Friday, June 23, 2006

If you're like me, you really hate the people who do the tv commentary during sports games. These people simply love trends - and throughout the game, they'll come up with lots and lots of figures that (supposedly) can tell us who will win. One such example is in the Brazil-Australia game, where the audience was told that teams who score the first goal (which, in this case, was Australia) are highly likely to win the game. Alex Massie takes this apart at TNR's world cup blog.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Over at Slate, David Plotz has embarked on a project of blogging the bible. Plotz, who admits to being religious but largely ignorant of the bible, plans to read the whole thing through - for the first time - and record his impressions. So far he's done Genesis and most of Exodus, and his impressions are well-worth reading. At least, they were for me: having known the stories since I was a little boy, its refreshing to see someone reading it more-or-less unencumbered by any preconceptions. Here are Plotz' reflections on Genesis, which I think is worth quoting in full. The passge below is prompted by the story of Jacob and Esau:
Jacob is so perplexing—a favorite of God's who appears to have no moral compass, no filial feeling, and the heart of a con artist. Earlier, Jacob wheedled the birthright out of his older twin Esau in exchange for a bowl of pottage. In this chapter, Rebekah and her favorite son, Jacob, con Isaac into giving Jacob the blessing that belongs to Esau. In the beginning of the story, Jacob is reluctant to help his mother scam the blind and dying Isaac, though not for ethical reasons—he just fears he will get caught and "bring a curse" upon himself. But Rebekah, the original Lady Macbeth, urges him on. She shushes him, and tells him, "Just do as I say." She cooks goat stew for Jacob to give Isaac, since Esau was supposed to bring meat to his father. She comes up with the idea of covering Jacob's hands and neck with goat skins, so he would be as hairy as Esau. Jacob warms to the fraud as it continues, eagerly playing the role of Esau. When Isaac asks him how he hunted down the animals for the stew so quickly, Jacob cavalierly invokes God with his lie: "Because the Lord your God granted me good fortune." Isaac, believing Jacob to be Esau, gives him his grand blessing—making him master over his brothers and promising him wealth and power. And when Esau returns, there are no backsies. In a heartbreaking moment, poor, innocent, stupid Esau weeps and begs, "Bless me, too, Father!" But Isaac can't undo his blessing to Jacob and can only give Esau a lame substitute benediction instead. Esau vows to kills Jacob after Isaac dies.

This story is enthralling and troubling for several reasons. First, I don't think I've ever read anything that's so grim on the relationship of brothers as this first half of Genesis...They conspire against each other, narc on each other, murder each other. There's not a single act of love or kindness between brothers so far. Brothers are only enemies. Was nomadic life so difficult that only one son in any family could hope to prosper?

And if brothers are bad, women are worse. The blessing story is a reminder of just how uncharitable the Bible is toward women, who have so far been either invisible, foolish, or vindictive. Think about the women so far: Eve, suckered by the serpent. Noah's wife doesn't even get a name. Sarah is tricky (pretends to be Abraham's sister), capricious (sends Hagar to Abraham, then rages about it), and cruel (exiles Hagar and Ishmael). Lot's wife dies because she can't refrain from looking back. Lot's daughters rape him. And Rebekah hoodwinks her husband and punishes her older son. I suppose you could argue that Rebekah, with her icy Machiavellian cunning, is a woman to be proud of. She seizes power from her husband and dominates her sons. She controls every scene she's in. She's vivid, if not good.

Her fierce intelligence raises another point about the story. God doesn't suffer fools gladly. It's clear that Esau's chief failing is that he's dumb. He loses his birthright because he's impatient for lunch, and loses his blessing because he's not smart enough to recognize that Jacob might steal it. Jacob and Rebekah, for all their faults, are smart. Abraham, Rebekah, and Jacob—the three great brains of Genesis so far—get what they want—and earn God's blessing—because they finagle, cajole, argue, deceive, play mind games, and even use God to advance their lies. And the Lord seems to love it.

This may explain Genesis' ambivalent attitude toward Isaac. He may be sick and blind, but he's still feckless. Isaac is at the heart of two of the Bible's most vivid stories. As a child he is almost sacrificed, and as a dying man, he is tricked by Jacob and Rebekah. In each story he is the passive victim. He never speaks up for himself: He doesn't chastise his father or punish his son. He's easily gulled by Jacob and manipulated by his wife. All the while, he appears just to want a simple life, eating meat. He's the accidental patriarch. Is it any surprise that God—and the author of Genesis—is so much more interested in Abraham and Jacob?
And later about the reconciliation of Jacob and Esau,
As Jacob approaches his estranged, wronged older brother, he is worried that Esau will attack him. When last seen, after all, Esau was vowing to murder Jacob. So, Jacob masses every defense he has, both human and divine, to ward off his brother. He prays to God to protect him. He divides his livestock and followers into two camps, so that if Esau attacks one group, the other would escape. He sends hundreds of animals as a gift to Esau, explicitly hoping to buy him. But none of this is necessary. Esau, proving again that he is the mensch of the family if not the brains, sees Jacob and immediately runs to his brother, embraces him, and kisses him. Jacob insists on giving Esau the animals, and it's clear that Jacob views this as buying back his brother's good will. But the present doesn't seem to matter to Esau, who granted forgiveness for nothing. Even so, between Esau's morality and Jacob's strategy, it's obvious which God prefers.

Interestingly, the latest Zogby poll shows that having never shopped at Wal-Mart is a pretty reliable indicator of political preferences.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Gregg Easterbrook writes a Slate piece whose contention is that we should not blame global warming for increasing hurricane damage:
Bear in mind as well that chance is a significant factor in weather-related losses. Three major hurricanes, Eloise, Andrew, and Opal, hit Florida from 1965 to winter 2004. Since then, six—Charley, Frances, Ivan, Jeanne, Dennis, and Wilma—have battered the state. (Katrina was not a major hurricane when it crossed Florida.) Atlantic cyclone frequency and ferocity have increased somewhat since 1965. But the increase has been gradual: nothing like a jump from one major hurricane every 13 years to six in two years. Most likely, the recent escalation in major hurricanes that make landfall in Florida is due to bad luck following a long phase of good luck.
Easterbrook appears not to have done his homework. Research indicates that category 4 and 5 hurricanes have almost doubled over the last three decades. Moreoever, this increase is statistically significant for the North Atlantic (which is relevant to those of us in North America). Quoting from Changes in Tropical Cyclone Number, Duration, and Intensity in a Warming Environment,Science 16 September 2005:
...the North Atlantic Ocean, which possesses an increasing trend in frequency and duration [of hurricanes] that is significant at the 99% confidence level.
In other words, something is making more destructive hurricanes occur more often. It cannot be said with complete certainty that this is global warming at this point - not enough data is available for that. Nevertheless, chance does not explain the increase in more destructive hurricanes that have been hitting North America. This is not to deny that increasing property values have an influence on increasing property damage, but one cannot ignore, as Easterbrook does, the effect of more powerful hurricanes.

I don't know who Rolf Harris is, but having taken about a million "Can you distinguish between Hitler and X" quizzes, this one is pretty funny.

Here is a graph of temperature over the past century, taken from here:

Let's say that you were a complete hack, and you were out to deny the existence of global warming. What bogus arguments could you present that might sound convincing to someone who hasn't seen the chart?

Here are two such arguments that are recycled over and over again:

1. There's been no global warming since 1998. See the huge spike slightly before 2000? Thats 1998. If you recall - and I assume anyone who is reading this was alive back then - that was the year of El Nino.

Obviously, by picking an extremely hot, atypical year as a baseline, its not difficult to get the desired conclusion that global warming isn't happening. One uses a moving average - the fat black line - to smooth out natural fluctuations in the data. Looking at the black line, its difficult to avoid the conclusion that the earth is not warming.

2. Most 20th century global warming occured before 1940. There are many factors that affect global warming. Here are three such factors: volcanic activity, brightness of the sun, carbon emissions. According to our understanding of the atmosphere, the first two factors caused the pre-1940 warming. The last factor caused the recent spate of warming. This is particularly troubling, because the last factor - carbon emissions - is in danger of increasing indefinitely (unlike the first two factors). Which is why we need steps like the Kyoto protocol to curb it.

Recent news reports suggest an ominous trend. Islamic insurgents have effectively taken over Somalia; in Afghanistan, a Taliban insurgency is growing; and parts of Pakistan appear under the control of Taliban-associated Islamic extremists:
"Things are starting to spin out of control," one Western diplomat in Islamabad said of the tribal areas, which have historically been deeply conservative. "In some areas, it's beginning to look like they are setting up a government within a government."

The tribal areas are off-limits to foreign visitors, including journalists, except for periodic, brief helicopter visits with military authorities. But in recent interviews here, tribal lawyers, educators and politicians with knowledge of events in the areas described growing fundamentalist influence and intimidation that is spilling beyond the sparsely inhabited tribal zones and edging closer to settled, government-run localities.

In the past six months, they said, dozens of tribal elders and officials have been killed, including an uncle of the current provincial chief minister. Fundamentalist clerics have freely used FM radio stations to preach holy war and set up public recruiting offices in towns such as Dir and Bannu just outside the tribal areas. Music stores have been shut down and thieves executed before crowds.

"North and South Waziristan are in the grip of Talibanization" and all of the seven federally administered tribal agencies "can come under its grip, too," said Lateef Afridi, a tribal lawyer and politician. "The army has put up an honest fight, but it has failed, and the government has failed. The traditional system has been made ineffective, and the Taliban have moved into the vacuum."

One university instructor, who comes from South Waziristan, said that when he visited a year ago the area was blanketed with army troops, but that when he went back several months ago for a funeral, not a uniformed soldier was in sight while armed men in Taliban-style turbans patrolled in trucks. He asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation.
I think we are witnessing the failure of the anti-terrorism policy pursued by the United States over the last few years. That policy has been focused on making sure that no Afghanistan-type havens for Al Qaeda exist around the world. But in the end, this is simply impossible - the United States cannot commit troops every time an Islamist insrugency prevails in a place like Somalia ( I hardly need to remind anyone of the US involvement in Somalia in 1992).

Instead, the means to stop terrorism on US soil has been at out disposal all along: we ought to pay closer attention to the link between terrorism and immigration. All of the 9/11 hijackers were born outside the United States; and all arrived here by obtaining visas from our state deparment.

Moreover, all of the 9/11 hijackers shared roughly the same demographic profile: Muslim men of young age from the Middle East. I'm all in favor of immigration in the ideal, but is immigration from the Middle East really that crucial to the developement of our nation? If we had cut off immigration from the Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other countries with strong Muslim extremist movements - i.e. Indonesia, Somalia, Nigeria, etc - we could have prevented 9/11. Given that we have decided to admit a certain number of immigrants each year, why not let immigrants to the US come from countries in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and some portions of Southeast Asia? This would not expose us to the same risk.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Slate is running a pretty funny series of letters called "Dispatches from the World Cup," comprised of reports from various Americans currently in Germany. Number 5, which is the report of an American who attends the USA-Italy game in a superman costume, is particularly amusing.

Der Spiegel has an interview with Palestinian PM Ismail Haniya thats worth reading. Some excerpts:
Haniya: ....Israel is against dividing Jerusalem, against the return of the refugees and against a withdrawal to the 1967 borders.

SPIEGEL: If Israel were to withdraw to the 1967 borders and leave East Jerusalem, including the Islamic holy sites, to the Palestinians, would you then be willing to recognize Israel?

Haniya: If Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert says tomorrow that Israel will fulfill these conditions, we will provide something in return.

SPIEGEL: What would that be?

Haniya: A long-term Hudna, or cease-fire, for the next 50 years.

SPIEGEL: But why only that? Why can't you go a step further and say: If the Israelis fulfill these conditions, we will be willing to recognize the State of Israel?

Haniya: These are hypothetical questions...
SPIEGEL: If all Palestinian organizations are abiding by the cease-fire, how do you explain the April 17 attack on Tel Aviv's bus terminal? And why did Hamas seek to justify this attack by calling it "resistance."

Haniya: We are a people who have never attacked others. We are not the aggressor. We want peace and stability in this region. The Israelis are the problem. The must put an end to the targeted killings and daily bombing of the Gaza Strip.

SPIEGEL: Does that mean your government is doing everything it can to prevent attacks?

Haniya: We want peace and stability in this region. I call upon Israel to establish the conditions that will enable my government to achieve a long-term cease-fire.

SPIEGEL: We were talking about your responsibility, not about Israel. If you had information about a suicide bomber and had the power to stop him, would you prevent him from carrying out his plans?

Haniya: We don't control the West Bank. The Israeli military is in charge there. Our security forces have their hands tied. As long as the occupiers remain on our soil, resistance is the legitimate right of our people.
Haniya: Now I have a question. In addition to being prime minister, I am also the Minister of Youth and Sports. I used to play football myself. What do I have to do to receive an invitation from (German) Chancellor Angela Merkel to attend the World Cup games?

SPIEGEL: For that to happen, you would also have to recognize Israel's right to exist and renounce violence.

Haniya: Then I'd rather watch the World Cup on television.

Interestingly enough, McDonalds operating profit in France is second only to that of McDonald's in the United States. There is a story in the Times today about the French preference for cheeseburgers.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

I really like this thread on Make sure to keep scrolling and reading all the comments by user "AngryNotice."

You gotta feel sorry for this beetle. According to the wikipedia main page, the poaching is threatening the species.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Japanese government announced a subsidy to over 30 major Japanese companies to create a search engine that will beat Google. There is a history of succesful government directed innovation in Asia that other regions have been unable to replicate - for example, South Korean companies captured the flat-screen market following a government-lead and subsidized effort in the 90s. It'll be interesting to see how this pans out.

This is amusing:
In Indonesia...former President Suharto's daughter Titiek appeared on private television channel SCTV on World Cup opening night as a football pundit and presenter of the Germany-Costa Rica game, prompting complaints that the Suharto clan was hijacking the world's biggest sporting event to polish up its tarnished image.

"Technically speaking, she is not someone who knows a lot about football," said Ade Armando of the Indonesian Broadcasting Commission, adding that the move was politically provocative.

Nor was Titiek's on-screen appearance likely to attract many viewers, he ventured.

A spokesman for SCTV defended Titiek's appearance, saying it was meant to expand the channel's audience.

"As for Titiek, she has to improve her skill as a presenter," he conceded.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

This is extremely disturbing:
The latest sign that Republicans have an election-year strategy to shut down voter registration drives comes from Ohio. As the state gears up for a very competitive election season this fall, its secretary of state, J. Kenneth Blackwell, has put in place "emergency" regulations that could hit voter registration workers with criminal penalties for perfectly legitimate registration practices. The rules are so draconian they could shut down registration drives in Ohio.

Mr. Blackwell, who also happens to be the Republican candidate for governor this year, has a history of this sort of behavior. In 2004, he instructed county boards of elections to reject any registrations on paper of less than 80-pound stock — about the thickness of a postcard. His order was almost certainly illegal, and he retracted it after he came under intense criticism. It was, however, in place long enough to get some registrations tossed out.

This year, Mr. Blackwell's office has issued rules and materials that appear to require that paid registration workers, and perhaps even volunteers, personally take the forms they collect to an election office. Organizations that run registration drives generally have the people who register voters bring the forms back to supervisors, who can then review them for errors. Under Mr. Blackwell's edict, everyone involved could be committing a crime...

Another of the nation's most famous swing states, Florida, has been the scene of similar consternation and confusion since it recently enacted a law that is so harsh that the Florida League of Women Voters announced that it was stopping all voter registration efforts for the first time in 67 years.

Florida's Legislature, like Ohio's, is controlled by Republicans. Throughout American history both parties have shown a willingness to try to use election law to get results they might otherwise not win at the polls. But right now it is clearly the Republicans who believe they have an interest in keeping the voter base small.
Its also quite amazing that besides a Times editorial, and some stories in local papers, this has not been reported more widely by the media.

Everyone has different things to be proud of. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) shares his own:
As you see here, and I think this is maybe the most important prop we’ll have during the entire debate, my wife and I have been married 47 years. We have 20 kids and grandkids. I’m really proud to say that in the recorded history of our family, we’ve never had a divorce or any kind of homosexual relationship.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Der Spiegel has an interview with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad thats worth reading.

An interesting article in The New Republic maintains that gerrymanding does not explain the high congressional re-election rate (which is 98%).

This is interesting:
...the mix of soccer and politics can get ugly...In 2000 Gen. Robert Guei, who had just engineered [Ivory Coast's] first military coup, held the national team in detention for two days as punishment for being knocked out of the African Nations Cup in the first round. He stripped the players of their passports and cell phones, publicly denounced them, and suggested they should learn some barracks discipline. "You should have spared us the shame," he said.