Jun 23, 2006

To "eavesdrop" [LINK]

Listen to this NPR report on AT&T's new privacy policy and tell me the NSA program they're describing engages in "eavesdropping," as the word is carelessly used twice:

...recent events like revelations of eavesdropping without a warrant by the National Security Agency. AT&T faces multiple lawsuits for allegedly helping the government to peruse phone and internet traffic by millions of Americans.
This is a non sequitur. To "eavesdrop," you have to actually listen to a conversation, not consult a record that a conversation took place. That word, along with the word "wiretapping" that was also referenced obliquely in the story, has a very specific meaning that does not match the information the story provides, and on which the legality of the NSA program described hinges.

Jun 22, 2006

"Whom to Believe?" [LINK]

I find it hard to imagine a valid occasion to even use the words "liberals" in such a letter:

I agree with the point made by Anna DeMarinis that we should trust numerous visitors' accounts over torture allegations made by those who haven't been to Guantanamo Bay. Still, this does not excuse her inflammatory rhetoric. Anyone who describes liberals as sitting "in their cushy salons" is simply not interested in changing minds.

Jun 21, 2006

Global Warming In My Back Yard [LINK]

From James Taranto I learn that ABC News is trolling for anecdotes about global warming:

ABC News wants to hear from you. We're currently producing a report on the increasing changes in our physical environment, and are looking for interesting examples of people coping with the differences in their daily lives. Has your life been directly affected by global warming?

We want to hear your stories. Have you seen changes in your own backyard or hometown? The differences can be large or small — altered blooming schedules, unusual animals that have arrived in your community, higher water levels encroaching on your property.

Here's what I submittted to them, all true and at least theoretically valid:
This winter was unusually warm here in New England. I went the whole time in my light jacket rather than my heavier leather one. I had great heating bills. Still, it was unusual. This May right around Mother's Day there was a lot of rain here. My basement got flooded. I had to throw out a bunch of stuff. I didn't get any video, though, sorry. I hear one of the things global warming causes is bad storms. We had another big one come through about a week and a half ago when I was on vacation, and I came back to find puddles in my basement. They said that was the tail end of a hurricane, I forget which one. I heard that hurricanes are caused by global warming. Also, a year or two ago there was this wild turkey who walked across our lawn. It was really weird. He didn't seem to care that we were there. He seemed really interested in checking out my kids' big plastic playhouse. He seemed a little disoriented. Maybe he (she?) was suffering from lost habitat? I've also been finding it a lot harder to plant grass in my backyard. The soil seems drier than it's ever been, and even after daily watering it doesn't seem to take. So there are these bare spots here and there, and they become overrun by ants. I don't know what to do other than spray. Forgot to mention about my vacation, it was pretty cold and dreary in San Diego. What's up with that?
(via OpinionJournal: Best of the Web Today)
Another letter from Jeff Beliveau topped mine, though:
Tharg and me used to hunt mighty mammoth but he scared to cross ice bridge. It now too thin to take weight of even saber cat. Only mouse or rabbit can cross.

Many of my people have left the caves in search of food.

Sister's daughter's husband says it because of He-Who-Tamed-Fire. He say smoke from fire anger gods and they make it hot. Medicine Man say he full of mastodon droppings.

Medicine Man say Sun God told him Sun God get belly ache every 200 lifes of man. Belly ache make Sun God hotter, like when Og ate red berries birds don't touch.

Sun God say it good thing. He say now we can go south past ice to land he call "Iowa."

He mumble "junk science" and "media hype" and "poorly educated reporters." We no understand these powerful magic words. We afraid to say words now that Moon God warn us. She say magic words make research grants dry up. We no understand.

Must go, little Ky-Rock need help flaking obsidian.

Jun 20, 2006

No, anthrax the dessert topping! [LINK]

I recently heard that a good way to kill ants is to spread a mixture of equal parts borax and sugar under sinks and baseboards, places that are inaccessible to children and pets. So I went to buy some boric acid at a hardware store, but the man I spoke with said it's now illegal in Massachusettts, so I got something else instead. Later, I was surprised to find pure boric acid being sold at an Asian food market!

Could it be that it's illegal to sell borax as an insecticide, but legal as a food additive? (I don't even want to know what dish it's used for.) A quick search of the state's EPA site turns up a noncommittal risk assessment probe from the Federal Register. I find it hard to believe the market would be unaware if it were illegal. They're particularly sensitive to import restrictions, as I learned when trying to buy Chinese peppercorns, which were temporarily banned due to the risk of orange rot.

Tuesdays Off [LINK]

The elementary school my daughter attends has a seemingly weird arrangement with its teacher's union. Tuesdays are half days, so you have put the kid into an afterschool program or something like that. The policy was supposed to come up for discussion recently under the auspices of the incoming principal, but the issue mysteriously disappeared. Now I've learned that the schools in nearby Lexington have not one but two half days. Good thing we didn't get her into a really good school district, or she'd never go to school at all!

Stop it! Just stop it! [LINK]

Okay, that's it. I really have had it.

I was just watching Jim Lehrer interview Ben Bradlee on PBS tonight, and they spoke about various issues relating to journalism. The two of them rehashed some journalistic sins, starting with the Janet Cooke affair. Bradlee had some interesting things to say about the Washington Post's negligence in allowing Cooke's series to be published years ago: basically that she was a black rising star, and all the editors were white and didn't know enough about black neighborhoods to suspect the story was bogus.

Then there was a little voice-over interlude in which Lehrer detailed similar acts of fabrication, those of Jason Blair of the New York Times and Jack Kelly of USA Today, and photographs of both men appeared on screen. Then he mentioned Dan Rather, whose report on President Bush's National Guard service, he said, was found to have been based on "documents that had not been authenticated." A photograph of Rather briefly appeared on screen, along with an animated graphic of two identical documents being overlaid one over the other.

Now, what the heck was that supposed to mean? They didn't say, but I guess the point is they didn't have to, that it's familiar to practically everyone by now. After doubts emerged among bloggers about the authenticity of the documents CBS News relied on in its story shortly after it aired in Sept. 2004, Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs typed one of them into Microsoft Word himself using its default settings, overlaid that document with CBS's document, and found them to be a perfect match. That was the compelling visual proof that the documents CBS relied on were a clumsy forgery, produced with technology that was not available when President Bush was a young man. This is what the graphic represented.

So, Mister Lehrer, Mister Journalistic Ethics, Mister Tell It Like It Is, Mister Let's Talk About It Some More, if you flash us a graphic revealing you are indeed aware that the documents Dan Rather used in his report were forgeries manufactured with Microsoft Word, why does your script simply say that they "had not been authenticated." This is cognitive dissonance. How many times have I heard that rote phrase by now? It's achieved the status of meaningless cliché, from which nobody appears willing to deviate. They were forgeries. Come out and say it already. Do not apply some genteel euphemism that makes it seem CBS's negligence was any less awful than it was. It's not as if the documents might have been authenticated on some abstract plane had CBS been a little more careful. They were proven forgeries, bogus in so many ways it's hard to keep count, and CBS was utterly reckless and irresponsible for allowing them on the air. Why would it be silly to say the Hitler Diaries or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion "could not be authenticated," but not this? Repeat after me: "The documents CBS News relied on in its report on Bush's National Guard service were forgeries."

"Had not been authenticated." It's a transparently bogus phrase, and everybody knows it. Why use it? It has to be more than mindless habit. We know we as a profession screwed up big time, he seems to be saying, and we know you know it. Perhaps if we hold a few panel discussions and lay on some orotundities, we'll appear to have digested the matter more thoroughly than those bloggers who use the base language of the streets. If we all say the same thing about it over and over again, people will start saying it too, and they'll begin to like it. Martha, I hear that Dan Rather may be leaving CBS News. That's too bad, George. Wasn't he that one who did that story that couldn't be authenticated?

What a load. What a truckload. Enough already.

Jun 19, 2006

The health benefits of organic food [LINK]

A letter I sent to Drake Bennett, author of the article:

I appreciated your recent article on the supposed health benefits of organic food, but wished the scope been widened to include broader societal benefits. While by no means an anti-organic "activist," I'm aware of a few reasons it should regain its fringe status and not become favored over "inorganic" food.

Organic farming requires much more arable land, entailing loss of habitat and possibly offsetting the environmental benefits of less soil erosion and cleaner rivers. Also, the major benefit to using pesticides is the enhanced ability to deliver fruits and vegetables to consumers. Anything that increases their cost tends to drive people to alternatives such as preprocessed junk food, decreasing the overall health benefit.

Even then, there's another angle to the health aspect of the story that doesn't receive much attention: it's not as if "natural" foods are free of potentially dangerous chemicals. As the toxicologist Bruce Ames demonstrated years ago, if you subject naturally occurring toxins to the same maximum-threshold rodent tests required of synthetics, their supposed risk is about a thousand times greater by volume. (Despite popular misconceptions, your body would not know the difference.)

The public should by no means be alarmed at this revelation. The benefits of eating fruits and vegetables far outweigh the supposed risks of consuming these trace chemicals, but it should be a lesson that environmental risks are not presented to them in a sane manner.

As you alluded to in the article, organic farming implies a tendency to favor strains of plants that can produce their own natural pesticides, either through the modern "genetic engineering" techniques organic proponents oppose, or through traditional genetic modifiction methods they consider benign.

To which I may I add that I've heard of strains of organic crops having been developed that were so toxic overall as to be inedible, e.g., celery that burned your lips like too many kiwi fruits.

Mind the Gap [LINK]

Whenever you hear of a "gap," it generally means the underlying trend is fine in absolute terms.

Based on a recent Globe report on outgoing Boston school superintendent Thomas Payzant, Lisa Guisbond cites the increased achievement gap between poor minority and affluent white students under his tenure as evidence of the failure of MCAS. But the same report noted that while Boston's dropout rate remained flat, SAT scores and the college enrollment rate both increased. Boston's parents, especially those who understand mathematics, should be more interested in whether MCAS might improve their children's performance than in whether it might benefit other children more.

Jun 17, 2006

To "engage in dialog" [LINK]

It's amazing how easy it is to think this way when it's the other guy's ox being gored.

Daniel Becker says those who sign a petition against gay marriage while hoping to keep their names and addresses off advocacy websites like KnowThyNeighbor.org "can't have it both ways," because such information becomes part of the public record. "Either you stand up for what you believe in," he says, "or you don't."

One of the most compelling arguments in favor of gay marriage is that it allows gays to officially proclaim to their fellow citizens their enhanced, formalized status. Following Mr. Becker's logic, we should not be at all alarmed if an anti-gay-marriage website were to list all gay couples married in the state, allowing anyone to easily contact them and, as he says, "engage in dialog."

Jun 16, 2006

Things I learned from my recent vacation in California [LINK]

Landing in Long Beach Airport is like being a time traveler. Of course there's no jetway or anything fancy like that; you walk right onto the runway. The airport is a single building, the size of a bus station, that is capped by the control tower. You go outside under a corrugated metal lean-to to pick up your bags, underneath nesting birds. Before the conveyer belt starts, you'll hear a sustained siren blast that could also warn off approaching ships. The public address system is the sort of metal bullhorn speaker that could be announcing the lineup for the 1938 World Series. You pick up your rental car from another small building across the street, where you'll speak to a person behind a set of folding tables at which organic produce might be sold.

Numerous small carts are parked near the entrance to Disneyland. No, they are not used primarily by the aged and the conventionally disabled, but by people who are simply too fat to walk any distance.

Avoid Disneyland in the late afternoon. That's when the park becomes the most crowded, when small kids melt down, and when bigger kids are at their rowdiest. It becomes difficult to walk a straight line with a baby stroller without someone crashing into you without looking, or darting in front of your path.

Seeing a full-sized Cinderella walking around can be pretty terrifying.

When backing up to get everyone into the frame of a picture, fat people should have one of those "beep beep" sounds to warn others.

There are many motels right across the street from Disneyland, effectively allowing you free parking. When traveling with a young girl, choose the one that most resembles a princess castle.

By all accounts, Disneyland is far more manageable than Disneyworld, but Canobie Lake has them both beat.

Due to its unique geography and despite considerable efforts to reduce automobile emissions, Los Angeles is still a "black booger" town.

There's a nuclear power plant right there by the side of the highway near Camp Pendleton. I thought California didn't allow such things. Go figure. At least they don't have rolling blackouts any more.

Even San Diego is overcast and cold in June. Who knew?

When ordering take-out food in an unfamiliar area, it's hard to go wrong with Greek cuisine, which at any rate is superior to a fast-food Mexican establishment whose name translates to "The Crazy Chicken."

The peacocks in the San Diego Zoo seem to enjoy spending time on top of concrete restroom structures.

Panda bears are exceedingly rare, difficult to raise in captivity, and require a consistently quiet, stress-free environment -- that is, not the kind produced by an exhausted toddler coming completely unglued and kicking his feet so violently that a shoe lands within the enclosure.

Seeing a wallaby being walked down a pedestrian path on its way to the staff veterinarian can be pretty terrifying.

After your young child sees all sorts of exotic creatures from around the world, don't be surprised if her favorite one is a mouse.

Toddlers can carry on extended conversations with a macaw.

When traveling with children, okay, Disneyland is fine, and so is the San Diego Zoo. But don't let them get it into their heads that they'll be going to SeaWorld, Legoland, and some other podunk safari park as well.

An immigrant who comes to this country with very little money and barely speaking the language, but who later makes millions of dollars in real estate, is likely to go just a wee bit overboard when buying houses, cars, and other material goods.

You'll see many serious scrape marks on roadways at the base or crest of California's numerous steep hills, presumably from low-lying Ferraris that are otherwise kept in a spare garage that you might chance upon in search of the wine tasting room.

In a gated community, you must supply the pizza delivery man with your security access code, rendering it kind of pointless.

When you fly 3,000 miles to attend the bar mitzvah of a friend's son, and she has you over for lunch a couple of days in advance, and the lunch consists of take-out pizza, and your wife is offered only a single slice, and did I mention they're millionaires, something in your head should snap.

On the other hand, an immense granite countertop in a spotless kitchen right out of Architectural Digest is a great place to stack pizza boxes.

Apparently as a matter of economy, the optimum number of boys who are the subject of a bar mitzvah ceremony is two. This makes the ceremony last two hours.

Catholics instinctively look at their watches once the first hour has elapsed. Some protestants can go a whole lot longer than two hours.

A bar mitzvah is not, strictly speaking, a religious confirmation; that more modest ceremony occurs about three years later, if the boy so chooses. Having a bar mitzvah, however, is not a matter of choice.

As a general rule, houses of worship feature a small "children's sanctuary," otherwise accurately known as the "cry room." Nothing outside this room is audible, and no heat or body odor escapes.

A book that reads from right to left is, to a young girl who's recently been to Disneyland, "just like Alice in Wonderland."

There is a style of chanting passages from the Torah that appears to involve choosing random musical notes. There must be a formalized system involved that would allow a heavy-metal-addled 13-year-old boy to master it.

Gentiles like myself are not very good at keeping yarmulkes on their heads. Even the bald fare better.

Even observant Jews might be stumped by the following question: "if 'mitzvah' means 'good deed,' then what does 'bar mitzvah' mean"?

You would assume that bar mitzvah receptions would be dignified affairs.

If it were not for professional dee-jays, line dancing and oddly-named dances would probably disappear for good.

The trend among older Hispanic women to replace their eyebrows with penciled representations extends to Mexicans.

A proper bar mitzvah gift might be a prayer shawl, a book on Jewish tradition, cash in an amount that is a multiple of 18, or, apparently, an immense guitar amplifier. YOU ROCK, A.J.!!! Now go learn how to play that thing, will ya?

If one of a hotel's complimentary hot breakfast items is a mysterious kettle of white goo that at first glance seems like oatmeal and at first smell seems like cream of mushroom soup, it is actually gravy that is meant to be put on biscuits. Don't ask; it apparently pleases visitors from former Confederate states.

It is customary to call cereal, bagels, muffins and juice a "continental" breakfast to make it sound more fancy. That may well mean that a hot breakfast offering is "incontinental."

Suppose you buy a nice bottle of wine to sip in your hotel room, but realize you forgot to pack a corkscrew. Here's one way this simple scenario might play out. You go down to the front desk and ask if you can borrow a corkscrew. The woman behind the counter says she thinks a corkscrew might be available, but she would have to have the bellboy send it up. She even gets on the phone before you leave to confirm availability, speaking in halting Spanish. When relaying the room number, she says: "tres ... dos... uuuuhhh... cinco." You return to the room, but not in time to prevent the following. There's a knock at the door and your wife, expecting you to return, opens it. Instead she sees some strange man, who looks at her for a couple of seconds, then shrugs his shoulders quizzically, palms and eyebrows up. Unable to understand what is happening, she returns the gesture. He leaves, and that ends that. So you get back to find your wife all mad at you. "What was THAT all about? Why the heck didn't you WARN me?" to which you cannot adequately respond. So you call down to the desk and explain that the bellboy had been by and didn't seem aware he needed to deliver a corkscrew, and could you please send him back up with one. A couple of minutes later, there's a knock on the door. There he is again, shrugging. You say, "I need a corkscrew," then gesture as if to hold a bottle of wine with one hand and twist it open with the other. "El cork-o de screw-o." He leaves. Though nothing is said, you can somehow tell your wife is disgusted. He returns a few minutes later with the corkscrew, and you are reminded that you need a drink.

Similarly, when you call down to the desk and ask what the weather forecast is for that day, and they tell you they'll call you back in a couple of minutes to let you know, don't wait up.

You'll find yourself wondering if questions like like "what day is it today?" and "what planet is this?" might receive a similar response.

When middle school varsity teams spend time in a motel, the effect is much like a frat party. Kids will scream at each other in the pool, down to the courtyard from upper balconies, and indeed right outside the window where you are trying to get your kids to sleep. Managers eager for their business will agree to keep the pool open well past posted hours. Coaches ostensibly responsible for the kids' public behavior will smile and do nothing. The effect will repeat from one day to the next even after you inform management of your intention to call the cops.

It is marginally more effective to issue complaints to hotel managers in person.

The best thing about paying by credit card is the ability to contest a charge.

It's a safe bet to assume left turns are not allowed anywhere in San Francisco.

Seeing live crabs in a tank on Fisherman's Wharf can be pretty terrifying.

Seeing a notoriously lazy group of harbor seals, even when they have to be pointed out in the distance from the next pier over, can be pretty terrifying.

I'm sorry, but the main quad at Stanford looks like a place for a wine tasting. Ernest, where's Julio?

Coastal Route 1 was closed due to extensive damage at "Devil's Slide" north of Half Moon Bay. Honestly, does that sound like it should be open in the first place?

Those who travel with children who are just old enough to be apprehensive at the possibility of earthquakes should be aware that you can call California in advance to check if any are scheduled for that week.

Travelers with small children should not fear redeye flights, which are actually preferable to daytime flights if the goal is to minimize fussing and crying. The only drawback is that you as an attentive parent will get no sleep and be trashed the next day.

On a related note, Benadryl not only controls allergy symptoms, but often renders children unconscious. Sometimes it produces the opposite reaction.

If after returning from California you learn from the news there has indeed been an earthquake there, check the magnitude of the quake and note that the Richter scale is base-10 logarithmic before contacting your hosts expressing concern, or they will laugh at you.

Children do not recover from jet lag as quickly as adults, possibly because adults with small children are jet-lagged by definition.

Californians seem fond of asking: "Are you still living in Boston"? Even Bostonians would consider it rude to ask if you're still living in California.

Jun 3, 2006

"It is important that these stories are told" [LINK]

After all these years, SUNY Press continues to crank out titles examining the intersection of postmodernism and sport. From SUNY Press's Spring 2006 catalog, promotional text for From Ballroom to DanceSport: Aesthetics, Athletics, and Body Culture, by Caroline Joan S. Picart:

Drawing on recent media portrayals and her own experience, author and dancer Caroline Joan S. Picart explores ballroom dancing and its more "sporty" equivalent, DanceSport, suggesting that they are reflective of larger social, political, and cultural tensions. The past several years have seen a resurgence in the popularity of ballroom dance as well as an increasing international anxiety over how and whether to transform ballroom into an Olympic sport. Writing as a participant-critic, Picart suggests that both are crucial sites where bodies are packaged as racialized, sexualized, nationalized, and classed objects. In addition, Picart argues, as the choreography, costuming, and genre of ballroom and DanceSport continue to evolve, these theatrical productions are aestheticized and constructed to encourage commercial appeal, using the narrative frame of the competitive melodrama to heighten audience interest.
But perhaps SUNY's enthusiasm for this subject is on the wane. This one was buried as a small item in the Fall 2006 catalog, but it piqued my interest, so I found the full text on their site:
National Identity and Global Sports Events looks at the significance of international sporting events and why they generate enormous audiences worldwide. Focusing on the Olympic Games and the men's football (soccer) World Cup, the contributors examine the political, cultural, economic, and ideological influences that frame these events. Selected case studies include the 1936 Nazi Olympics in Berlin, the 1934 World Cup Finals in Italy, the unique case of the 1972 Munich Games, the transformative 1984 Games in Los Angeles, and the 2002 Asian World Cup Finals, among others. The case studies show how the Olympics and the World Cup Finals provide a basis for the articulation of entrenched and dominant political ideologies, encourage persisting senses of national identity, and act as barometers for the changing ideological climate of the modern and increasingly globalized contemporary world. Through rigorous scholarly analyses, the book's contributors help to illuminate the increasing significance of large-scale sporting events on the international stage.
Finally, here's a fun one from August 2005, Feminist Sport Studies: Sharing Experiences of Joy and Pain, edited by Pirkko Markula:
This book highlights the development of feminist sport studies through personal narratives of prominent feminist sport researchers from North America, Europe, and New Zealand. With expertise in sport history, literature, psychology, and sociology, contributors offer reflections that cross disciplinary boundaries and provide a concise and current summary of this broad field.

In relaying their personal research experiences, contributors intertwine their professional and personal selves in stories that highlight the struggles of sport feminists, struggles that shaped the self and constructed feminist knowledge of sport. They tell about the academic context for feminist research in sport studies, the feelings and experiences of being women researchers in a male-dominated field, and internal doubts and disappointments after vilification of their work. The narrative style makes this book accessible to a wide variety of audiences and a suitable reference and/or text for sport science history and research methods courses.

"This book records the struggles and successes of a group of academics who have had a profound influence; it is important that these stories are told."
-- Sheila Scraton, coeditor of Gender and Sport: A Reader