Friday, January 30, 2009

I Would Trust Them Over the Editorial Board of The New Republic

Via Narco News, a plea for President Obama to rescind the Cuba embargo by Cigar Aficionado. Sort of hard to take their recommendation as that of a dispassionate and rational observer interested only in the pursuit of justice.

(But who knows. I don't read Cigar Aficionado, and for all I know they were the sole cigar-focused periodical to speak out against the Bush regime in the months before the war in Iraq. If that's the case, then I stand happily corrected.)

But whether you suspect an ulterior motive or not, they're clearly on the right side of this issue. And given the what I imagine is considerable overlap of their subscriber base with the people who actually fill the smoke-filled rooms in which important foreign policy decisions are made at the highest levels of government with smoke, they might actually have a shot of being listened to.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Nowhere to play it, right?

E?EPHANT in my rack but no place to play
So frustrating.

Update: Wrong! Could have hooked it on to make (OKE)H.

Weather 2.0?

Is there a clean, fast web site for checking weather forecasts?

It occurred to me a week or two ago that it's 2008, and there should be no reason to subject myself to the cluttered interface and animated banner ads of I don't know of anything better, so I've switched to the government. It's actually not bad, functionality-wise, though it is still pretty unattractive. But at least they don't assault you with ads or distract you with golf conditions or whatnot.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Pro-Corporate Regulation

Ezra Klein has a good post on the USDA's official standards for the labeling of "naturally raised" chicken, and how the regulatory apparatus colludes with agribusiness in misleading consumers. He doesn't mention, though perhaps it is implied, the way that something like this hurts the smaller-scale operations raising chickens in a manner that does correlate strongly with a reasonable person's common-sense understanding of "natural."


The indy media logo,

is rendered as "((( i )))" in the web page title when you go to the site.

I believe (i) was the emoticon we came up with as the counterpart to the ever-useful 8==D. Use it in a text message today!

:-P (i)

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Via tiltfactor, an interesting article in the Jerusalem Post about war propaganda video games. I think it's interesting that the medium of video games is still young enough that this kind of propagandizing doesn't necessarily seem out of place. I think a lot of US-made World War II games, for example, present a perspective so simplistic and blindly patriotic as would seem crass (if not flatly offensive) were it in a movie.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

President Obama: Failure

The Dow Jones Industrial average was down 4% today. Nice job, Obama! We're screwed. Bring back that last guy!

Mix Tape Idea

The Beatles, "Lovely Rita"
Van Halen, "Hot for Teacher"
Lil Wayne, "Mrs. Officer"

I can't think of any others, but that's the gist.

As a side note, I did once have a smokin' lady mailman, though I rarely got to see her unless there was a blizzard or something keeping me home from work. Maybe I'll write a song about it.

Friday, January 16, 2009


The good old scrabolous game has come back to life in the form of "Lexulous (renamed)" (sic). Andrew and I picked up one of our old games where we had left off, and we've been discussing some of the changes they had to make to comply with Hasbro's absurd intellectual property claims. The differences include:
  • a different board layout (it was even more different, including quad word scores, but they changed it to something closer to the original);
  • fewer tiles, some of which score higher; and
  • eight-tile racks, with a 40-point medium bonus for playing seven tiles and the regular 50-point bingo bonus for playing all eight.
So far, the bigger racks (what? Why are you looking at me like that?) seem to have had the most noticeable impact. As Andrew pointed out, the opportunities for hitting a double-triple are vastly increased because you have enough tiles on your own to reach from one TWS to another without building around an existing tile. But in general just having that extra letter to play with means you are going to be able play seven tiles a lot more often, for almost as many points as a full bingo.

I was looking around the internets to see if anyone had taken a crack at adapting computer programs to play the lexolous rules (Quackle allows different boards at runtime, but the tile sets and rack sizes are hardcoded), and I found the site of this crackpot whose stuff I've looked at before. He invented Octo Scrabble (scrabble with eight-tile racks, including a scaled bingo scoring system) a year ago, and swears by it.

(The reason I call him a "crackpot," though he is possibly more accurately merely an especially creative curmudgeon, is because he also has suggestions for how to reform basketball, the justice system, piano notation, units of measure, parade viewing, and ice water consumption. Among many, many other things. Also, it seems that 55 years ago one could buy leg padding not two blocks from my house.)

Back to the topic at hand, the other differences in the game don't seem as major as the rack can sort of see some of Andrew's and my plays sticking to the new lines of multiplier squares in our first game the way they stick to their counterparts in regular corporate scrabble, but that stands to reason, and since the layout is pretty similar in qualitative (better multipliers as you get further from the center) and almost identical in quantitative terms (the official game has one more TLS per quadrant and they otherwise match), it doesn't seem to affect how the game plays very much.

What I'd really like to do is to run an AI against itself (nullus) for a couple tens of thousands of games under each rule set, and see how the size and variability of scores compare. Until then I did take the time to chart the differences in tile scores and frequencies:

Really, they seem to have mostly just scaled back the number of tiles (resulting in more games played, which translates to more "x started a new game of Lexulous" messages on Facebook), upping the tile values to keep scores up (Lexulous has 11 fewer tiles, but they average 2.3 points to Scrabble's 1.9).

So that's all I've got on that score. Realistically, I am unlikely to try to hack Quackle myself to get an idea about how the lexolous rules change the familiar game (it builds on Windows, but with MinGW, which I don't have installed, and Qt, which just kill me now).

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Oh Man

So last night I went to the library to pick up a book I had placed on hold, one that Henry at Crooked Timber had described as "a brooding, post-Mievillian fantasy set in a decaying city of uncertain extent and boundaries, with a keen ear for politics, character and language." Sounds like just my type of thing, and since it was Crooked Timber (by way of Andrew) that introduced me to China MiĆ©ville in the first place, I took the recommendation to heart.

The point of his post was musing on how the "cover...suggest[ed] a generic quest fantasy of the more or less inept and badly plotted variety" and didn't do the book justice, but that in no way prepared me for what said cover would actually look like.

Bear in mind that I had to retrieve this from the hold shelf and then take it up and hand it to a real-life librarian to check it out. There were little kids there. I'm lucky they didn't call the police:

A shaggy-haired guy in multi-colored garb floats alongside a flying ship and a dove

Robot Composer

Robert linked to this Microsoft program that generates chord changes to accompany vocal recordings. It's, on the one hand, extremely hokey and ridiculous (there are two sliders, "Happiness" and "Jazziness," that the user can adjust to change the mood; hopefully the Pro version will provide controls for "Boogieosity" and "Pizazz"). But on the other hand, it's sort of like the music version of MS Chat, which gave us Jerk City.

Basically, it's stupid, but the stupidness means that someone could do something with it that is stupid but also pretty awesome, I rest my case.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

I am way behind on my blog reading

So this is a couple days old, but this idea for creating economic stimulus by raising Social Security benefits and cutting payroll taxes is too elegant not to link.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

For Chrissake

I don't even know what to say about this FBI snitch who outed himself after testifying against activists protesting the RNC. The idea that he might not have been acting as a provocateur is absolutely risible. If anything, the disillusioned civilian who believes his moral code compelled him to betray his compatriots is even more likely to provoke extreme tactics than is a salaried government agent working undercover: the agent is just doing a job, but the traitor has already sold his soul and now must assure himself it was for a good price. God knows under what statute "attempted tossing of Molotov cocktails" is supposed to be prosecuted, but it's a load of shit however they try it.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Me and My Best Friend

Thanks to BSNYC.


I have had it with Far Side style captioned lolcats making it to the front page of ICHC. This one is almost as bad. Another contender. The earliest one before that was almost a moth ago, which I fear means they're becoming more frequent.

Do not want, kthx.

Thursday, January 8, 2009


Atrios quotes someone on the problems with expecting untrained individuals to manage their own retirement investments. I totally agree. I recently encountered a related annoying pattern when it comes to trying to find general financial advice, which is that the assumption made by people who are trained in finance is always that more control over your investments is better.

This came up because since my employer was just sold, at some point I'm going to have to do something with my old 401(k). One option is I think to sort of transfer it to my new one, basically cashing out of everything and then using the money to buy funds in the new plan. But everyone advises that it's much better to roll it over into a Roth IRA, because then I can invest in whatever individual stocks or funds you want, rather than have to pick from the dozen or so I can choose from under the new plan. But I don't really want to invest in individual stocks because I find finance confusing and tedious...I would much prefer to be able to treat my retirement investments as a black box that somebody who is actually qualified manages for me.

Of course, it's all moot at this point. With the failure of global capitalism it's become clear that nobody is qualified to manage any sort of investment, and every dollar I put in my 401(k) is surely never to be seen again.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


For some reason, my library eschews the standard login/password method of authentication when you access your account online. Since that's I guess what my web browser expects to deal with when it saves passwords and stuff, my browser won't remember any of the form data, and thus logging in has always meant I have to dig out my library card and copy down the like 10-digit barcode just to renew a book.

I finally took the time to mess around and figure out how to make a bookmark that would fill in my info for me. Here it is:
javascript: filldata = function() { document.getElementsByName("name")[0].value = "..."; document.getElementsByName("code")[0].value = "..."; document.getElementsByName("pin")[0].value = "..."; }; filldata()
It's actually pretty damn simple, and now I'm upset at all the years (years!) I've wasted typing in my barcode over and over.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

In The Future We Will Play Hoverpinball

GameSetWatch has an interesting interview with pinball designer Pat Lawlor. I didn't know, or I had forgotten, that he now designs for Stern, though he seems pretty unenthused by what they're doing there ("so CSI is going to have a skull?" "Uh, yeah, it has lots of things. Including a skull").

The part I found surprising was his defense of the Pinball 2000 platform. I mean, I see what he's saying about how pinball would need to adapt to a younger arcade-going audience to be viable, but Pinball 2000 strikes me as having been such an obviously flawed attempt in that direction. It sacrificed the most viscerally satisfying part of pinball (especially in Pat Lawlor's tables), the physicality of the balls interacting with the different features, in order to make it more video game-y in the most superficial way (add a video screen!). It's like if your hot dog stand were losing business to the new sushi place across the street and you tried to compete by not cooking your hot dogs.

In conclusion, someone please give Pat Lawlor the resources to make more games like No Good Gofers, but do not under any circumstances let him run your business.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Proportional Response

I don't disagree that it's monstrous, but I'm surprised Digby's surprised by the defense of disproportionate response. Disproportionate response to aggression has always been the foundational doctrine of Israel's foreign policy, and her partisans in the US have been similarly vocal about it. The rationale behind this strategy actually relies on the disproportion being widely recognized and expected, the idea being that if you know that any hostility towards Israel will be met with overwhelming violence, then you have only yourself to blame for the results when you go ahead and launch rockets anyway. It doesn't make much sense, but it's certainly not a big secret.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Advertising Against Your Own Product

Via Myglesias, the Times has this story on how colleges contract with credit card issuers, who pay for access to the student body. This passage amused me:
Jennifer Holsman, executive director of the alumni association at Arizona State, said the association tried to teach students about responsible uses of credit. "We work closely with Bank of America to provide educational seminars to students in terms of being able to get information about how to pay off credit cards, how not to keep balances," she said.
I don't know what you're supposed to think when you see some corporate entity like this that is by all appearances engaging in behavior that is antithetical to its own interests. If Bank of America really is trying to persuade its cardholders not to carry balances then they are being played for suckers, since they can only make money from their credit card business when their customers carry balances.

It reminds me of Philip Morris's anti-tobacco TV spots in the years following the tobacco settlement. It was sort of an interesting problem, wanting for PR purposes to run ads nominally discouraging use of their product, but that didn't actually have any negative impact on sales. Fortunately for them, they had a perfect model to follow in the government's anti-drug advertising of the 80's, which had been convincingly demonstrated ineffective. I imagine Bank of America drew from the same well in designing a campaign to discourage students from taking on credit card debt.

Mr. Fish Continues to Kill It

New Year's 2009 baby on a high-wire, trying to balance a big PESSIMISM on one side with a small OPTIMISM on the other. Full frontal nudity.

I would also have included a scrotum, with hair. But this is pretty good.

Your Grandfather's Pez Dispenser

I had an idea a while ago that it would be cool to make an all-metal Pez dispenser, maybe with a nice oiled leather grip around the outside. Some dork made one with a metal body, but the "action" is still plastic, and I bet it still makes that cheap plastic-y spring sound when you reload. I envision a precision steel mechanism with ball bearings that would require occasional lubrication to stay in peak performance. It would also not be Boba Fett. Maybe FDR.

Look Ma

The big LCD traffic advisory signs over the Long Island Expressway have lately been advertising the DOT's "511" service for accessing travel information from your cell phone. The display alternates between advising you to "DIAL 511 FOR TRAVEL INFO" and reminding you to "USE HANDS-FREE CELL PHONE WHILE DRIVING" (those might not be exactly the wording they use, but that's the gist).

That second message is the end result of 2001 legislation that prohibits cell phone use on the road in New York unless you use a hands-free device. It is now common knowledge that talking on a hands-free phone while driving is just as dangerous as talking on a handset. Even the DOT website acknowledges as much, and yet there's the LCD sign up there, telling you how to comply with the letter of the law while continuing to place yourself and your fellow road users at unnecessary risk.

The legislation in question was originally drafted as a ban on all non-emergency cell phone usage while driving, which makes sense: you can't force drivers to pay attention to the road, but you can remove some of the most obvious distractions. But the cell phone service industry lobbied hard against it, since they "sell" a lot of "minutes"1 to drivers who are (quite openly) trying to distract themselves from a monotonous commute.2

The resulting "compromise" is that you can still talk on your phone in the car, but you have to use a "hands-free microphone" accessory. It's a double victory for the phone companies, since they keep their bored commuter market and also sell more licensed hands-free accessories.

It sucks that this kind of lobbying can be successful. You can see that even though most people (even if they consider themselves an exception) can understand that talking on any kind of phone distracts people from driving, there's no way that that kind of broadly-held awareness can coalesce into any kind of organized lobbying interest that can compete with the phone industry. But I guess you'd hope that enough legislators would take their jobs as representatives of the people seriously enough that they would take up the public's side and recognize that yeah, even though cell providers make money off of it and would hate to lose that lost revenue, really everyone else would be better off if we got phones out of drivers' hands, so too bad, suck it up.

And maybe the compromise law is better than nothing, because now that it's on the books it can be amended to ban all cell use, or maybe challenged in court as not fulfilling its stated purpose (is that a thing?). Who knows. But it sure seems as though, with the DOT is basically running publicly funded ads encouraging drivers to use their (hands-free!) phones, the legislation as passed is worse than none at all.

1 How this can even sound like a plausible basis for an industry in the first place is a mystery in itself.

2 Note also that this whole situation arises as people attempt to lessen the burden of tedious automobile commuting. A much better response would be to figure out how to alter our world so that so many people don't need to drive so far to work every day.