Sunday, December 28, 2003

Notes from the Great White North

Greetings from Canada (Montreal to be specific). I apologize in advance for any oddities in this post -- I am trying to use a French keyboard, and many tag-specific bits of punctuation are in very odd places, not to mention shift and return!.

I really don't have much to say, I'm just hiding from the in-laws and watching a little football right now. Tomorrow we get to brave the border crossing back into the U.S. and see if the Orange alert will slow us down at all. As far as I can see, so far the terrorists have made California shake, introduced mad cow disease into the Northwest, and sent L.A. into a total panic. Since the focus of attention is West, I hope we will be OK in the far Northeast.

In the meantime, I have found myself in the odd position of trying to explain (in Franglais -- broken English & broken French) the US attitude towards George Bush to locals. They really don't seem to understand either him or the fact that the press don't seem to editorialize about him. But how do you say 'Whore' in French?

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Glimmerings of Sanity

The CEO of Highmark Inc., the local franchise/subsidiary of Blue Cross has come to the conlcusion that national health insurance is inevitable, and has said so in public.

A group of state senators are making a bid to increase the state income tax in the face of massive deficits and, among other things, failing cities. Our local NPR station reported the results of a poll that indicated almost half the population supported this, with another 42% continuing to believe that you can get something for nothing. I can't find a link to the poll, however.

William Safire is noticing that what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. (NYT link -- registration required (try cpunks/cpunks) and it will be pay-only in a week or so).

That's it for now, but I hope that there'll be more to come.

Movie Time

OK, I'll grant you that I have previously said that I don't really go to movies any more. But that's a relative thing. My wife and I still have a few movies we want to see each year, and a couple of those are ones that we want to see on the big screen instead of renting for TV. Last night, one of those must sees opened to much fanfare. An unusual confluence of events combined, and we found ourselves with both a baby sitter and a pair of tickets to the 7:15 show, so we actually went to see The Return of the King less than 24 hours after it debuted (in the Pittsburgh area, at least). I really can't remember the last time we saw an anticipated blockbuster on the day it opened.

Now, I know that it is fashionable to extend one's geek cred by dissing popular films, but we enjoyed it. My parents used to rent videos and give them ratings based on whether the movie could keep them both awake when they watched it after dinner. There is no doubt in my mind that this flim is a "Two No-Sleeper".

The only thing that I wonder is why intermissions have fallen by the wayside. At over three hours, the theater isn't going to get many showings a night, but a ten-minute break in the middle would help their concession sales and give the audience a chance to stretch a bit. It seems only decent...

Monday, December 15, 2003

Spider Holes

No point in mentioning Hussein's capture, everyone's done that. (D'oh, now I have too).

However, this morning we took the dogs to the vet so that they could get their health certificates in preparation for a little international holiday travel. I saw more morning television news in the waiting room than I see most months. In particular, I watched one reporter climbing out of the "spider hole" and walking through some woods, showing the farm where Hussein was captured. They then cut back to the anchor desk, where the talking heads rhapsodized for several tens of seconds about how amazing it was to see their reporter getting access to the hideaway.

Perhaps it's just cynical of me, but as soon as I saw that footage, I had this image of a long line of reporters and their camera operators standing just out of shot, all waiting their turn to climb into the hole so the folks back home could see them on top of the situation. I certainly failed to find anything astounding that this footage is being pushed only 24 hours after the news broke.

Oh, and since you asked (or not) the dogs are both fine. The vet was impressed with how well Markov is walking after her little flying incident back in July, and they are certified free of "Zoonotic diseases and Rabies". Now the next challenge is going to be 10 hours in a car with children and dogs.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

More Local Stuff

Moving from politics to passions, I was glad to read in this morning's paper that our local motorsports facility BeaveRun has had a solid first year and looks like it will be around for a while. There is a limit to how many Sunday races I can subject my family to, but we did take a picnic out there one Sunday and watched some very good racing at a reasonable price. The one major improvement that I'd like to see them make is to extend the PA system out to all the spectating areas. Although they have some nice hills from which to view the track, you can't hear the announcer from them.

We'll probably try to take in a couple of days next summer too, but that combined with the Pittsburgh Vintage Grand Prix pretty much maxes out my store of good will!

Local Stuff

Fester beats me to this story from this morning's paper about attempts by the Pennsylvania GOP to prevent Pittsburgh from becoming the eighth and largest city in the state to declare itself "distressed" as part of an attempt to raise revenue.

As with many cities, Pittsburgh has seen significant suburban flight in the past few years, with the bedroom communities in Allegheny county filing up with daytime commuters. These municipalities collect income and property taxes, but none of it flows to the city. Instead the city has to make do with taxing its own residents, some of the businesses, and imposing a $10/year commuter tax on anyone who works in the city -- an amount that hasn't changed in some forty years. Many of the details are summarized in this column by Brian O'Neill. As he points out, fundamentally the state controls how local officials can raise money, and this attempt by the GOP to block the distressed status is primarily an effort to keep the commuter tax at $10.

In the meantime, my state senator (Jane Orie, R-McCandless -- I live in the suburbs) is leading a separate but related fight to prevent Pittsburgh from seeking any new sources of revenue until it can balance its budget. That seems to be putting the cart before the horse, but what do I know?

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

The Word of the Lord?

At about the same time that the media ignores the conviction of Christian terrorist Clayton Waagner, South Knox Bubba and TBogg point out one of the sources of the ignorance that fuels the movement. Some might call it parody, some might call it child abuse. Others might even ponder the irony that this seems more extreme than Landover Baptist Church, but they are calling for that web site to be shut down. I'm torn in trying to identify my favorite part of the site. Is it

  • The comments on atheists ("Grumpy and bitter")
  • Hopsiah the Kanga-Jew
  • Professor Giraffenstein answers your science questions (with links!)
  • Or Ruby, the chaste lioness, who will marry our hero if only we know our old testament spouses

The competition is pretty fierce, but I gotta go with Ruby. While the scientific ravings of ol' Doc G. are amusing, the sheer irrelevance of Ruby's quest is mind boggling.

Monday, December 08, 2003

BCS Follies

Let me start off by saying that I had Texas Football season tickets for the six years that I lived in Austin. Good ones too, between the 45's on the east side of the stands. This may lead to a certain bias against Oklahoma Football, although a much bigger one against the Aggies. My current perspective from the Great White (for today, anyway) North hasn't turned me into a Pitt fan, or even a Steelers fan (that's a different comment) so Texas is still my default team to follow.

That said, what on earth has the BCS wrought? While there are many bad things about the BCS system[1], this week's revelations will surely show it for the fraud that it is. Well, they won't because there is too much money at stake, but they should. Having the consensus #1 pick in both polls miss the national championship does seem a bit daft. It certainly wouldn't have happened before the institution of the BCS, since Oklahoma either would have tried to play on Saturday night instead of resting on their laurels, secure in the knowledge that they had made the big game already.

What this really drives home, however, is the incredible over reliance of the BCS on strength-of-schedule. It not only appears in directly in the average, but it is also explicitly included in each computer ranking, and implicitly included in the human polls, and even kind of shows up in the quality win column. While the computer poll algorithms are confidential, it wouldn't surprise me to find out that adding up all the strength of schedule contributions to the BCS rankings would show that it accounts for over 50% of the total ratings. Since the computer polls have to agree not to look at margin of victory, or the other things on which human pollsters rely, they are pretty much constrained to W/L record and SOS.

According to the charts over at ESPN, simply allowing strength of schedule to remain implicit (i.e. subtracting out the explicit SOS rankings) leaves OSU and USC playing for the title instead of LSU. It's still not the human poll result, but it seems a little closer to reason. At least the consensus number one would be playing for the championship. If we leave out the "quality win" kludge as well and just look at the poll averages (human and computer) then the result is finally correct.

[1] The worst thing about the BCS is that it pretty much destroys the bowl system it is trying to save. Suddenly only one college bowl game has much national interest at all, and it isn't even played on New Year's Day. I use to religiously nurse my hangover on January 1st in front of 12-14 hours of solid football -- like a squirrel stocking up for the long cold season ahead. For the past few years, I may occasionally glance at a game, but that's it. For me, the BCS has pretty much pushed the bowl games into irrelevance in a way that a playoff system just wouldn't.

Friday, December 05, 2003

Missing the Bandwagon

Pete started it, and Chuck fueled it, and now everybody (well, a few people anyway) are making lists of their personal worst movies. But my problem is that by Pete's restrictive rules, I find it hard to come up with an example of a bad movie. The thing is that I lost the movie habit big time in grad school, when I was too busy and too poor to go to the movies very often[1]. If a bad movie is on TV or video, I generally walk away from it to reclaim some of my life, and under Pete's rules I can't list a movie like that. So my list is short, although perhaps as I look at other people's lists, I'll dredge up some long-suppressed memories

  • Eraser I saw this one at Trinity. It not only has bad science, it has bad science for no good reason -- no plot developments or anything. That bugs me.
  • Driven Given my proclivities, I had to see this. I even had to buy the DVD in an attempt to convince Hollywood to either make a decent racing movie or to finally release Grand Prix on DVD. Although IMDB now has an Amazon link to the DVD, they still have it listed as Not Yet Released with no anticipated release date.
  • Angels and Insects I think I saw this one at the same party as Chuck. However I saw it through my eyelids. But I was in front of the TV for the entire thing, so I'm going to count it.

At the moment, that's it. I'm going to keep thinking about it, however.

[1] I did go to see Schindler's List at my local movie theater in Wilmette. I wasn't motivated by high art as much as by the need to get as much air conditioned time as possible for my entertainment dollar.


Paul Krugman is on a roll today. High on the must-read list, but if you don't believe in letting the New York Times know who you are, this is my favorite paragraph so far:

In the early months of the Bush administration, one often heard that "the grown-ups are back in charge." But if being a grown-up means planning for the future — in fact, if it means anything beyond marital fidelity — then this is the least grown-up administration in American history. It governs like there's no tomorrow.

He also claims that the stalled energy bill has a special provision to help Shreveport get its first Hooters "restaurant" (I use that word advisedly, since I had always supposed the purpose of a restaurant was to serve food, which Hooters -- in my limited experience -- really doesn't do.)

Thursday, December 04, 2003

CART Stumbles

In yet another blow, it appears that the proposed buyout and privatization of CART has fallen through. It looks like the only option left is bankruptcy leading to either liquidation or reorganization. The sticking point is the number of cars that are expected to race next season, which has fallen below eighteen. As the fields become smaller and less competitive the fan base dwindles further. As the fan base dwindles, the advertising dollars go away and smaller teams drop out, making the field smaller leading to a death spiral.

The proposed buyers (OWRS) seem to be interested in CART's reorganization, with them taking over some but not all of the CART functions. If they succeed, they claim to plan on running a lot of the season next year, but these deals do keep falling through. It seems likely that without a large infusion of cash from somewhere, the decline will be hard to stop. If only Bernie Ecclestone were interested in promoting CART.

Economy Rising

The econcomic news of the last couple of months seems to have been fairly good. GDP rose some 8% in the third quarter, while productivity rose 9.4%. These are probably valuable indicators for the overall economy.

I have my own personal indicator, however, which is a rough tracking of the new job postings at the Pittsburgh Technology Council. As a currently unemployed resident of Allegheny County with a background in Math and Software Development, the appearance this week of 124 job postings so far makes me hope that the economy really is turning around, and that there is a job lurking out there for me. While I am not qualified for many of those jobs, and some are duplicates, this definitely beats the 20 or so postings a week that were coming up in October.

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

And the Hits Just Keep on Coming

Wow. Hi guys. According to SiteMeter I have now received more hits this afternoon than in the entire previous existence of this site. Many thanks to Chuck, Atrios, and the Agonist for helping me have my fifteen minutes or so. Also, a nod to Matthew Baldwin, who apparently made the same observation (unbeknownst me) a long time ago.

Modern Physics

Calpundit and Atrios both highlight the following paragraph describing a Bush fund raiser in New Jersey:

Not breaking any ground, Bush highlighted the accomplishments of his administration, saying he had eliminated the terror threat from Afghanistan and weapons of mass destruction from Iraq and ensured that Medicare will remain solvent.
They both seem to be of the opinion that the claim that Bush eliminated WMD's from Iraq is laughable.

Yet they fail to grasp the president's deep understanding of modern physics. In fact, prior to the invasion, the weapons both existed and didn't exist simultaneously, not unlike Schrodinger's Cat. The invasion and subsequent search brought in observers and collapsed the wave function to one of non-existence. Thus the President was speaking nothing but the truth.

This kind of misunderestimating one's opponents has really got to stop!

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

Courts and Our Food

Here in Western Pennsylvania, we are in the throes of recovering from a fairly large Hepatitus A outbreak. A ChiChi's in Beaver County (just north of Pittsburgh) apparently managed to get its hands on some green onions that had somehow managed to become contaminated with Human Fecal Matter, and as a result over 500 people came down with the disease, at least three people died, and some are waiting for new livers at the moment.

In the wake of this, it is not reassuring to read via Electrolite and Nathan Newman that the Eighth Circuit Court has ruled that the Labor Department overstepped its bounds in requiring Advanta USA to provide portable toilets for seasonal agricultural laborers.

In the recent outbreak, the current claim is that the onions came from Mexico. Since many of the other reassuring noises coming from the health department have been shown to be either wrong or misleading I'm reserving judgement on that claim. But with Big Ag practices like this, how long will it be before a case is traced to the US?

Update 12/04: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is reporting that there are now 635 confirmed cases of Hepatitus A related to this outbreak, but the incidence of new cases is tapering off.

CART Staggers

CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) was, and perhaps still is, the premier open-wheel racing series in the US. Unfortunately, a whole series of questionable decisions have left them in financial turmoil. They managed to put together a season last year, but are looking less like a top-flight racing series and more like a spec series instead. Last year teams had the choice of two different chassis (Lola or Reynard), one type of Engine (Ford/Cosworth) and one type of tire (Bridgestone) producing the horrendously named Bridgestone presents the Champ Car World Series powered by Ford.

In an effort to turn CART's fortunes around, or at least to hide the red ink from the public eye, a group of investors are trying to persuade the shareholders to let them take the company private again. The vote is scheduled for early next year. The timing of the vote, however, has led the series to postpone its opening race in St. Petersburg to a future time, TBD.

This raises two obvious questions in my mind. First, why didn't the buyout proponents know the schedule? It's been published for a while. Alternately, they may have had to move the vote back to have more time to persuade shareholders. That seems to be a sign of a pending shareholder revolt, however, and doesn't seem healthy.

Second, who makes this schedule? Now that the St. Pete race is delayed, the opening race of the season is going to be moved from February 22 to April 18 at Long Beach. They were going to have a two month break between the first and the second races of the season! Why have the first race in that case? There is no momentum for the fans or the teams over that long a break. The first race essentially becomes an exhibition, with bearing on the final standings instead of an actual competition. Now I realize that in US racing, the main competition is NASCAR, and they open the year with the Daytona 500 on February 15, but a stunt like this just isn't going to convert any fans.

Between management screwups like this and the departure of big-name sponsors, I am not sanguine about CART's survival beyond the next couple of years.

Probably Good News

I see over on the Salon wire that Diebold has dropped their threat of lawsuits against the people who publicised their source code and its weaknesses. I assume this is a good thing, but it seems extraneous to the heart of the matter, which is how we can trust unaudited election schemes. Until the central issue is addressed, presumably by legislation, this will remain a minor victory. As expected, Talkleft mentions this, and has a whole bunch more stuff archived about electroinic voting.