvements on the land to encourage daily use by the Airport Rangers. In exchange, the Airport now knows who is riding, knows their background and has them wearing picture identification cards. Rangers challenge and report to our Security Dispatch Center, by cellular telephone, anyone they come upon who doesn't have the HAS issued ID card or anything they deem to be suspicious. . . . [deletia] . . . Several incidences of trespass have been reported by Rangers and at least two thefts of property have been thwarted.

    Mr. Schneier worries about civil rights and constitutional protections, along with racial profiling. These are necessary and admirable concerns. However, the Airport Rangers have no powers to arrest or detain -- they are simply eyes and ears for law enforcement and security professionals -- their sole obligation is to observe, actively look for certain things, and report them by cell phone to the HAS Security Dispatch Center.

    Mr. Schneier opines that the perimeter around an airport used to be a no-man's land and anyone on the property was immediately suspicious. Ah, to live in that perfect world. At most large airports today public streets, roads and even highways run just a few feet outside of the main security fence. If the airport is lucky and has large acreage on several sides, such as George Bush Intercontinental does, then the problem becomes one of manpower to patrol all of the areas. Today, more than ever, law enforcement and security agencies need the assistance of every citizen and the Airport Ranger Program, at least at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, goes a very long way in making that a reality.

    IMO still not entirely convincing --- it seems the right security solution to civilian horseback riders trespassing on airport land would be to kick them out, not to give them badges. It's an airport. Build the horse-lovers a riding park.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Bush National Guard forgery allegations: Nonsense.

Returned to sucking at the electronic teat today, and discovered to my great dismay that NewsDog, a newsblog run by my Berkeley buddies, is running a credulous post on the "debunking" of the Texas Air National Guard memos regarding Bush's Vietnam-dodging ass. What you need to know: this is bullshit. It is bullshit through and through. The "debunking" is so laughable that it literally makes my head hurt to think that people in the news media have been running with it. If you don't believe this yet, read the following:

If journalism were a profession with intellectual integrity, then the people who credulously passed on these ridiculous allegations would be shunned. As it is, they'll probably get promoted. I mean, it takes only the most rudimentary fact-checking to determine that this idiocy about fonts is bogus. This would be like me going to the New York Times and claiming I've developed a new Java compiler with 10000% speedup over the Jikes RVM on spec2000 by eliminating no-ops from the instruction stream. And then they publish it without calling a single person with a Ph.D. in computer science --- like, for example, the many dozens of people who have hacked on the Jikes RVM. I mean this is ridiculous. It is shameful. It is fucked-up and stupid. This is a deeply sad era for American news.

UPDATE: Further and more detailed (and not trivially refutable) information is coming out regarding the forgery allegations. Well, finally. This still doesn't justify the hackishness of the people who ran with the story before they had adequate justification.

p.s. US News determines that Bush shirked National Guard duty. No memos to argue about.

Neuropeptide S followup

The Corpus Callosum blogger has a post with many links, on the recent neuropeptide S results which I blogged a while a back.

NYC log

Got 30 concentrated hours of mostly solitary NYC auto-tourism this past weekend. My Sept. 11-12 travelogue follows. Obvious warning: if you're not one of my friends and have somehow wandered onto this blog for some other reason, the following will, no doubt, be incredibly boring; actually, even if you are one of my friends, the following might still be incredibly boring.

The day begins with a noonish bus into the Port Authority terminal; I descend to the 7 train crosstown to the 5, uptown to 86th. I walk to Tal Bagels on 86 St. between 1st and 2nd. Poppy seed w/ lox spread + Lemon Snapple = my poisons of choice; eaten on steps of the Met while watching street musician, passers-by, and obnoxious pigeons. The Metropolitan's current exhibitions look snoringly dull, so I follow my prior plan to visit the Whitney: a great Ed Ruscha show, a mixed Ana Mendieta show, some semi-interesting Pop Art selections from the permanent collection.

Next I meander indirectly back to a 6 station and ride downtown to City Hall, to visit Ground Zero, which, for various ill-defined emotional reasons, I have been mostly avoiding the past three years. I pass St. Paul's, where a number of uniformed men accompanied by families are entering the memorial service. I heard that the PATH terminal was up and running, but it's still a shock to see the shiny new steps, sprouting directly out of the site, and leading down to the fully functional train station. The site's been cleaned up, and now bears the signs of incipient construction, but nevertheless still feels like a field of ruins. Green brush has started growing out of the mound of earth and gravel by the slurry wall. The viewing fence has been decorated by the city agencies with: tasteful and informative historical poster boards, plus small, iconic, utilitarian placards: "Please do not write on the fence," "Please understand that all items left must be cleaned up." The fence has been decorated by private citizens with: pictures, posters with lists of names, and numerous flowers, the last of these affixed by their stems, poked or sometimes woven between the narrowly spaced fence struts. I nearly bump (literally, physically bump) into Pataki as he walks out of Essex World Cafe by the corner of Liberty St. & Trinity Pl.; I back off in order to avoid alarming his security detail, although this security detail doesn't actually seem too worried about the surrounding crowd. I watch him glad-handle his way through the crowd for a while before I move on, past Ladder Co. 10 FDNY station (like most NYC stations today, a wreath hangs inside the door). I take the steps to the elevated pedestrian walkway, gawk for a while at the procession of uniformed men and accompanying families circulating through the pit, and move on.

Organized or disorganized groups at the site include: Falun Gong protesters, who, for unclear reasons, are out in force all over the city today; nut case with array of cardboard signs explaining that he and the CIA knew about 9/11 in the 1970s (I speculate that this is roughly when he started dropping lots of acid); a large crowd gathered about a solemn trio (one Asian woman, a middle-aged white woman, a taller white man with a thick graying beard) who read aloud sequentially from a book containing capsule biographies of each victim; a platoon of people (leftists? right-wingers? can't tell, though they're mostly young) wearing STOP TERRORISM t-shirts; a mysterious, vaguely funerary procession of women, who wear black gypsyish dresses and are led by a man beating a small drum; a small group of Japanese who have spread out long cloths painted with a manga-ish cartoon Buddha and some writing about Hiroshima, which they seem to be invoking in a spirit of genuine sympathy for tragedy, rather than to embarrass Americans by stirring up guilty associations.

I wander down Fulton St. to South St. Seaport. On the way, I encounter more Falun Gong protesters camped in front of NYU's Water St. residence. I sit on the pier and watch the East River and the Brooklyn Bridge for a little while. Then I get restless once again and wander up to the Chambers St. A/C station; I ride the train to Canal St. Along the way, I fire up my Karma and listen to the Velvets singing about heroin as I walk up through Chinatown, SoHo/NoLiTa, past Haring's Pop Shop, and into the East Village, wondering if Lou Reed ever imagined that these neighborhoods would look the way they do today. I get a double medium latte at Oren's (which, incidentally, still serves better coffee than I've had anywhere in Espresso City) and sit in Washington Square Park reading American Ground for a couple of hours. The relentlessly sobering content is leavened somewhat by the inevitable presence of musicians and NYU students around me.

Dinner: burger and fries at Cozy Soup & Burger (In-N-Out can kiss our collective New York ass). Around this point, I've just about had my fill of solitary wandering; you can cover a lot of ground when you're by yourself, but New York gets to be a lonely city when you don't know anyone. Fortunately, I do. I get a chocolate shake to go, then L-train into Williamsburg for PM and JW's opening party. Nice show. It goes about as well for me as parties ever go: I'm hardly a party person, but I manage to reconnect with old friends, and meet some new people. Most unexpected compliment of the night: S: "You're everything we're looking for." Me: "'We'?" S: "Women." If I were prone to blushing . . . of course, it's a polite lie, but flattery will get you everywhere (to an extent that you wouldn't even believe: see Fogg and Nass, IJHCS 46(5)). Bless you, S., wherever you are.

Party winds down around 4am. I crash on the couch with PM & JW's affectionate/needy champagne half-Burmese curled around my shoulder, his head tucked in the crook of my neck, and awaken sometime in the early afternoon, my (black) shirt covered in (beige) cat hair. My gracious hosts serve me a sesame bagel crammed with a shmear of cream cheese and a fistful of lox. We brunch; I feed bits of leftover lox to the half-Burmese and, eventually, the other cat as well; this offering buys me further love from the half-Burmese, and perhaps an infinitesimal reduction in contempt from The Other One. I help my hosts clean up, walk around Williamsburg a bit, then L-train back to 14th St. & 8th Ave. I walk up through Chelsea and into Hell's Kitchen, enjoying the gorgeous day, and enter the Port Authority. And thus ends my day of semi-homecoming.

We now return to your regularly scheduled programming.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

zbigvision (late-night channel surfing)

You see some strange stuff when you're up all night channel surfing whilst jet-lagged. WLIW-21 was playing an excerpt from Zbig Vision's The Orchestra, specifically the segment called "Stairway to Lenin", which is set to Ravel's Bolero. Truly a trip. Recommended, though I doubt there's any way you will ever have a chance to see it.

UPDATE: Holy shit, it appears that Greencine has all three Zbig Vision DVDs: Media, Steps, and The Orchestra. Kudos to them.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Hah-vahd and other bastions of elitism

M. Yglesias has an interesting post on the merits of elite universities. He's responding to G. Easterbrook's article on the non-merits of Harvard, which in turn bases its argument on A. Krueger and S. B. Dale's paper "Estimating the Payoff to Attending a More Selective College: An Application of Selection on Observables and Unobservables" (working paper PDF) (this work was announced in 1998, but didn't get published in peer-reviewed form until the Nov. 2002 issue of the Quarterly Journal of Economics.)

Whew. OK, bibliography part I out of the way. Now, let me point you to another, related paper, by J. E. Olson of St. John's University, called "The Cost Effectiveness of American Higher Education: The United States can afford its colleges and universities", available in Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research, vol. XII. (Not online, unfortunately, though you should be able to obtain an electronic abstract by emailing Agathon Press.)

I came across this paper while I was doing a literature search in an actual bricks-and-mortar, dead-trees library as a first-year grad student. Among other interesting things, the paper points out a number of explanatory models which account for the difference in economic outcomes for people who have greater education --- of which my old notes on the paper summarize three:

"By providing credentials, colleges randomly eliminate some applicants for employers so that employers have to interview fewer prospective hires. This saves employers money. There is no real difference in ability between credentialed and uncredentialed applicants."
"Colleges provide an 'obstacle course' for students to navigate. Students who successfully navigate the obstacle course will have, on average, greater intellectual abilities than students who do not, even though the specific skills tested bear little relationship to job skills. Employers are justified in hiring college graduates for this reason."
"Like credentialing, except that once a person is credentialed, (s)he will feel obligated to perform up to the level of that credential, and will therefore make a better hire. For example, a Harvard graduate might have higher expectations for him/herself, and therefore will perform better." (This explanation has its roots in a theory from psychology called 'expectation states'.)

I believe these three models are fairly standard in the education literature. They were constructed to explain differences in outcomes for people who attend college and post-collegiate education versus those who do not; but they easily be applied to those who attend elite vs. non-elite universities.

In this context, Matthew's explanation suggests that he believes in the "screening" function of higher education. More precisely, he believes in the obstacle course that high school students must navigate in order to get admission to elite higher education. Easterbrook, on the other hand, seems to believe that the elite vs. non-elite distinction is simply melting away. I leave it to you to decide which you find more convincing.

Final note: Yglesias writes

Harvard's admissions department does a very good job of selecting students from a wide applicant pool, but the faculty does no better at educating the students than does the faculty at any number of less-selective institutions. There is, perhaps, nothing especially surprising about this when one considers that teaching ability is not a factor in hiring decisions at highly-selective universities which, ex ante, should make one suspicious of the notion that the professors there are particularly good at teaching.

I just want to second this statement --- at least, for some top universities. From firsthand observation, I can say that UW's computer science dept. currently does care about teaching ability in its hiring process (though it is, naturally, only one of several considerations). But there are other top computer science departments where it is transparently obvious, from the past history of faculty hires and tenure decisions, that remaining or becoming the nation's top computer science research department is the one and only consideration. Their students are stellar enough that the teaching quality hardly matters. And, of course, by sheer luck, sometimes these top departments still hire great teachers. But that's a side effect, not a first-order goal.

If you really want the best education possible, then you should find a department that paradoxically doesn't have a top research ranking. In fact, it's only a small exaggeration to say that you should find a department whose professors publish no research papers, because such a department might actually make hiring and tenure decisions based on demonstrated teaching ability instead of research output.

Gratuitous post from the airport

So, due to various circumstances, I got to Sea-Tac about 5 minutes too late to check in for my flight. Had I been a personage of any importance, no doubt they would have made an exception and hustled me through to the gate, but as it is, I'm stuck here for the next five and a half hours or so, killing time till the next flight. However, I am happy to report that the Starbucks in the B wing, at least, has free wireless.* I've tried this in Sea-Tac before, and I've had to pay; and Port of Seattle seems to think that Wayport runs the wireless concession; so I think that this is courtesy of Starbucks, not the magnanimity of Port of Seattle.

Nevertheless, I feel cool. Welcome to the future. Too bad I have nothing interesting to say.

* For Sea-Tac aficionadoes, the Starbucks by B5, not the hybrid Starbucks/Pizza Hut out at the tip of the terminal.

UPDATE: Starbucks just closed (5pm! unbelievable), and /sbin/iwconfig informs me that the current ESSID is "Wayport_Access". Therefore, I conclude that the either (1) Wayport is having a freebie today, or (2) something is fubar, or (3) my laptop's godly karma gives me free wireless wherever I go. My current guess is that it's some combination of (2) and the fact that I'm running Linux. Well, whatever; I'm happy in any case.

Saturday, September 04, 2004

Dawkins on religion's ultimate cause

Via MeFi comes R. Dawkins's essay for the Council of Secular Humanism on the ultimate Darwinian causes of religion.

He's not completely right, and (as with any essay this length) it contains numerous inevitable simplifications. However, the generalized Darwinism from which Dawkins draws inspiration is still a powerful idea. I read Dawkins's book The Selfish Gene when I was in high school, and it's had a pretty deep and enduring influence on the way I think. This post of mine from last year, for example, comes around to a fairly Dawkinsian conclusion at the end.

The MeFi comments also turn up Dawkins's article from Sept. 15, 2001. A bit over-the-top, but nevertheless a useful, and all-too-rare, counterweight to the ridiculous band of crypto-theocrats currently running our country. Could anyone publish such a blunt article in a major American newspaper? Doubtful. As Nabokov wrote, in 1956, in the essay "On a Book Entitled Lolita":

[The publishers'] refusal to buy the book was based not on my treatment of the theme but on the theme itself, for there are at least three themes which are utterly taboo as far as most American publishers are concerned. The two others are: a Negro-White marriage which is a complete and glorious success resulting in lots of children and grandchildren; and the total atheist who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106.

Thursday, September 02, 2004

David Brooks expiates some sins

(This is a bit late, but it's been sitting in the drafts queue since Sunday night.)

I'm not exactly a fan of David Brooks. In fact, if I were him, I'd be mortified to have had my byline attached to the analysis (to use the term loosely) that he's been cranking out at the Times. I mean, I would be depressed, in the clinical sense; I would literally have difficulty getting out of bed and looking in the mirror in the morning.

But: his Times Magazine cover article from this past Sunday is thoughtful and, at times, even astute. Brooks does fall prey, in section III, to the fallacy of confusing word and action --- the full cheapness and emptiness of Bush's campaign rhetoric hasn't really sunk in --- but I grit my teeth and soldiered on past that section, and found the remainder of the article worthwhile.

(I can't help but think that Kinsley's smackdown back in May has had a delayed effect: the article's blissfully free of "shopping lists" and "clever coinages". A few jokes and fearless generalizations remain, but they're quite bearable --- jokes are only bad when they replace substantive thought, and generalizations, in a magazine-length piece dealing with subjects of great complexity, are inevitable, and not even necessarily undesirable.)

I don't agree, necessarily, with the program Brooks outlines, but a Republican Party like the one Brooks envisions would be better for America, in every sense, than the one we have now. Even though it would be wrong about many things, it would be wrong in a much less poisonous way.

Unfortunately, Brooks vastly underestimates the degree to which the modern Republican Party is a blood pact between crypto-racists and plutocrats. The epitome of the modern Republican Party's soul is George W. Bush's speech at Bob Jones University in 2000. We still live in the shadow of the Nixonian Southern strategy, and we most likely will remain there until the death of the last white man who hit puberty before the civil rights revolution. The Party of Lincoln died four decades ago.

Nevertheless, we would be a better nation if the zombie strutting around in its clothes were to regain its soul. So, I dearly hope, against all reason, that people who agree with Brooks take control of the Republican Party. Right after the Democrats kick Republican ass this November.

UPDATE: Via Mouthpiece (and dug up by my NJ buddy & Plastician extraordinaire Perrystroika) comes this startling admission by David Brooks to a Boston Globe reporter:

[Christopher] Buckley worries that, somewhere, someone is more prolific than he. He even knows who that someone is: David Brooks, New York Times columnist, book writer, magazine contributor, and PBS talking head. "He's in every issue of The Atlantic Monthly, then he's on the TV show, and he gives speeches on the side," says Buckley, sounding overmatched. "I'd like to know what he's on."

Returning my call from a taxicab -- "I'm just finishing off a piece right here," he jokes -- Brooks is a tad sensitive about his Stakhanovite literary output. "I'm slightly embarrassed," he admits. "It suggests a high level of hackdom." So what is he taking? "Nothing chemical, it's mostly psychological," he explains. "I would explain my high productivity by my desperate loneliness and my pathetic sadness that causes me work to extreme lengths to fill the hollow void that is my life."

So it appears that Brooks is, in fact, depressed, in a clinical sense, and does have difficulty getting out of bed and looking in the mirror in the morning. Somehow knowing this makes him so much more tolerable. (Though, as Perry suggests, he might be under the (mistaken) impression that he's joking.)