January 2007

You are browsing the site archives for January 2007.

This is a breaking story, but apparently Turner Broadcasting wanted to promote their surreal Cartoon Network show Aqua Teen Hunger Force in an unusual way, so they hired New York’s Interference Inc., which describes itself as “A nationwide guerilla and alternative marketing agency,” to drum up some street-level publicity.

I guess you could say it worked:

Electronic light boards featuring an adult-cartoon character triggered bomb scares around Boston on Wednesday, spurring authorities to close two bridges and a stretch of the Charles River before determining the devices were harmless.

Turner Broadcasting Co., the parent company of CNN, said the devices contained harmless magnetic lights aimed at promoting the Adult Swim network’s late-night cartoon “Aqua Teen Hunger Force.” Law enforcement sources said the devices displayed one of the Mooninites, outer-space delinquents who appear frequently on the show, greeting visitors with a raised middle finger.

Sound’s like somebody’s in trouble.

The discovery of nine of the devices around metro Boston led state, local and federal authorities to close the Boston University and Longfellow Bridges, and block boat traffic from the Charles River to Boston Harbor.

In addition, the Pentagon said U.S. Northern Command was monitoring the situation from its headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colorado, but said none of its units were sent to assist.

Davis said police “are going to fully investigate this and get to the bottom of it.”

Big trouble.

Via Instapundit, here’s a look at Jumbolair, the fly-in community in Ocala, Florida where John Travolta lives. (He uses his Gulfstream executive jet when he doesn’t feel like taking the big plane.) I think if you enjoy flying, this is the way to live.

I just discovered Sour N Sweet, a silly little blog with a bunch of silly little stories.

I am sick. The kind of sick that makes the thought of consuming anything other than ginger ale and Jell-O a scary proposition. With our household’s Jell-O supply depleted last week by the previous host to the virus now cooling its heels in my stomach, I mustered all of my energy to go buy more. Only problem: the closest grocery store was Whole Foods. If you want to blow a Whole Foods employee’s mind, ask them where the Jell-O is.

Here’s a gripe I can sympathize with:

The money quote to me is this one from a Verizon Wireless VP:

“They [Apple] would have been stepping in between us and our customers to the point where we would have almost had to take a back seat … on hardware and service support,”

To me, that reads, “They would have been stepping between us and our customers to the point where we would have almost had to forgo making money off ringtones, music and getting pictures off phones.”

They may make a big deal about how their network is the best (and I can give them some leeway because of it) – but they disable the full features of most of their phones, like the ability to exchange files with your computer so that you can see those crappy phonecam pics on a screen that you don’t have to squint to see or customize it to your own specifications. Well, you tecnically can, but only if you pay Verizon for the privilege.

Then there’s this:

A Note to the Man Who Talked to Me at Kinko’s

Thank you for asking me if I was finished with my work station, telling me you needed to laminate something there if I was. I was already on my way out the door, but I paused a second to say it was all yours.

With that I was out the door, and started across the street crosswalk. I didn’t even see it coming. A maroon car zipped around a corner without seeing me. As it zoomed an inch by me, I couldn’t help thinking a second would have made all the difference. A second earlier and I could have been road kill. Nuts.

So thanks Mr. Kinkos Stranger, I might owe you my life.

Also, the photography is beautiful. Check it out.

You don’t have to be a big-time musician to understand how to show some class. Here’s Robbie Link writing about something that has to sting a bit:

It’s a running joke/sad truth amongst musicians about the shows where the band outnumbers the audience. I’ve been there. It doesn’t matter if it’s an eighty piece orchestra with fifty people in the audience or a quintet with an audience of three. It feels bad either way. But it can be good. I played in Dana Auditorium in Greensboro, NC, once. It’s a large concert hall. There were four of us. Well – the audience did outnumber the band but not by much – I think there were 15 of them. We put chairs on stage so they would be right up next to us and it was great – like a living room concert. I think they even had a sofa up there that was a prop for some theater piece. The audience loved the intimacy and we got to play acoustically just like playing at home.

I’ve been at a live show where the performer was whining about the small size of the audience, forgetting that we were the ones who showed up. I’ve gotta admire these guys for realizing their fans deserved the show they came to see. Bringing everybody on stage for a close-up show was a cool idea.

I’m trying a new spam filter for my comments. Instead of showing you a CAPTCHA picture, it just asks you to type a word. It seems more stable than the previous plugin too.

Try it out.

John Hawkins of Right Wing News has an editorial in Human Events defending the war on drugs. I want to talk about a few of the arguments he makes:

Libertarians often attack the war on drugs as a waste of tax dollars and an infringement on personal liberties. That is misguided thinking that comes from trying to apply unworkable theoretical concepts in the real world.

At least libertarians have theoretical concepts, like freedom and personal responsibility.

By the way, nowhere in the rest of the article does he try to defend the drug war’s record of destroying our personal liberties.

For example, you often hear advocates of drug legalization say that we’re never going to win the war on drugs and that it would free up space in our prisons if we simply legalized drugs. While it’s true that we may not ever win the war against drugs — i.e. never entirely eradicate the use of illegal drugs — we’re not ever going to win the war against murder, robbery and rape either.

In a way, I agree with Hawkins here. I’ve never liked the argument that drugs should be legalized because they can never be eradicated, and for exactly this reason. In order for this argument to work, you have to argue that drug use is very much less evil than those other crimes. But if we could convince people of that, we probably wouldn’t need the rest of the argument.

Nevertheless, let me point out that while we may never eliminate robbery, rape, and murder, we can certainly police them more effectively than drug use for the simple reason that there will be cooperating witnesses. Robbery and rape victims—and the friends and families of murder victims—will complain to the police about these crimes and help them identify the bad guy.

That never happens with the sale, possession, and use of drugs because there’s no victim to complain. Violent crimes and property crimes have to be solved; drug crimes have to be discovered.

Since no one wants the police involved, they end up spying on people, searching cars and homes, monitoring financial transactions, bugging phones, and doing a bunch of other things that infringe on our personal freedoms.

But our moral code rejects each of them, so none — including drugs — can be legalized if we still adhere to that code.

Hawkins is pretty quick to whip out the first person plural there. Maybe his moral code rejects all four of those crimes, but our moral code does not. In particular, my moral code does not reject drug use, and neither do the moral codes of a lot of other good people.

Of course, the number of people using what are currently illegal drugs would skyrocket if they were legalized, so we’d see a new wave of drug-addled burglars if we “legalized it.”

I doubt it. Most of the end user’s high purchase price of illegal drugs is caused by the direct and indirect costs of drug smuggling. Drugs that don’t have to be smuggled are a lot cheaper, and their users don’t have to commit crimes to afford their habit. You don’t see many drunks breaking into homes to afford their next hit of booze.

But, some people may say, “so what if drug usage does explode? They’re not hurting anyone but themselves.” That might be true in a purely capitalistic society, but in the sort of welfare state that we have in this country, the rest of us would end up paying a significant share of the bills of people who don’t hold jobs or end up strung out in the hospital without jobs — and that’s even if you forget about the thugs who’d end up robbing our houses to get things to pawn to buy more drugs.

Man, he just doesn’t let up on that. It’s not as if this wasn’t a major part of the pro-legalization argument. Legalizing drugs will reduce the amount of drug-related crime because drugs will be a lot cheaper and people won’t need to live a life of crime to afford a drug habit.

For example, cocaine has some legal medical uses, so there’s a legal market. Last time I checked, the cost of medical cocaine was about 1/30th the cost of street cocaine. Who’s going to do burglaries to afford a drug habit when they can pay for it by panhandling?

There’s another crime-reducing effect as well: If other drugs have similar ratios of legal to illegal price, legalizing drugs could drain 97% of the revenue out of the street gangs and international drug smuggling operations. That should make things quieter in Columbia and on Chicago’s west side .

As for that bit about how the rest of us would be paying for drug users’ problems, I see his point, but where does that logic end? If we keep thinking that way, we’ll end up with a public health nanny state that tries to manage and control every aspect of human behavior that’s the least bit risky.

Even setting that aside, we make laws that prevent people from harming themselves all the time in our society. In many states there are helmet laws, laws that require us to wear seatbelts, laws against prostitution, and it’s even illegal to commit suicide. So banning harmful drugs is just par for the course.

Yeah, but have a sense of proportion. The first two crimes are just violations which are punished with small fines, and prostitution sentences are also very mild. As for suicide, are people ever really punished for that? I’m pretty sure the laws against suicide are only there as a justification to allow the government to restrain and evaluate suicidal people. None of those laws are enforced by multijurisdictional task forces that invade people’s homes in the middle of the night and sometimes shoot 92-year-old grandmothers.

And for the record, I oppose every single one of those laws on principle.

How many homeless people are drug addicts? How many women have had crack babies? How many people are in jail today because they got high and committed a crime? How many lives have been wrecked in some form or fashion by drug use? There’s probably not a person reading this column who doesn’t know someone who has faced terrible consequences in his life because of drug use.

Sure. I know a bunch of people who screwed up their lives, some with drugs, some with booze, and at least one with a vicious shopping habit.

Not one of them would have been better off if they’d also done time in prison.

That’s why once, way back when William Bennett was the drug czar, he responded like so to a caller on the Larry King show who told him that he should “behead the damn drug dealers.”

“I mean what the caller suggests is morally plausible,” he said. “Legally, it’s difficult. But somebody selling drugs to a kid? Morally, I don’t have any problem with that at all.”

Bennett was right then, he’s right now, and my guess is that most parents, upon finding out that someone was peddling drugs to their kid, would agree with him. Since that’s the case, do we really want the federal government to take over the role of a pusher and get our kids hooked on drugs to make a profit? No, we don’t.

Again, it’s like he’s never read anything about legalization. People who support legalizing drugs—or ending drug prohibition, to use our preferred terminology—want the currently illegal drugs to be regulated like alcohol or tobacco, both of which cannot legally be sold to children.

Finally, consider Hawkins’ turn of phrase about about us wanting “the federal government to take over the role of a pusher”. That raises the question: Take over from who? If we don’t want to take control of drug sales, then who are we going to leave in control? Who’s the pusher during our long-running war on drugs? Who’s selling drugs right now? Under our current drug war, who’s making the decisions about whether to sell drugs to our kids?


Update: T. F. Stern emailed me his objection to my assertions that legal drugs would be cheap drugs, and cheap drugs would mean less crime:

I agree, at least a little, that if the drugs which have to be smuggled in were legal the price would drop considerably. I would have to put a question mark on the second part. As a police officer on night shift I wish I had a nickel for every store front that got bashed in just for a couple of six packs of beer. Thousands of dollars in damage for a few dollars in beer made no sense to me but it happens all the time. Thieves are still going to steal regardless of the legality of the substance.

He would know; he used to be a police officer.

A couple months ago I mentioned that Richard Nixon’s name would be long-remembered because it’s engraved on the Apollo 11 plaque on the airless surface of the moon. I started wondering how long the plaque would actually last and did some research, but for some reason I didn’t post what I found. I can’t find the links to my sources, but here’s what I wrote about it:

On Earth, a plaque like that on Apollo 11 would be subject to erosion by wind and rain. The wind and rain would also carry pollution and other corrosive chemicals which would be deposited on the plaque and eat it away. The moon, on the other hand, has no atmosphere, so there’s no wind or rain or flowing water to damage the plaque. It could last a long time, except for a source of erosion we don’t encounter on Earth: Micrometeorites.

The space between the planets is hard vacuum, a harder vacuum than we can create in earthbound laboratories, but it’s still filled with with very, very small dust particles and even individual molecules floating free. Anything moving through interplanetary space collides with these dust particles at speeds of several miles per second.

The Earth itself collides with hundreds of tons of space dust every day. However, all this dust hits the atmosphere first and slows to a crawl, eventually settling to the surface. All but the largest rocks will lose their orbital speeds in the atmosphere and drop like, well, like rocks.

The Earth’s moon, on the other hand, has no atmosphere at all to protect it, so even invisibly small dust particles will smack into the surface at several miles per second. These are called micrometeorites to differentiate them from meteorites large enough to survive the plunge through the Earth’s atmosphere.

The continuous lunar micrometeorite storm is mostly insignificant. Astronauts walking around on the moon would have been pelted constantly, but even at a 50 miles per second, the impact of a few molecules would have been unnoticable. However, over time, these dust particles would pit whatever they strike, eventually wearing it down, much as wind can erode away a rock.

Except much slower. From a paper about the design of the Message From Earth plaque on the Pioneer spacecraft, I found an estimated wear rate of about 1 angstrom per year in our solar system. An angstrom is a ten-billionth of a meter. For comparison, Niagra Falls erodes away at the rate of about 1 meter per year. It would take cosmic dust more that twice the age of the Earth to erode that same distance.

This is just a rough estimate, of course. The estimate for Pioneer is for small objects like man-made satellites drifting through space. The moon is large enough to have meaningful gravity, and it will pull in dust from the space around it, increasing the erosion rate. On the other hand, if you look at this image from NASA, it’s clear that the plaque isn’t just set on the surface of the Moon, it’s mounted on one of the landing legs of the Lunar Excursion Module.


That could shield the plaque from some of the dust, reducing erosion. For the sake of this article, let’s just assume the one-angstrom-per-year estimate is good enough.

If the engraving on the Apollo 11 plaque is a reasonable 1/10th of a millimeter deep, it will take a million years to wear away Richard Nixon’s name.

To put that in perspective, I think the oldest people whose names we know are the Egyptian Pharohs, a comparatively recent 6000 years ago.

Now that I’ve got some sleep, I have a few more thoughts on the State of the Union address. I’ll be skipping around a bit.

I liked some of the general fluff at the front:

The rite of custom brings us together at a defining hour — when decisions are hard and courage is needed. We enter the year 2007 with large endeavors underway, and others that are ours to begin. In all of this, much is asked of us. We must have the will to face difficult challenges and determined enemies — and the wisdom to face them together.

Some in this chamber are new to the House and the Senate — and I congratulate the Democrat majority. (Applause.) Congress has changed, but not our responsibilities. Each of us is guided by our own convictions — and to these we must stay faithful. Yet we’re all held to the same standards, and called to serve the same good purposes: To extend this nation’s prosperity; to spend the people’s money wisely; to solve problems, not leave them to future generations; to guard America against all evil; and to keep faith with those we have sent forth to defend us. (Applause.)

We’re not the first to come here with a government divided and uncertainty in the air. Like many before us, we can work through our differences, and achieve big things for the American people. Our citizens don’t much care which side of the aisle we sit on — as long as we’re willing to cross that aisle when there is work to be done. (Applause.) Our job is to make life better for our fellow Americans, and to help them to build a future of hope and opportunity — and this is the business before us tonight.

I like it when they say stuff like that. It paints a nice vision of democracy.

On the other hand, he does raise the ugly spectre of bipartisanship. I prefer it when they hate each other and get nothing done.

I’m not sure I want this government to “work through [their] differences, and achieve big things for the American people.” I don’t want to be dragged into their dreams of greatness. I want them to leave me alone so I can achieve my own little things. My goals may be small by comparison to Bush’s goals, but they’re my goals.

A future of hope and opportunity begins with a growing economy — and that is what we have. We’re now in the 41st month of uninterrupted job growth, in a recovery that has created 7.2 million new jobs — so far. Unemployment is low, inflation is low, and wages are rising. This economy is on the move, and our job is to keep it that way, not with more government, but with more enterprise. (Applause.)

I’m sure some member of the opposition has already responded by pointing out that the economy isn’t good for everyone—the single head of household raising two kids, the factory worker whose job has just been outsourced to the third world—but most economic choices are tradeoffs and the economy is never equally good for everyone. Statistics by their nature are reductions of messy reality into simpler stories that are easier to comprehend. If properly chosen, they are still meaningful and useful.

These statistics have proven themselves over many years, and these statistics mean the country is doing very well by historical standards. President Bush and the Republicans didn’t create this healthy economy, they simply don’t have the power to do that. As always, we the people created it with our money, our hard work, our ingenuity, and our enterprise. But the President and his party deserve props for not screwing it up. It hasn’t always been that way.

First, we must balance the federal budget. (Applause.) We can do so without raising taxes. (Applause.) What we need is impose spending discipline in Washington, D.C. We set a goal of cutting the deficit in half by 2009, and met that goal three years ahead of schedule. (Applause.) Now let us take the next step. In the coming weeks, I will submit a budget that eliminates the federal deficit within the next five years. (Applause.) I ask you to make the same commitment. Together, we can restrain the spending appetite of the federal government, and we can balance the federal budget.(Applause.)

Sigh. That’s five interruptions for applause in a single paragraph. Remember what I said earlier about democracy being “banal and unsightly”? This calculated applause is a perfect example. Note that since Speaker Nancy Pelosi is seated right behind Bush we get to see what she applauds for. I’d swear sometimes I can see her pause to make the calculation of just how much to clap. Glenn Reynolds is trying to draw conclusions from this. It’s a little depressing to think that it matters.

More substantively, reducing the deficit is not the best reason to cut government spending. The best reason to cut government spending is to stop the government from consuming so much of our productive output.

And, finally, to keep this economy strong we must take on the challenge of entitlements. Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid are commitments of conscience, and so it is our duty to keep them permanently sound. Yet, we’re failing in that duty. And this failure will one day leave our children with three bad options: huge tax increases, huge deficits, or huge and immediate cuts in benefits. Everyone in this chamber knows this to be true — yet somehow we have not found it in ourselves to act. So let us work together and do it now. With enough good sense and goodwill, you and I can fix Medicare and Medicaid — and save Social Security. (Applause.)

Shorter version: We all promise to work together to not to piss off the AARP.

Bush goes on to discuss healthcare:

…I propose a standard tax deduction for health insurance that will be like the standard tax deduction for dependents. Families with health insurance will pay no income on payroll tax — or payroll taxes on $15,000 of their income. Single Americans with health insurance will pay no income or payroll taxes on $7,500 of their income. With this reform, more than 100 million men, women, and children who are now covered by employer-provided insurance will benefit from lower tax bills. At the same time, this reform will level the playing field for those who do not get health insurance through their job. For Americans who now purchase health insurance on their own, this proposal would mean a substantial tax savings — $4,500 for a family of four making $60,000 a year. And for the millions of other Americans who have no health insurance at all, this deduction would help put a basic private health insurance plan within their reach. Changing the tax code is a vital and necessary step to making health care affordable for more Americans. (Applause.)

In other words, tax breaks for people who buy insurance, but not for people who pay for healthcare costs out of pocket. Anybody else think the insurance lobby has something to do with this?

[Update: Of course, that’s how it is now anyway, so this isn’t actually a step back. Also, the tax break for having insurance will be accompanied by making employer-paid insurance count as taxable income. The upshot is that people will be getting roughly the same tax breaks on insurance they get now, but they’ll be able to choose plans that aren’t offered by their imployer, and the self-employed will be able get tax breaks too. Arnold Klingk explains what I didn’t understand, and I agree with most of what he says.]

…[W]e cannot fully secure the border unless we take pressure off the border — and that requires a temporary worker program. We should establish a legal and orderly path for foreign workers to enter our country to work on a temporary basis. As a result, they won’t have to try to sneak in, and that will leave Border Agents free to chase down drug smugglers and criminals and terrorists…

No kidding. It’s well known, too, that because illegal border crossings have become more difficult, people who sneak across are afraid they won’t be able to get back in if they leave, so they’re actually more likely to settle here instead of returning to their families in their homeland. The devil is in the details for stuff like this, but it’s possible that by making it easier to cross the border we’ll actually reduce the number of aliens in the country.

It’s in our vital interest to diversify America’s energy supply — the way forward is through technology. We must continue changing the way America generates electric power, by even greater use of clean coal technology, solar and wind energy, and clean, safe nuclear power. (Applause.) We need to press on with battery research for plug-in and hybrid vehicles, and expand the use of clean diesel vehicles and biodiesel fuel. (Applause.)

Biodiesel? I wonder if this is pandering to the farm states?

We must continue investing in new methods of producing ethanol — (applause) — using everything from wood chips to grasses, to agricultural wastes.

Ethanol. Yup! It’s about the farm states.

The rest was about the war. I need to read it more carefully before deciding if I have anything to say about it.

I haven’t seen it yet (I’ll wait for the transcript and read along), but I’m predicting that the state of our union is strong, and we can make it even stronger. But that’s just a guess.

Update: Okay, now I’ve seen it, and I was close:

…the State of our Union is strong, our cause in the world is right, and tonight that cause goes on.

That was near the end. The beginning…was a touch of class:

Thank you very much. And tonight, I have a high privilege and distinct honor of my own — as the first President to begin the State of the Union message with these words: Madam Speaker.

Sure, he’s the President. He’s supposed to show some class, and he has people to help him. Still, it was nice. Democracy is often a banal and unsightly form of government, but every once in a while democracy gives us a nice moment.

I should probably say some more about the speech, but I think I’ll leave that up to someone else.

I’m fascinated by people who can do useless things very well, so I liked Grandinite‘s link to a video of a guy who’s won a fast freehand circle drawing contest.

Is it ethical to sell-off a criminal’s possessions to pay restitution to his victims? You’d certainly think so. After all, he took something from the victims, so he should have to give them back enough money to make up for what they lost. It’s a basic case of making good for the damage done.

When the crime is murder, of course, the victim isn’t around any more, and money can’t really make up for the loss of a life, but as a practical matter, the courts usually award a large sum to families of the victims. All the criminal’s money can be taken, and his assets can be seized and sold at auction to raise money for the families of the dead.

But what if the murderer is a famous murderer, and his only assets are worthless junk that is nevertheless valuable for being the property of a famous murderer? Is it ethical to pay restitution to the families of the victims from the sale of property that is only valuable because its owner murdered those same victims?

In the case of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, Norm Pattis doesn’t think so.

Here’s a disturbing comparison between a pair of news items:

Jennifer Lea Strange dies from drinking too much at a water drinking contest hosted by KDND, a Sacramento, California radio station. The very next day the station cancels the show and fires everyone involved.

Fairfax, Virginia Police shoot and kill Sal Culosi as he emerges unarmed from his house to meet a friend who is really an undercover cop investigating illegal gambling. A year later, the investigation is concluded, and the officer who pulled the trigger has been suspended for three weeks.