Archive for January, 2012

Sub Specie Ego

January 31, 2012 4 comments

A new satellite photo (well, technically a composite of high-def photos) of Earth has been circulating that’s well worth checking out:

It’s a gorgeous image that provides mankind with a perspective rarely seen. Compared to older shots of our pleasant little planet, “Blue Marble 2012” is the sharpest and most vivid view of Earth without seeing it in person.

What I’ve always appreciated about stunning nature photos is how much I can’t appreciate the beauty through the medium. Any hiker knows that witnessing an expansive landscape on a mountain top dwarfs the print view rotting in his home photo casket. If you only saw a landscape captured by camera, you’d never be able to fully imagine what the moment appears like with total sensation.

Which is why looking at this spectacular photo confirms my desire to go to space and observe our planet for myself. If the satellite’s snapshot is this breathtaking, I can’t imagine its true expression.

Categories: space

Cocktail of the Week Feature

January 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Unless you’re a teetotaler, anyone that follows politics regularly probably needs at least a weekly cocktail. As some of you know, in addition to political work, I bartend. So, I’ve decided to post a regular feature to help my readers imbibe properly. Besides, the cocktail and politics have history dating from at least 1806. One of the earliest uses of the term “cock-tail” was political (Harry Crosswell of the Balance and Columbian Repository):

[The cocktail] is supposed to be an excellent electioneering potion in as much as it renders the heart stout and bold, at the same time it fuddles the head. It is said also, to be of great use to a democratic candidate: because, a person having swallowed a glass of it, is ready to swallow anything else.

So everyone get ready to start hearing me spout things like this:

Categories: Cocktail of the Week

Patently Absurd*

January 19, 2012 6 comments

The Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA) got a lot of attention yesterday – especially the wikipedia blackout. Many outlets oppose the bill because they fear, rightfully, that it will promote censorship and stifle free speech and internet innovation. It seems protest and outrage got to enough congresspeople to keep them from supporting some of the worst aspects of SOPA, but the cornerstone of advocacy is support for strong intellectual property and copyright laws themselves.

Constitutionally, copyright power is designed “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” Industry advocates and their allies consistently rely on a theoretical case that without strong intellectual property protection advances in science and art would be practically nonexistent and entertainers would all starve. It all sounds nice in theory, but the only thing nonexistent for this state of affairs is the evidence for it.

I’m sure printers of the Encyclopedia Britannica may have lost some revenue after the internet and wikipedia started offering information freely, but can anyone seriously claim that information is less available now? As an author of a free blog, maybe I just can’t understand. I suppose it’s possible that we’d descend into an artistic Dark Age if we greatly reduced intellectual property rights… but somehow we got by with Shakespeare, Mozart, and Da Vinci before copyright laws made innovation itself possible.

Matt Yglesias sensibly wonders what problem needs fixing?

There are plenty of books to read, things to watch, and music to listen to. Indeed, the American consumer has never been better-entertained than she is today. The same digital frontier that’s created the piracy pseudo-problem has created whole new companies and made it infinitely easier for small operations to distribute their products. Digital technology has reduced the price we pay for new works and made them cheaper to create. I can watch a feature film on my telephone.

Instead of tightening up IP laws we should be moving in the opposite direction. If we start to create a real problem, we can move back, but cutting into an industry’s profits by failing to provide them total monopolies shouldn’t be a concern for public policy. Only to the extent that lack of profits decisively cramps innovation do we need to interfere with the free market. Even still, copyright isn’t the only option; government, universities, and charity can fund the arts and science or we could modify the tax code to further promote art. I’m usually against more complications to the tax code, but the monopolies copyrights create distort  efficiency far more than a tax credit.

In Dean Baker’s book, The End of Loser Liberalism, he argues for an”artistic freedom voucher:”

A refundable tax credit for a specific amount (e.g., $100) that individuals could contribute to whatever creative worker/organization they choose. The condition of getting this money would be that the recipient individuals/organizations would not be eligible to receive copyrights for some period of time (e.g., three years) after receiving the money. All the work they produce would be in the public domain so that it could be reproduced and circulated around the world.

Entertainers can still make money from concerts, merchandise, advertising, appearances and other creative endeavors so I don’t think we have to worry about Jay-Z ending up back on the streets if IP rights aren’t fully enforced. I know everyone fears that without strong copyright great artists like Angelina Jolie and Channing Tatum will go extinct once they’re unable to afford eating desserts made of real gold at award shows, but something in me guesses we’ll still have movie stars and we’ll still be able to watch movies.

*Without intellectual property protection I would have never wrote this blog post.

The King’s Indian Defense of Ron Paul

January 13, 2012 7 comments


If you listen to the commentariat you’d probably get the impression that supporting Ron Paul is foolish because he “can’t possibly win”. I don’t know whether Paul himself thinks it’s impossible to win a presidential election, but it appears that electoral results have always been of secondary importance to Paul. Moving policy ideas forward and changing the tactics of the political class motivate the Paul’s candidacy. While studying up on some of chess games and history I came across a fitting parallel.

David Bronstein is a player to whom results have always been of secondary importance; he considers himself a chess artist, to whom originality and beauty are the real goals in chess. Nevertheless, he did achieve some outstanding results, and came within a whisker of winning the world championship.

Bronstein had different levels of success with his novelties. The queen sacrifice in the above image was stunning at the time. As the chess grandmaster explains in his book, Bronstein on the King’s Indian, many considered Nxg3 on move 9 “virtually the move of the century,” yet Bronstein lost the game. But the legacy of the queen sacrifice in the King’s Indian endured and “remains viable to this day.”

Not all chess or policy aberrations work out. Ron Paul’s goldbuggery might be misdirected, but he properly understands monetary policy’s severely undervalued importance.  If Paul’s focus on monetary policy, military anti-interventionism, and the drug reform lead to mainstream acceptance, he’s done his job. Bronstein’s work on the King’s Indian, for example, is the reason the opening eventually enjoyed mainstream popularity.

[One] of the reasons why David Bronstein is widely considered to be one of the founding fathers of the King’s Indian Defense was the fact that when he extensively played this opening in 1940-1950-ies, it was practically unknown territory.  [Thanks to the games of Bronstein] it became one of the most popular openings.

The similarities aren’t perfect, of course, Bronstein takes full responsibility for his columns.

Categories: Ron Paul Tags:

Romney’s In Context Gaffe

January 10, 2012 Leave a comment

All the political talk on Romney’s “I like being able to fire people” gaffe centers around whether or not it’s appropriate for his opponents to take him out-of-context to attack him. Fair minded observers should agree that it is wrong to take political statements out-of-context… although Romney’s campaign disagrees.

Aaron Carroll ignores the political nonsense and notes that Romney’s statement is wrong in context:

Let’s say that you are self-employed, and lucky enough to have found a company to provide you with health insurance. Then, let’s say you develop cancer. You suddenly find out that your insurance company stinks. So you fire them, right?

Of course not. You’re screwed. Now you have a pre-existing condition. There’s not an insurance company out there that wants to cover you. So you don’t fire them. You scream, and curse, and cry, but you’re stuck. Only healthy people have the luxury of picking and choosing.

Let’s also not forget that most people don’t find out that they’re not getting “good service” until they’re sick.

(photo via Vanity Fair)

Categories: healthcare Tags: ,

Safety First Ladies

January 10, 2012 Leave a comment

Wired magazine provides a “how-to” guide to checking your drink for roofies:

Roofies [Rohypnol] were usually colorless but they were reformulated since February 1999, so that they turn blue in a drink to be noticed. Cautious spikers using the new version of Rohypnol can still serve them in blue tropical drinks so the color is disguised.


[GHB] usually is tasteless, but may be recognized at times by a salty aftertaste. GHB can be produced as a clear liquid, powder, or a tablet, but it is most commonly used as a liquid.

(photo from ginsnob)

Categories: Science Tags:

Santorum’s Case Against Gay Marriage: Polygamy is Bad

January 6, 2012 4 comments

One of the more common tactics by opponents of equal marriage rights challenges same-sex relationships by bringing up polygamy. In the video above a student asks Rick Santorum how he can deny marriage rights to gay couples if he believes that all men are created equal and “have the rights to happiness and liberty.” In response, Santorum asks if marrying 5 other people is ok. The students say that’s not the point, while Santorum thinks he’s got one.

I never understood this line of reasoning. When else can someone ask you to justify your position on something and changing the subject to something else constitutes a valid response?

  • Why don’t you think adults should be able to drink alcohol in moderation? Well do you think they should be able to get hammered and drive a car!? 
  • Why shouldn’t I be able to play music in my room? Well should you be able to blare sirens blasts at 180 decibels!? 
  • Can my family buy a second truck? Well should you be able to own an M1 Abrams tank!?

It’s also worth noting that Santorum is utilizing a sort of traditional-marriage-of-the-gaps argument. As we gain more knowledge about gender, sexuality and non-traditional relationships there is less of a reason to restrict marriage rights, so opponents must retreat to more abstract and shaky arguments to preserve their particular notion of marriage.  Many people can’t really explain off the cuff why they think plural marriage is wrong while gay marriage isn’t – they just sort of have a visceral negative reaction to it. I’m sure when people first started debating interracial marriage some traditionalist asked if same-sex marriage is ok. If you don’t fully understand precisely what defines marriage only traditional marriage can exist!

If you’re going to deny an entire class of citizens a fundamental constitutional right it seems necessary to make an actual case against gay marriage rather than frightening people with polygamy or man-on-kethup marriage.  The case against polygamy centers around abuse of women and children, unstable gender ratios, judicial chaos, and other reasons that have nothing to do with the gay marriage. In other words, there is a rational basis for not  giving state sanction to plural marriages.

I’m fairly encouraged by this. It demonstrates that the illiberal religious right continues to lose the argument. They can’t just exploit the taboo and strangeness of gay marriage anymore. The only way they feel they can win is to attack something else.

Categories: Gay Marriage Tags:

Universal Questions

January 4, 2012 Leave a comment

Sorry for the lack of posting lately. I got really busy with the holiday season and now I’m fighting a cold. Science always makes me feel better; here’s physicist Lawrence Krauss:

Finally, it is the “how” question that is really most important, as I emphasize in the new book.  Whenever we ask “why?” we generally mean “How?”, because why implies a sense of purpose that we have no reason to believe actually exists.  When we ask “Why are there 8 planets orbiting the Sun?” we really mean “How are there 8 planets?”—namely how did the evolution of the solar system allow the formation and stable evolution of 8 large bodies orbiting the Sun.  And thus, as I also emphasize, we may never be able to discern if there is actually some underlying universal purpose to the universe, although there is absolutely no scientific evidence of such purpose at this point, what is really important to understanding ourselves and our place in the universe is not trying to parse vague philosophical questions about something and nothing, but rather to try and operationally understand how our universe evolved, and what the future might bring.

(“A rose made of galaxies”)

Categories: Science Tags:
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