Thursday, June 29, 2006

Legislative fluff.

Massachusetts state senator Jarrett Barrios became very concerned when he discovered that his son was being served fluffernutter sandwiches in his school cafeteria. Mr. Barrios took it as his civic duty to bring this issue to the attention of his distinguished colleagues in the state Senate--he proposed amending the school nutrition bill to limit how often public schools could serve the offending sandwiches. Mr. Barrios met with quite a stiff resistance, however. The Massachusetts state senate has been fiercely debating the issue for the past week, only just recently tabling it. The proposal spurred such heated resistance, certainly because most senators could recognize the sticky, sweet, fabulousness that is fluffernutter, but also because Fluff is actually the product of a Massachusetts company. Other senators came forward not only reviling Mr. Barrios' attack on their local product, but proposing that fluffernutter be made the official state sandwich. Questioned as to why he thought peanut butter and marshmallow deserved a week's worth of the senate's attention, Mr. Barrios claimed he was just trying to bring children's nutrition to the forefront of public debate. Mr. Barrios had no explanation for why, seeing the direction the debate had taken, he did not immediately withdraw his proposal and replace it with some other bill with content that was broadly relevant to the issue he claims to be so concerned with. Runor has it that Senator Barrios is imminently expected to introduce a bill mandating two-ply toilet paper in all public bathrooms.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

1% Doctrine

Ron Suskind has a new book about the Bush administration, keying on a speech in which Cheney said that if "there is even a 1% chance that a nation could provide nuclear arms to terrorists" then we have a right to act.

Interesting insight into the administration's policy: we can bypass the analysis of the entire intelligence community, or the civil rights of thousands of people, if there is even a small chance we are acting in the national interest. In fact, it is the government's right and duty to do so.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Everything bad is good for you.

Recent study findings indicate that drinking beer may help prevent prostate cancer. It seems that hops contain a cancer-fighting agent called xanthohumol. The problem is that in order to get enough xanthohumol to see an effect, you'd have to drink seventeen pints of beer a day. That's damaged liver territory. Which would be a problem, if the scientific community hadn't also recently made the fortuitous discovery that coffee decreases the risk of cirrhosis of the liver --by twenty-two percent for each cup drunk daily! The equation ends up looking something like this: 17 beers + 5 cups of coffee = immortality. Thanks to Ferg for passing this along.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Watch out for Kasparov's left hook.

Inspired by something he saw in a comic book, some guy in Germany has started a new sport: chess boxing. Participants compete in alternating rounds of chess and boxing--rounds of chess last four minutes, rounds of boxing last two--until one of the players has either been knocked out, checkmated, or exceeds the twelve minutes alotted for the chess match. Its inventor says that in its mix of physical competition and mental strategy, the sport captures "the duality of man," but really it seems like a recipe for watching lousy chess and bad boxing. When a Kasparov and a Fischer are willing to climb into the ring together between rounds of chess, I'll tune in, if only to see what they look like with their shirts off.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Facts about Cuba, for kids.

ACLU has apparently just filed a lawsuit challenging the Miami-Dade School Board's decision to ban a children's book about Cuba (the original story can be found here). The book in question is aimed at children in the lower elementary school grades, and the offending material includes such passages as: "People in Cuba eat, work, and go to school like you do." From the description, it sounds like this is accompanied by cheerful pictures of children frollicking, et cetera. The book's critics argue that text like this over-simplifies and sanitizes the reality in Cuba to the point that it is factually misleading. ACLU is obviously arguing that the ban represents an infringement on free speech. Unless later pages include Fidel Castro yo' mama jokes or the illustrations are full of lewd gestures, I'm thinking an argument of either obscenity or pornography is a stretch. Moreover, this is a school, so it's the perfect place to make the book's portrayal of Cuba a topic of conversation. I guess I can understand the parents' concerns about the way the material is being spun, and I don't envy them the job of trying to describe communism and Castro to a first grader. I can imagine this would be even more troubling if the material were more insidious. But that's why freedom of speech in the abstract is sometimes a lot easier to deal with than freedom of speech in the specific.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Not quite the scariest disease ever.

As if Ebola and Bird Flu weren't enough to worry about, apparently there's a stealth parasite in town that we've all been living with unawares, Toxoplasma. From the New York Times (where else?):
This single-celled pathogen infects over half the world's population, including an estimated 50 million Americans. Each of Toxoplasma's victims carries thousands of the parasites, many residing in the brain. As if that were not enough of an accomplishment, Toxoplasma is equally adept at infecting all other warm-blooded animals, as disparate as chickens and kangaroos.
Though scientists believe the parasite is usually harmless, it appears that it might be responsible for a myriad of problems later in life. Moreover, the article is filled with interesting tidbits like how a parasite evolves to target cats (Taxoplasma needs cats to reproduce--no joke) and how parasites can impact behavior.

Monday, June 19, 2006

And the Lord sent forth Superman to smiteth the gentiles.

Apparently some Rabbi noticed that the kiddies liked Kavalier and Clay and decided to play piggyback. He has just published Up, Up, and Oy Vey, contending that comic books actually find much of their inspiration in Jewish tradition. Superman, propelled in a spaceship from Krypton to Earth, as stand-in for Moses and his journey down the river in a basket? Eh. Superman's love for Lois Lane as representing every Jewish boy's love of shiksas? That's a little better.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

That new car smell.

I've never understood all the hubbub about that new car smell. Maybe it's just jealousy speaking, seeing as I've never been able to claim ownership of a vehicle sporting that particular smell. But 'gross' has always been the word that came to mind when I got the chance to go for a spin in a new automo. From now on, however, the first word that I'll think of will likely be 'poisonous'. This weekend's SF Chronicle reports on the chemical sources of new car smell, and while the chemical concentrations don't seem to be high enough to cause major concern, none of the stuff the article reports on is something you'd want to sprinkle on your breakfast cereal.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Porn and Identity Theft

In case you had any doubt, the link between porn and identity theft is now clear. Unfortunately for 2,200 Oregon taxpayers, their personal information may have been stolen when a state employee used a state computer to download porn.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The End of the Internet? (Part two)

Following up on a previous post, I've been doing a lot of thinking about net neutrality, trying to understand exactly what it's all about and where I stand. While I can't say I've come up with a definitive answer, I have found some good material (thanks to Slashdot) that helps shine some light on the subject. First, the Wikipedia has a great (though somewhat technical) entry on net neutrality. CNN also recently ran editorials both for and against net neutrality.

One thing that is important to understand through all the FUD is that companies and consumers already pay different amounts for the bandwidth that they consume. A DSL line costs less than a higher capacity T3. Another key point is that different Internet applications require different quality of service (QoS) levels. Video and VOIP require low latency connections whereas web surfing and email do not.

What I can say in favor of net neutrality is that without regulation there is a real risk that telecommunications companies will abuse their power in a way that will stifle innovation and competition on the Internet. On the other hand, one of the best arguments I've read against net neutrality comes from an unexpected source:
It's true, of course, that ISPs could misuse their control of the onramps to the Internet in a shortsighted attempt to extract monopoly rents, rather than benefit consumers. But that's not a reason for preemptive regulation; it's a reason to see what happens. "In my view," said then–Federal Communications Commission Chair Michael Powell after blocking one local telephone/broadband provider's attempt to cut users off from Internet telephone services, "the surest way to preserve 'Net Freedom' is to handle these issues in an enforcement context where hypothetical worriers give way to concrete facts and, as we have shown today, real solutions." That's sound advice: Hasty regulation that responds to hypothetical abuses may also prevent us from discovering benefits we haven't yet hypothesized.
Perhaps this is the most moderate argument of them all.

Monday, June 12, 2006

The insurance companies solve global warming.

Increasing the cost of driving has been one of the main strategies floated for decreasing our use of fossil fuels. The most common thought on how to do this is a gas tax. A recent piece in Harper's suggests a different way: pay-by-the-mile car insurance. The article points out that this wouldn't even necessarily mean a hike in prices for most drivers because the per-mile fee could be calculated based on current car insurance costs divided by the average mileage driven. To me, this proposal might have a psychological advantage over the gas tax in that each month when they get their insurance statement, drivers will get to see their costs measured out in a one to one relationship with car usage.

That hertz my ears.

Chronicling kids' ongoing attempts to put one over on adults, the NY Times reports on a cell phone ring tone that only kids can hear. This is not a joke. Apparently, as they get older, most adults' ability to hear higher-pitched sounds decreases--a condition called presbycusis. Some chap in England has applied this fact to cell phone ring tones, and now kids are sitting in class with their phones ringing while their teachers teach on obliviously. Here's the thing though, the sound is supposed to be notably unpleasant. The ring tone was adapted from an invention called The Mosquito, essentially a speaker that emits high-pitched sounds that shopkeepers in England use to drive away loitering teens while the paying adult customers go about their business unbothered. On the one hand, I get that this little invention lets the kids pull the wool over the old people's eyes, and that they get to do it publicly, so all their friends can see (well, hear). So I guess it signals that I've truly transitioned to adulthood when I wonder why they don't just set their phones to vibrate, get their text messages undetected, and avoid the popped ear drums.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

What's good music for a deviated septum?

The NY Times just ran this piece on the music that surgeons like to listen to while operating. Their musical choices sometimes belie the stark, antiseptic scene I think most of us associate with the O.R. There's the talk of Mozart that you might expect, and I suppose the opera is not that much of a surprise (though it does create a more melodramatic scene than I'd like to imagine if I were the one going under the knife). Apparently, however, doctors particularly like to rock out when they're stitching a patient up--they refer specifically to loud rock and roll as "closing music". So if your sutures aren't straight, maybe ask your doctor if he was listening to Metallica.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Housing first. Success second?

Wednesday's New York Times had an interesting piece on a new campaign to combat homelessness being pushed by Philip Mangano, who leads the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness for the Bush administration. The main thrust is to put homeless people into apartments of their own with no strings attached. It's an interesting approach to what has long been an intractable problem. For the homeless, there are obvious physical and psychological benefits to stable housing. My only question is what happens after people are given housing. Are there programs to help get residents on their feet? Do the dwellings turn into slums? I'm all for getting people off the street and into safe housing, but that can't be the measure of success.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The freshmaker.

There's a lot of creative talent out there, and the internet has ensured that it gets channeled in, well, creative ways. Oddity of medium aside, this is pretty incredible. Yes, it's the Bellagio. Thanks to Michelle for passing this along.

For the man who has everything. Except taste. II.

Ever thought about driving your beer cooler to work? Now you can. gives us the Cruzin Cooler.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

King of the geeks.

Remember the Numa Numa guy? You know, the kind of chubby kid that lip synched and "danced" (arms thrusting sharply into the air) to a Romanian pop song. It made the email forward rounds a couple of years ago. Douglas Wolk just published an article in the Believer tracking the history of Numa Numa from its actual release as a song in Romania to its cult status here in the US. The history of the song itself is kind of uninteresting, but what it has become on YouTube and GoogleVideo is pretty amazing. People haven't chosen to mock the Numa Numa guy, as they have with some other internet cult figures like Star Wars Kid. Rather, it seems that they want to be him. The remakes are almost entirely copies of the original. Here's what Wolk has to say about it:
These kids aren’t mocking the Numa Numa Guy; they’re venerating him. They are geeks honoring the King of the Geeks, and they’re beautiful to see, because they’re replicating and spreading his happiness. They’re following a ritual that’s meaningful if not yet venerable: learning the dance, lip-synching the song, documenting their performance just so, making it available for the world to see.
It's worth it, as Wolk recommends at one point in the article, to scan through the first thirty seconds of some of the imitations that are floating around out there. Just check out these kids, or this kid. The emotion I detect isn't derision, but pure joy.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Food, en masse.

The NY Times Magazine from this weekend ran two articles that evaluate trends in two very different strata of the food world. The first covers a topic that has been splashed all over the news of late: Walmart's announcement that it will soon go organic. Michael Pollan notes that when the pesticide-free lettuce hits the shelves--and at prices only 10-percent higher than Walmart's regular greens--organic food will have suddenly shed its air of elitism. Like the writers that have covered this story before him though, Pollan doesn't exult in the spread of organics too long before he begins to worry about what it will mean for Walmart to keep its prices low. Buying local will certainly be out. And to keep up with Walmart's demand, the small farmer we have come to associate with the organic movement will no doubt be forced aside. But more importantly, Pollan wonders, what happens when Walmart's lobbyists go to work on how the government defines "organic" in the first place?

On the flipside, Mark Bittman writes about the trend for big-name chefs to leave the kitchens of the restaurants that made them famous in favor of overseeing an empire of restaurants that bear their name. Of course, heading up so many eateries means that these chefs are more consultants than cooks--they help design the space, train the staff, and put together the menu, but they're not actually in the kitchen much of the time. Bittman bemoans the fact that high cuisine no longer means knowing that the artist-chef is personally tinkering with your meal to make sure the flavor is just right, and he argues that the quality of the meal has suffered as a result. He calls his most recent meal at one of Alain Ducasse's outposts "beyond dull." Unlike with the advent of organic foods at Walmart, however, the strip malling (mauling?) of haute cuisine does not equate with low prices--meals still go for $300 a pop. In either case, it seems that, at least in the food world, bigger isn't necessarily better.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Private Intelligence

Kover pointed out to me the other day that one of our former classmates from Dartmouth, Ben Wallace-Wells, recently had a piece published in the New Yorker. Way to go, Ben. (But the real question is if he'll ever get to post on the Daily Irk.) The article is about an Iraqi woman in the U.S. who is part of a small group of civilians who work in intelligence. She and her staff spend their days scouring the Internet for information about terrorists and then they sell that information to the government and media. The article brings up a number of interesting questions about private intelligence gathering like its impact on the media and the terrorists themselves.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Always an easy target.

What is it that makes rational human beings lose sight of common sense when they go into politics? I know I've picked some pretty easy targets here, but two articles I read this week made me sit back and once again ponder that age old question. In the first we see Harry Reid, the minority leader of the Senate and the man behind the charge to rid Washington of the Republican Party's "culture of corruption," accepts free boxing tickets from an agency trying to win his legislative favor and he sees no ethical problem with it. Fortunately, he came around. In other news, John Kerry decides two years after his presidential campaign ends that it might be a good idea to fight back against the claims made by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Good call, Senator.