Archive for September, 2011

Security Theater in science fiction, 1956 edition

September 28, 2011 5 comments

In his 1956 short story, Let’s Get Together, Isaac Asimov describes security measures proposed to counter a terrorist threat:

“Consider further that this news will leak out as more and more people become involved in our countermeasures and more and more people begin to guess what we’re doing. Then what? The panic might do us more harm than any one TC bomb.”

The Presidential Assistant said irritably, “In Heaven’s name, man, what do you suggest we do, then?”

“Nothing,” said Lynn. “Call their bluff. Live as we have lived and gamble that They won’t dare break the stalemate for the sake of a one-bomb head start.”

“Impossible!” said Jeffreys. “Completely impossible. The welfare of all of Us is very largely in my hands, and doing nothing is the one thing I cannot do. I agree with you, perhaps, that X-ray machines at sports arenas are a kind of skin-deep measure that won’t be effective, but it has to be done so that people, in the aftermath, do not come to the bitter conclusion that we tossed our country away for the sake of a subtle line of reasoning that encouraged donothingism.”

Substitute airports for sports arenas, but otherwise, we have literally skin-deep X-rays deployed that are likely to be ineffective, for the implicit purpose of showing that we are doing something. Did Asimov have a freaking time machine in his basement or something?


Categories: Uncategorized

“There are eight million stories in the naked city…”

September 27, 2011 2 comments

No one uses a pregnancy test in Wal-Mart’s bathroom unless she’s in a real hurry to know.  What did she hope – or fear – the answer would be? Did she see the results and fling it aside?  Or carry it in disbelief and then accidentally drop it as she dug her keys out of her purse? How could I see it there on the parking lot pavement, soaked by rain, smashed by car tires, and not wonder?

The location of this artifact suggests the test results were urgent

The result – the one on the test, anyway – has faded from view.  But before that happened this little device presented some very important information.  Like whether someone would be unable to go to college.  Or was tied to someone she was trying to leave, or forget, or even escape. Or was faced with a decision that she would have to keep secret all her life, lest she be thought a murderer by people who confuse a clump of cells with a baby. Or perhaps, it gave its owner a message of sweet relief, and an opportunity to visit Planned Parenthood for some less stressful options.

A woman faces these decisions, and the consequences surrounding them.  There’s no place for preachers or politicians to insert their ideologies.

(And yes, I meant that exactly the way it sounded)


  • In Bloomington/Normal, it’s only about 120,000 stories
  • Yes, conceivably the woman using this might have been hoping she was pregnant.  If that were the case one might speculate she’d open it at home, and save it to show her partner.
Categories: Uncategorized

Why you should try to live within walking/biking distance if possible…

September 26, 2011 Comments off

I wonder what it cost to put this ad on the back cover of The Economist?

You see an ad like this and you think; “Wow, it must really suck to drive a Range Rover, wear a Rolex, and blot out your unhappiness with fancy Polish vodka!

Alcohol is the traditional anodyne for the rich and pathetic, I suppose.  This ad is from the back cover of The Economist, which is full of ads for really, really expensive stuff.  And editorial endorsements of the latest idiot out of Texas, but I digress.

I could suggest a few drugs that would end the torment more quickly, fellas…

Categories: Uncategorized

Sunday Morning Science

September 25, 2011 Comments off

A little mind-blowing science:

Categories: Uncategorized

Progressive-ly more intrusive

September 20, 2011 Comments off

Progressive Insurance has gone national with their new driver-tracking device.  Plugged into your car, it’ll tell them how much you drive and how many sudden stops you make.  Then your insurance rates are adjusted accordingly.

They’ve had this in beta for a while, probably to associate the data with actual accident rates. Insurance companies are pretty good about not making assumptions, long ignoring jokes about women drivers because the real data showed they are, in fact, safer on the road.  For that matter a person like me, who hardly ever drives, may not necessarily be all that safe of a driver. There’s probably an optimal amount of driving and I could well be below it.

Will the advertising address privacy issues?  ”At Progressive, we’re watching how you drive, not where and when” or something like that.  There’s a marketing danger in raising issues some consumers may not have even thought of but again, that’s what focus groups and market studies are for.

In many cases people who stop to think about it will realize that in terms of daily habits, their lives could be considered boring.  Of course they will only think that if they are, in fact, bored with their lives.  Maybe people will start taking different routes and interesting, offbeat vacations to impress their Progressive tracking chip.

It will be interesting to see if other insurance companies pick this up.  If it becomes universal, will the small percentage of extremely dangerous drivers be priced right out of the market?  Or the monthly report would prompt them to modify their habits if they want to keep driving, which would be a Very Good Thing.

But insurance companies could apply the same logic to health insurance.  Perhaps people will start wearing implanted chips that monitor their heart rates and automatically call an ambulance if a heart-attack is imminent. You could have “pay-as-you-eat” health insurance that monitors blood cholesterol, or nicotine, or gives you savings points for daily cardio exercise. Consumers would realize that their insurance company would know when they climbed stairs, took a nap, or had sex.  Imagine divorce proceedings that subpoena that information; a market study should give an idea who would accept which privacy trade-offs.

Also doesn’t the “sharing of risk” depend to some extent on the sense that risk is only partly predictable?  Improved sensors could pick up cancer cells or degenerative neurological diseases – and quickly cancel someone’s policy if something chronically or terminally expensive occurred. Could the whole business model of insurance collapse in a matrix of data-collection and analysis?

Categories: Uncategorized

Seemed like it deserved recognition

September 20, 2011 Comments off

I saw this painting in a pile of trash on my ride home, and tipped it upright to have a look.  A comic book character?  Something from a video game or TV series? I could imagine the artist with the big plywood sheet tacked up on the wall, working with brushes to create this mysterious scene. Anyway I thought it deserved some recognition before the bulky-trash claw truck picked it up and smashed it in with washing machines and old furniture. Big plywood sheet painting artist, my hat is off to you:

Painting in trash on Normal avenue in Normal, Illinois

Painting awaiting trash pickup on Normal avenue in Normal, Illinois. Click to embiggen.

Categories: Uncategorized

“You get what you pay for” – third in a series of things we used to say

September 17, 2011 4 comments

Cliches are not like the law of gravity, but they’re pretty darned reliable social/economic observations.  We say them with a knowing expression, as if they explain something… and often they do. How often do you hear this one?

“You get what you pay for”

Depending on your focus it can be stated differently:  ”you get what someone pays for,” or “follow the money” or the ever-popular “No Free Lunch”.  I can’t think of a better example than campaign financing.

Who’s paying for our political campaigns?

Somebody’s paying for something and somebody is getting something.

You and I can’t possibly compete in an economic arm-wrestling match with the Koch brothers, for example.  We make contributions and hope for representation; they pay for staff, jets, perks, front organizations… and get private-line access.

The party currently holding Congress will say or do anything they’re told by their corporate nose-ring pullers.  They’ll look at the science behind global warming and just… deny it. They’ll look at our highest-in-the-world-per-capita health care spending and our 40th-place infant mortality stats and say, with a straight face, “We have the best health care in the world!” They’ll call Social Security a Ponzi scheme  because let’s face it, their Wall Street masters are salivating over that market.  They’ll say they’re giving the Obama jobs plan “serious consideration” and then turn around a week later and propose another trillion dollars in tax cuts for the rich.

You can forget about the Tillman act or its various legal grandchildren.  Now that corporations have been declared people, they’ve gotten really serious about paying for elections. Is it any surprise they’re getting candidates who will actually introduce legislation written by their “think tanks”?

(The Democrats are a little better.  Some of them are even pretty good, but don’t expect them to do more than keep some of the worst evils at bay for the time being.)

How do we get there from here?

The situation makes schemes like “conscripting random people to be Senators for a year”, sound a hell of a lot better.  But as I said before, our guiding cliches aren’t laws of nature.  We CAN bend them a little bit.  For example, we can just damn well un-declare corporations as people and bring back campaign financing rules. Maybe even go to public financing of elections.

Sounds simple!  Except we can’t just damn well un-declare anything.  We are painted into a corner (despite having been warned). Our own elected officials stand in the way, backed by corporate money.

OK, we’ll “throw the bums out”, right?  Ditch all the corporate-owned, religion-addled Republicans and the slightly less corporate-owned and religion-addled Democrats and put in… I don’t know, Green candidates or something?  Fiscal responsibility, less war, more environment, universal health care, and so forth? Great!  Let’s do that.

Sorry, at the national level that is not realistic; we’re stuck with Republicans and Democrats.  Votes for third-party candidates just make lobbyists rub their hands together and practice their evil laugh. We’re in a serious pickle and we simply can’t get to the other side of the board in one or two moves.  What to do?

Letting Conservatives win national seats to “teach the Democrats a lesson” is just… stupid.  A good compromise would be to elect Green candidates at the local level; it will put pressure on Democrats to stop pandering to Conservatives.  Because in the age of corporate megabucks politics, we’re going to have to bend “get what you pay for” as far as it will go.

We’re in a long game, and we need to think in multiple steps. Like restoring campaign-finance laws, supporting public campaign financing, party loyalty (think very hard about where the wedge comes from), and give that First Amendment a workout every chance you get.

Step one should be to figure out what we are paying for, and what someone is paying for and how much.  But not all payment is money: if you’re getting outspent, you will have to out-think.  And that isn’t easy because, while the big corporations seem to prefer dumb candidates, their strategists and attorneys run toward wicked-smart.  That’s where the new battle is, and why anti-intellectualism is so dangerous.


  • I thought I was editing a draft of this post but accidentally published instead.  So a whole sequence of different versions were live for a while.
  • Clearly it would be possible to write this post about schools, or health care, or consumer goods or canned beans.
  • One good example: Half of Rick Perry’s donations come from a handful of zillionaires
  • Something I found while researching this post: Outflanking the Tea Party (and Barack Obama).  Author is thinking along similar lines apparently.
  • Next cliche is a really juicy one.  First spoken by a US President.
Categories: Uncategorized

New electric car (alas, not) to be made in Normal, IL

September 16, 2011 7 comments

I’m pretty happy Mitsubishi is planning to build their futuristic little car right here in Normal.  Couple days ago they were filming a commercial for it downtown:

Mitsubishi electric car

Did I say “little”?  Well not really.  The passenger compartment is huge and it looks like there’s plenty of room for luggage.

If you ask anyone to draw a picture of “a car”, you will get a boxy shape with the wheels two feet (or more) from each end with a bigger box in the middle. Something like my old ’67 Dodge Coronet 4-door; eighteen feet of Detroit steel with an enormous cast-iron engine in the front and a heavy cast-iron differential axle in the back.  It handled pretty well considering its bulk, thanks to torsion-bar suspension but this car will handle way better.

The major weight of the car is close to the ground and the wheels are as close to the corners of the car as possible.  It will be super-easy to park and cheap to operate.  Think it’s a little funny-looking?  Imagine not caring enough about the price of gas to even look when you drive by a station.  Imagine vastly simplified routine maintenance.  We’re going to see a lot of cars like this from different manufacturers pretty soon.

One objection to electric cars is that they won’t pay gasoline taxes, which is the major revenue stream for road repair.  But most road damage is done by heavy vehicles.  Seems like an equitable multiplier could be worked out by the boffins.

Categories: Uncategorized

Dan Savage at Illinois State University

September 14, 2011 Comments off
Dan Savage

Dan Savage appearing at Illinois State University's Braden Auditorium on 14 September 2011

Normally, he said, he prefers a Q&A format and then just spend the evening talking about sex stuff. But tonight he talked about the “It Gets Better” project, which was a moving experience.

The basic idea is this: Savage and his husband had read just too many damn newspaper articles about LGBT teens committing suicide.  He wished he could talk to them – let them know that there is a life beyond high school, and that it could get better.  That it could be great!

But how could they possibly get invited into a high school to talk about how a gay person can grow up to have a happy life?  Other than by a principal who was planning to quit later that day.

“We need to talk to the Billy Lucases out there before we read about them in the newspaper.”

Then it hit him: in the age of Facebook and YouTube and Twitter, they were waiting for permission or invitations that were no longer required.  They could communicate directly with teens.  So he and his husband – previously a very private person – made a video.

They created a new YouTube channel with the intention of gathering 100 videos.  In just a few days viewers had contributed 650 videos, the maximum number for a new YouTube channel.  So an engineer at Google backdated the channel to before YouTube even existed, so they could gather 3000 videos.  Today, more than 35,000 people have contributed videos to tell LGBT teens: don’t give up.  It gets better.

“It’s not all a sweet, or saccharine,  outreach: there’s a “Fuck You” embedded in it.  We’re going to talk to your LGBT kid whether you want us to or not.  We’re going right past the parents, the school principals, and the preachers directly to the kids.  And in ten years after you get over your kid being gay, you’ll thank us for it.”

The program, after only one year, has been successful that people started trying to donate money – which they didn’t need.  So they’ve been able to funnel tens of thousands of dollars into suicide hotlines, anti-bullying programs, and the ACLU.

He talked passionately about the religious right’s anti-gay crusades – in particular Tony Perkins of the FRC.

“Every LGBT youth suicide is a victory to them.”

I’ve read stuff from the Family Research Council and the American Family Association and he’s right; they really are glad when a gay teen commits suicide.  Even sicker? The culture of Perkins and Fisher are a voting block courted by Conservatives.

Half of all bullying is against LGBT teens, but only 5 out of 67 anti-bullying programs address them.  The other 62 programs ignore literally half the problem.

Then he did have Q&A:

He talked about his history with Rick Santorum: “Some people actually accuse me of bullying Rick Santorum.  There’s a big difference between being a gay teenager with nobody who has their back, nobody to defend them, where they’re bullied at school, at home, and bullied by God at church, and a wealthy US Senator who only speaks to crowds who agree with everything he says.  When you give a bully a bloody nose, they just can’t believe it!  And he still can’t.”

He and his husband are Episcopalian, which he said is; “A Catholic who goes to Hell”.

Religious organizations, political leaders, many straight people, even the President, have contributed videos to the campaign.

“But you know who hasn’t contributed even a single video?  Not even one elected Republican leader.  To do a video you don’t have to sign off on the entire LGBT agenda; you just need to be able to look into a camera and say to an isolated, vulnerable kid; ‘Hang in there!  Don’t hurt yourself.’  That bar is pretty fucking low and not a single Republican official can clear it.”

Asked; Will he vote for Barack Obama?

“Yes, because I’m not a total fucking idiot.  I don’t have the luxury of an alternate universe where I can get a candidate who’s perfect in every way.  I can’t get Mary Poppins as my candidate.  And yes it took a lot of yelling, and some feet-holding to the fire, but he’s delivered – not everything and there’s plenty of things I’m really pissed at him about, but he’s delivered.  And if we don’t reward that then politicians will ask themselves, ‘Why give them anything?  Because we sure aren’t going to get anything from the Republican psychos.”


  • LGBT teen risk of suicide = 4x.  If parents unsupportive or hostile = 8x.  Tony Perkins actually advises parents of gay teens to reject their kids.
  • Yeah, I feel pretty lucky to be able to walk four blocks from my house and hear national figures speak.  Savage was hilarious, moving, and I learned a lot.  I think he’s done a lot to make life better for a lot of Americans – people around the world actually – even straight people who were never comfortable being part of homophobic culture and have an opening to say; Not doing that anymore.
  • Aww, poor little Rick Santorum.  He says it’s all Google’s fault.  (Just a hint, Rick; if you convince Google to destroy their own business model to please your campaign, then you still have to work on Bing, Yahoo, and ASK.  Though the latter doesn’t have a top link to, the first several links are to what a slimy, frothy bigot you are.  You fix that by looking in the mirror, not by arguing with search engines.)




Categories: Uncategorized

The alien menace

September 13, 2011 1 comment

If you’re a hornet, that is…

Wheel bug devours a hornet

Wheel bug devours a hornet (click to embiggen)

I was riding home in the rain and noticed this drama unfolding on a campus sidewalk.  The wheel bug (a member of the assassin bug clan) repeatedly stabbed the hornet with its proboscis, injecting digestive fluids.  The hornet’s stinger was still intact (visible in one of the pictures) but its right wing is broken.  At the beginning it was still struggling but by the time I left them, it had stopped moving.  Small wonder it lost the fight with such a large opponent.

The scale is small to us, but pretty damn big to the hornet.   I have no idea what kind of feelings bugs have; presumably they can feel pain.  It reminded me of the scene in Starship Troopers where the giant bug sucked one of the soldiers’ brain out.  If you see a wheel bug, do not pick it up; they can give you a nasty bite.

You can see more pictures of this encounter in my Biosphere photo album.

Categories: Uncategorized