Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Dark Flow or an Epistemological Limit?

Space.com brings us an article about Mysterious New 'Dark Flow' Discovered in Space. It seems that scientists are seeing things that are moving as if something incredibly massive is outside our observable universe. Really interesting stuff.

OK. Now to tread the fine line between geeking out and keeping this somewhat interesting:

To start a discussion about my thoughts on this, read what one commenter at Slashdot said:
What bugs me is that this "bubble" of the known universe really isn't a bubble at all, it's just the physical limit of our ability to observe; we have no means of determining the extent of this "bubble". Therefore, claiming that there could be "giant, massive structures much larger than anything in our own observable universe" just outside this bubble seems somewhat... convenient.
Here is another Slashdot quote:
To paraphrase David Hume: There is no reason to believe that the laws of physics have always been what they are today at all points in space and at all points in time. While it is well within reason, and quite likely, that the Universe follows neat patterns quite specifically, when one runs into really odd data that doesn't fit into your tidy boxes it might be time to rethink things. Dark matter/flow/energy or whatever the new buzzwords scientists come up with are stop gap measures meant to really say, "we haven't the foggiest idea what's going on, but it doesn't quite add up".
There are limits to what we can really know at both ends of the physical continuum. As the LHC breaks things down into smaller and smaller pieces, I have complete confidence that we will keep on uncovering more things we don't know. Similarly, as amazing telescopes look farther and farther into space and further and further back in time, I'm sure that more questions will be raised than questions are answered.

Maybe the "dark flow" is really God's left foot. Maybe it's a bunch of galaxies made out of dark matter. It seems to me that we are getting to a point where these theories are being built on a little bit of data and lots of beautiful theories.

I'm a big fan of scientific inquiry, but am sometimes skeptical about the theories they come up with for things that are very large, small, far from us, or in the distant past or future. I like many of the stories (theories) and am impressed when theories have good predictive abilities, but ultimately I feel like there is a limit to what people can know.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Bailout and CEO Compensation Updates

The House voted down the $700 Million bailout. Here is a great quote from Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) explaining his opposition to the bill:
If we lose our ability to fail, we will soon lose our ability to succeed. If we bail out risky behavior, we will soon see even riskier behavior.
Well put. Still, I have conflicting feelings about the idea of a bailout. Saving a failing economy seems like a good idea. Figuring out the solution on such a tight timeframe seems like a bad idea.

More CEO compensation numbers for failed companies:
Maybe this crisis will bring more reasonable compensation plans. Yeah, right.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Web Stuff Friday: MixTube and Cosmic Variance

MixTube is a cool site. You can create an audio mix of clips from YouTube. Here is a mixtape of The Beatles. Here is one I made based on videos blogged at CosmicVariance: John Coltrane tribute.

CosmicVariance is quite exemplary. The topics seem to cover pretty considerable ground (like this blog), but the folks who write it are really, really smart (unlike this blog's author.)

This is just plain nutty: PETA wrote a letter to Ben & Jerry's urging them to ... well ... read for yourself.

Something Awful
brings us How Is Babby Formed? Blogger Shamus Young wrote an interesting post about this. BTW: The greatest thing about Shamus' blog is the ability to change the color scheme from Lawful Good to Chaotic Evil or True Neutral. D&D references like that give me a little touch of nostalgia.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Tale of the Nastiness Behind Wiretaps

The Washington Post had a two-part series about the behind the scenes battle over the Bush administration's domestic wiretapping program. The series started here and finished here.

Here is my favorite quote:
"The analysis is flawed, in fact facially flawed," Comey said. "No lawyer reading that could reasonably rely on it."

Gonzales said nothing. Addington stood by the window, over Cheney's shoulder. He had heard a bellyful.

"Well, I'm a lawyer and I did," Addington said, glaring at Comey.

"No good lawyer," Comey said
Awesome stuff. As the Libertarian Party's Platform states:
The defense of the country requires that we have adequate intelligence to detect and to counter threats to domestic security. This requirement must not take priority over maintaining the civil liberties of our citizens. The Bill of Rights provides no exceptions for a time of war. Intelligence agencies that legitimately seek to preserve the security of the nation must be subject to oversight and transparency.
Amen, brothers and sisters. This idea that the government's powers should be limited is one of the things the Republicans are supposed to value, but they discard the principle anytime it's an inconvenient obstruction to them.

Let's hear it for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who are suing the NSA, Bush, and Cheney.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Problems with Fast Bailouts

I'm not a fan of bailouts, but I'm really not a fan of rushed bailouts. I've never been a real fan of Newt Gingrich, but his article Before D.C. Gets Our Money, It Owes Us Some Answers is spot on. The legislative branch should slow its roll.

A ton of people are writing about this, so I'll keep this short.
  • The US Government's Legislative branch is supposed to be a deliberative body. Fast action is not their forte. I'm afraid of any solution they come up with in 7 days.
  • This turn towards socialism is disturbing.
  • As I've said before, I think that the free market system depends on bad ideas being punished. When the government steps in, many people will not feel the sting as badly as they should.
For some good reading on this topic, check out:
George Will: here and here
Dana Milbank: here and here
William Kristol: here

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Problems with Free Market Compensation

WSJ's article Big Pay for Big Bosses Under Fire describes some of the current issues around executive compensation, but it leaves out numbers. Here is a short list of the 2007 compensation totals for the CEOs of some major companies that have been in major distress recently.

Lehman Brothers: $22 Million
Fannie Mae: $12 Million
Freddie Mac: $19.8 Million
Bear Stearns: 28.4 Million in 2006
AIG: $13.9 Million

The head guy from AIG has done something remarkable: He is refusing an eight-figure payout he was guaranteed in his contract.

Check out the New York Times article The Bottom Line for Those at the Top for a nice interactive graphic that allows you to contrast how companies have performed with their CEOs' compensation.

My general problem with executive pay is that it is determined by executive boards that are far from impartial. When Gruto's Ice Cream shop thrives, it's because thousands of people in the greater Percellville Metro Area decide with their money that Gruto provides good value. When Wegman's thrives, it's because thousands of people decide that they provide good value and services for groceries. When a corporate CEO makes $15 Million in a year, it's because a group of a dozen or so people have decided that they can spend a ton of stockholders' money for a CEO.

It's the same with professional athletes in team sports. Having an athlete make tens of millions of dollars a year is crazy, but I don't have a big problem with it until I see someone make that money without performing. If a player makes most of his money in incentives, then I feel much better about it. When a player makes crazy money and is a complete flop, something is wrong with the world. I feel the same way when a CEO makes crazy money while the company goes down the tubes.

Anyway, John McCain has said that any company getting a bailout from the feds should pay their CEO the same salary we pay the President of the US. As long as the CEO gets a free mansion to live in that is walkable to his office as well as free food and travel, I'm fine with something like this. More reasonably, I'd say that a limit of two or three times the President's salary seems reasonable.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Music Monday: Girl Kid's Favorite Music

Neither Mrs. Kid nor I are musicians (though Mrs. Kid used to play the french horn) or artistic in any other way. If we want to pass on any artistic anything to our kids, we have to start with helping them appreciate art. All I know is music, so that's what I can help them with.

Here are some of Girl Kid's favorites. The common theme is that they all have choruses that are easy to understand and are fun to sing along with.

Elton John: Bennie and the Jets

Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars: Living Like a Refugee
You have not lived until you have heard a 3 1/2 year-old girl singing "Living like a refugee...It's not easy"

Jack Johnson: Staple It Together

I'm not naive enough to think I can avoid Girl Kid becoming infected by teeny-bopper music, but for now her taste in music is bearable.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A Church's Enlightened View Toward Darwin

The Church of England has issued an apology to Charles Darwin. Good Religion Needs Good Science is a nice essay about the relationship between two of the strongest forces in human society.

The apology is pretty unambiguous:
Charles Darwin: 200 years from your birth, the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still.
But Rev. Dr. Malcolm Brown makes several other good points in the essay such as describing ways in which Darwin's ideas have been misapplied in the past. Kudos to the Anglicans for confronting this issue so directly.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Nine or Ten Months?

I have been writing about the Presidential race for a while now, so how about if we mix it up a bit?

When I was at a party this weekend, I ended up in a disagreement with a pregnant woman. It is an old argument I have had with several women over the years: Is a woman who gives birth to a baby on her due date pregnant for nine months or ten?

The general rule is that gestation lasts for 40 weeks. Women who think gestation lasts for ten months are assuming that the average month has four weeks. This is fine if you are using a lunar calendar, but the calendar on my wall is Gregorian. The average Gregorian month has about 30.5 days, which is about 4 1/3 weeks. If you count 9 of these months, you get 39 weeks. That means that 40 weeks is nine months and one week.

But wait! The clock starts ticking for the 40 weeks on the first day of a woman's lunar cycle (if you get my drift.) This means that for several days of the time counted in the duration of the pregnancy, it is quite impossible for the woman to be pregnant. Ovulation doesn't generally happen until at least day 10, so we have really lost that extra week and some change.

Here is Babies Online's response to this question.

Let me be completely clear: However long it lasts, pregnancy is not for the weaker gender (that's us guys.) If men had to go through it, our species would have died out eons ago. Pregnancy and the first months following pregnancy are way too tough for any guy to handle it. I just don't buy the argument that pregnancy lasts 10 calendar months. It's 9 months that no man could ever relate to.

Sorry to go all biology-geek on you, but I wanted to get that off my chest. Now that I have, I no longer need to argue with a pregnant woman about this. I can pass the URL for this post to her significant other and leave it at that.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

No More Maim and Release

OK, so maybe the Swiss have gone a bit far, but I like some of their ideas. All Swiss animals are equal - but some more so than others describes a new Swiss law that describes how wild and domestic animals are to be treated. I am not a fan of legislating morality, but I like the idea of getting some of these concepts out there in the public discourse.

I have never been comfortable with catch and release fishing (which I call maim and release.) It's hard for me to believe that getting a hook through their cheek and getting pulled out of the water is fun or healthy for them. Hunting and fishing for sustenance are both totally cool by me. Anyone who eats what he kills is OK by me (as long as it was an honorable, legal kill that inflicted as little stress as reasonable), but killing or wounding for fun or a trophy seems sick.

The folks at PETA might go a bit far at times, but they make some points that make sense. We are higher up on the food chain, but that means we should be more civilized in the way we treat other animals.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Music Monday: Boy Kid's Favorite Music

Job One for any father is to keep his kids healthy and safe. After that most important duty, priorities can differ, but I really try to help my kids:
  • Be good people who are caring and considerate of others.
  • Be good students who love to learn.
  • Have decent taste in music.
This last one is not high on every father's list, but it's high on mine. Music matters to me and I want to make sure my kids have some hope of developing decent taste in music at some point in their lives. I'm sure they will each go through phases when I hate their music, but the hope is that getting them going in the right direction will eventually pay off.

Here are some of Boy Kid's favorite songs. At one time or another, he has asked to listen to these songs or asked to stay in the car so he could finish listening to them.

Talking Heads: Thank You for Sending Me an Angel
As far as Boy Kid is concerned, "Talking Heads" means the Stop Making Sense album starting with track 3.

The Bad Plus: Smells Like Teen Spirit
This has been known as "The Funny Song" ever since I used to play it on the way to dropping Boy Kid off at nursery school.

The Polyphonic Spree: Light and Day/Reach for the Sun

I'm sure it will all be downhill from here, but for now, Boy Kid likes music that I can stand. Listening to The Bad Plus or The Talking Heads over and over is way better for my sanity than being subjected to anything Disney is kicking out for kids.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Web Stuff Friday: Math and Science Illiteracy

Our society's math and science illiteracy are amazing and scary. This video is just a funny (or scary) introduction to the idea. I'll post about these problems sometime soon.

Wow. If you don't understand what is going on here, then let me just say that this is exactly the same phenomenon that causes a rainbow after it rains. Sunlight is being refracted by tiny droplets of water. I hope this is a joke, but suspect that there are people out there who agree with the narrator.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A Complicated Electoral Decision

I am not a fan of the current Republican Party, but this doesn't make me a fan of the Democrats.

Republicans should be for small government, but they champion many causes that limit liberty. Democrats never pretend to be about small government, but their support of big government goes too far for me.

Ideally, I think I would rather have one party in control of the executive branch and a different party in control of the legislative. Specifically, I'd rather have a democratic President with a Republican Congress (as was probably a big part of Clinton's winning Presidential recipe), but that doesn't seem possible this time, so I am torn.

Obama is smart and eloquent and seems able to make things happen. Defeating the Clinton machine was very impressive and it speaks volumes about his political abilities. On the other hand, he has little experience and a Democratic President with a Democratic Congress is a scary thought.

McCain doesn't toe anybody's party line. He's willing to work across party lines and has many positions that make sense. As far as I'm concerned, McCain's biggest problem is that he's a Republican. I'm afraid of his party. As a party, the Republicans have done a crappy job with the Executive branch for the past eight years. They have lied, and broken rules, and diminished our civil liberties.

Neither VP candidate is perfect. Biden is a hot head, while Palin is socially ultra-conservative and spectacularly under-qualified. Obama certainly gets the edge here, but Biden isn't great.

I honestly don't know who I am going to vote for, but whichever way I decide, I won't be particularly happy about it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Two Out of Three Ain't Bad

I have always liked the libertarians, so I checked out the Libertarian Party platform. Here are some annotated highlights of the three major sections of the platform.
1.0 Personal Liberty: Individuals should be free to make choices for themselves and to accept responsibility for the consequences of the choices they make. No individual, group, or government may initiate force against any other individual, group, or government. Our support of an individual's right to make choices in life does not mean that we necessarily approve or disapprove of those choices.
Basically: Live and let live. This works for me. Details in this first section spell out a platform that is for freedom of religion and against government regulating interpersonal relationships or individual decisions that do not affect others. They lose me a bit with the gun stuff, but just as it pertains to defending assault weapons.
2.0 Economic Liberty: A free and competitive market allocates resources in the most efficient manner. Each person has the right to offer goods and services to others on the free market. The only proper role of government in the economic realm is to protect property rights, adjudicate disputes, and provide a legal framework in which voluntary trade is protected. All efforts by government to redistribute wealth, or to control or manage trade, are improper in a free society.
This section spells out opposition to taxes and support for a balanced budget amendment. Some of this section is a bit much for me. For instance, I am not a fan of their position on education. On the other hand, I like their view on end-of-life decisions. Overall, they have a bit too much faith that the free market system can take care of everything, while I am a bit too cynical for that.
3.0 Securing Liberty: The protection of individual rights is the only proper purpose of government. Government is constitutionally limited so as to prevent the infringement of individual rights by the government itself. The principle of non-initiation of force should guide the relationships between governments.
In this final section, they condemn bigotry and intelligence gathering that infringes on personal liberties, and other infringements on personal liberty.

Libertarians have a few positions that are ridiculous. At times, they remind me of a fraternity brother of mine who consistently used ludicrous extremes to make every point. I liked him and often agreed with him, but some of the extremes he went to for his arguments made it hard to be solidly on his side.

Overall, I think the Libertarian platform is a really readable document. I agree with close to 2/3 of the platform, which is certainly a higher percentage than for either the Republican or the Democratic platforms. The extremes of the Libertarians are as nutty as extremes of any party, but there is lots to like in what the party as a whole stands for.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Log Cabin Problem

I heard an interview on C-SPAN with the President of the Log Cabin Republicans. After some discussion between the Log Cabin guy and the host, two people called in. The first was a Republican and the second was a Democrat, but they both agreed that because the Log Cabin Republicans are gay, they should really be Democrats.

It's interesting to me that this view of the Republican/Democrat divide is so pervasive that many in both parties really have bought it. The religious right has dominated the Republican party for so long that many people have lost sight of the fact that the Republicans once stood for limited federal government, while Democrats stood for a more powerful role for the federal government.

Nowadays, Republicans are the party of:
  • prayer in school
  • big military build-up
  • limiting rights of gay people
  • limiting rights of women who are confronted with certain intensely personal decisions
  • the death penalty
I don't know how the Republicans got to this point, but I do think that their party is an unholy alliance between the religious right and the small government folks. The small government parts of the GOP should be ashamed of the pro school prayer, pro military, pro death penalty, big spending, anti gay GOP (for references to all of these statements about the Republicans, check out the Republican Party Platform.)

I wish the Log Cabin Republicans luck. Changing the culture of the GOP is an ambitious goal, but they are optimistic enough to see a small government Republican Party that is a world away from the current GOP.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Web Stuff Friday: Ubiquity, Office War, 24h a NYC

Ubiquity is Mozilla's natural language internet project. What does that mean? It means that they are trying to come up with a way of making the Web work with sentences as we think of them. I think of this as similar to a high-end universal remote for a home theater system for which you hit a single button to watch a DVD and the remote turns on the right devices and sets each to the proper settings to you can do what you want. Similarly, Ubiquity should let you type a command like "Send this to Mom" and the browser would do the copy and pasting and emailing for you. It's an interesting way of rethinking how the technology can work.

The Great Office War is funny.

Here is a movie by a man who took a short business trip to New York City. He took the photos with his iPhone and narrates the resulting sequence of images in French with English subtitles. It's really a nice piece.

[A 24 Hour Trip to New York] from M. Ward on Vimeo.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Some Republican Convention Thoughts

In the interest of balance, here are some thoughts about the Republicans during their national convention.

McCain is not a particularly good speaker. He stumbled at times during his speech. His smiles were really painful (his speechwriter didn't get the job done.) His delivery was stilted. It was often a painful speech to watch. I feel like McCain is Nixon in 1960 to Obama's Kennedy. It isn't really that stark a contrast, but at times it feels that way. Speeches aren't his strength.

I like that his story is one of devotion to America, but his reliance on his military background seems a bit much. On the other hand, I do like that he seems like the kind of person who really believes that he is fighting a good fight as he serves in the government. When he asked everyone to fight with him, he was at his most sincere and powerful, but that moment was brief.

Now the real fight begins.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

T. Boone Pickens: The Man With an Energy Plan

T. Boone Pickens has made a ton of money on oil, but he now has an energy plan. PickensPlan is ambitious, but the goal seems like a good one: reduce our dependence on petroleum.

For some of my thoughts and some data about energy, look back at Energy Independence. We need to change how we power our transportation needs. Right now, we are dependent on oil and that's bad for several reasons.

Pickens is pushing natural gas and wind power. Here is his website's summary of the crux of his plan:
The Pickens Plan is a bridge to the future — a blueprint to reduce foreign oil dependence by harnessing domestic energy alternatives, and buy us time to develop even greater new technologies.
Check it out and learn more about the reality of our dependence on petroleum. We can't drill our way out of this. Pickens has lots to gain from natural gas becoming more important, so he's hardly impartial. Still, his assessment of our energy problems seems pretty accurate. His precise solution might not be the absolute best, but it's certainly better than trying to drill our way out of it.

Wind might not be the answer, but it could be part of the solution.

Note: Diane Rehm had a show about electric cars. Two guests represented companies I have blogged about: A123 and Tesla Motors. Check it out: Real Media or Windows Media. It was an interesting discussion about recent advances in technology for electric cars.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Comparing First Spouses

There are many things to consider when deciding on a president, but there is one criterion that many people seem to gloss over: The first spouse.

#4: Michelle Obama: A protestant lawyer. Another freakin' lawyer in the White House is just what we need.

#3: Jill Biden: A Catholic English teacher. Better than a lawyer, but still not much fun.

#2: Todd Palin: Alaska's "First Dude" is part Eskimo and has won a 2000-mile snowmobile race four times. He'd be the coolest first spouse ever.

#1: Cindy McCain: A baptist business woman and former beauty queen. She is currently chair of the largest Anheuser-Busch distributor in Arizona and is a former druggie who has spent time in rehab. She's not as cool as First Dude, but if she gets to the White House, I think she'd be fun. A pill-popper/former beauty queen/beer maven. That's pretty good. I bet she knows how to have fun at a party.

I know he's off the table, but I like to dream big, so honorable mention goes to:

Bill Clinton. I know he's another lawyer, but let's face it: Bill would be fun. He'd be sneaking women in and out of the back door of the East Wing of the White House. He'd party without holding back since he wouldn't have to be coherent at every event. He'd crack jokes behind Hillary's back. Bill would be the greatest first spouse of all time.

So there you go. I'm not sure how this will impact my vote in November, but I'll be following the spouses carefully.