Friday, February 29, 2008

Video Games don't kill people. Period.

Mark Chen linked to a fantastic article by an MIT professor who says what I've always believed.

Video games aren't dangerous.

Every time a kid shoots up his school, TV news blames video games. Even though 99.999 percent of video game players don't do that. The most conclusive any studies have gotten is that there is a weak correlation between violent entertainment and actual violence. But it's just as likely that people who grow up in violent, abusive environments and have violent lives prefer violent entertainment.

Given past studies that show violent movies actually result in a decrease in violence, and evidence (Brazil's recent experiment, for one) that access to guns is a much more relevant factor in violent crime, I wish TV news would get it together. But that's a much bigger issue.

Maybe I should put together some visually compelling footage of how destructive guns are, blowing up pumpkins, watermelons, etc. with firearms. But I'm too lazy.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Campaign Stories

As the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination continues, (grumble grumble Nader grumble), the story is emerging that the Obama campaign is better run than the Clinton campaign.

Given stories of money mismanagement, and obvious failures to get results in the form of votes, Senator Clinton's mantra about being ready to run a government does seem to ring hollow since she hasn't run the most effective campaign.

Maybe that's because of other factors, but it's a weakness.

I really thought the column linked above made its point well.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Sweeney Todd

I love the music of Sweeney Todd. And the movie does not disappoint. Johnny Depp is fantastic, as is Sacha Baron Cohen. Helena Bonham Carter is great, too. The songs have been in my head for days, ever since seeing it again. (Heck, hearing the review on NPR, which heavily quoted the music, planted the seed of that earworm.)

They cut some scenes, but mostly the chorus stuff, which was usually folded into the orchestration. The villanous judge's personality was cut down a little bit. I think it makes the story more tragic to have him be less detestable. Fascinating.

I also noticed that the funny parts of the script were deemphasized. It all fit together as one masterful artistic vision and story, and the parts that would have distracted from the main story were weakened or removed. Very well done.

Johnny Depp was particularly fantastic. I gained new understanding of the path of the character of Todd. He's dangerous, evil, vengeful, but then he snaps. It's awesome to behold. I look forward to seeing There Will Be Blood, because I'm believe those who tell me it's even better. But I have heard that it, like Sweeney Todd, is what all the previous work has been building to. The careers of Depp and Burton up to this point all laid the ground work and the foundation for this most excellent film.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

2 Liter bottle in space?

A guy in canada wants to shoot a pop bottle into space.

He's already gotten one to go 300 meters high. It'll take considerably more to get it higher. Like making a pop bottle out of carbon fibers. But 5 miles is a lot higher than half a mile.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Patent reform!

So, many years ago, the courts said you could patent "business methods" and basic computer algorithms. Like adding 2 and 2.

In recent years, the Supreme Court said that when you can't patent something "obvious", that means you can't patent something obvious. And now, the Court of Appeals is hearing a case that could overturn the business methods precedent.

This is good. This means that all the stupid people who patent obvious stuff might actually stop getting patents for stuff they didn't actually invent. Or at least courts could start throwing out dumb patents.

The patent system also needs reform so that bad patents don't get granted in the first place. Having courts that throw out bad patents is good. Not having them is better. (You just have to not keep it too tight so legitimate small inventors can still have the incentive to create.)

Monday, February 18, 2008

Religious Maps

I saw this map recently.

It's a map of which religion is dominant in which region. You look at it, and some unsurprising facts appear: the South is Baptist, Utah is mormon, and there are Lutherans in Minnesota.

At first, you think that Catholics are everywhere. But when you look at the index of maps, you find this one, the overall map of religiousity on an absolute scale. And you realize that while Catholics are the most numerous, they don't form a majority in Oregon. (You can also look at the map of Judaism, and see how they are where you expect, even if they never outnumber the Catholics.)

Friday, February 15, 2008

We're not overmedicated?

We all know that Americans are taking too many drugs. I personally have taught children who seemed totally fine when they failed to take their ADD medication. (I have also seen children for whom the difference between drugs and no drugs was night and day.)

A column I read today points to various studies and data that say that most people with mental heath problems don't get any treatment. Yes, the pharmaceutical corporations are making a lot of money. Yes, there are a lot of advertisements for these pills, and they're annoying. But are there truly a lot of people on medication who shouldn't be?

I think both stories are true. I think there are people on drugs who benefit. I think there are people, especially children, who could manage just fine without drugs. But now I wonder where the spectrum falls. Are the overmedicated people the minority? Are most people on drugs benefiting? Are most mentally ill people untreated?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

You can not like Hillary and not be sexist

I usually don't like Maureen Dowd. Her post-feminist writing sometimes lacks depth, painting all men and all women with one brush, failing to admit complexity. Or sometimes caricaturing the powerful and armchair psychoanalysing possible motives. Whether it's guessing VP Cheney's motives or Barack's, I'm not completely comfortable assuming I understand why they do what they do.

But in today's column, she observes that while Senator Clinton is getting all sorts of misogynistic hate piled on and feminist defense in support, she observes astutely that it's possible to sincerely choose another candidate for reasons other than gender.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Hegel's last words

I've always enjoyed Oscar Wilde's remark about the drapes. But Hegel's last words are so fitting:

"Only one man ever understood me. And he really didn't understand me."

Hegel is the hardest philosopher of all time to understand. His writing is a hundred times more obscure and reference filled than the worst of my obscure quotations. And I admit I can be awful.
My professor studied for years in Germany, and assured us it was NOT clearer in German.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Freedom of Speech means free to be dumb

A court ruled recently that Free Speech includes people anonymously flaming on internet message boards. So if you comment on this post, you're exercising your constitutional rights. Even if you're an ass about it.

This reminds me that I saw recently that Fundamentalist Muslims are trying again to censor images of Muhammed, this time in Wikipedia. I know that the very strong enforcement of the 2nd Commandment is a recent development in Islam, and there are lots of examples of images of Muhammed from early years. And I know that many Muslims today are deeply offended by any depiction of their prophet.

However, blasphemy is protected speech. That's the whole idea - you are allowed to offend others. We had better be fair about it, and protect people who desecrate Jesus, and people who offend my beliefs. But you're allowed to say anything. And I'm allowed to say you're wrong.
I think a cartoon showing Muhammed as half-man/half-pig is disgusting and hateful. But I think it should be allowed.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

We are good at learning language

This is so cool. In an experiment teaching toddlers words, scientists discovered we learn with patterns.

In the experiment, toddlers were shown pairs of images and played sounds of the names of the objects in the images. By rotating the different pairings, the toddlers were able to figure out the names of the objects. This worked for adults, too.

Our brains are able to notice which words go with which things, and puzzle out language. Go evolution!

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Paper ballots good

I'm glad I vote on paper.

Apparently not only is it easy to hack a Diebold voting computer, it's really easy to unlock. The locks they use are relatively easy to pick, and a guy made a key just by looking at a picture on the internet. And this is the one key to rule them all: it unlocks every Diebold voting machine in the country.

Even if vote tampering hasn't happened, there's no way to prove it. The government needs to let us fill out scannable ballots with #2 pencils, so we can recount them with our eyes if there's any question.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Where is my flying car?

I love this ad. Thank you IBM, for making it. Thank you YouTube, for sharing it.

Avery Brooks demands why, in the year 2000, we still don't have flying cars.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Nano news

I need to remember these stories for work.

We can make metals any color. Same structures as butterfly wings. Only crazy.

And carbon nanotubes are safe, and can be used to treat disease. Or they're poisonous. Go figure.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Really: Don't don't drink hot tap water

I'd always been taught to not drink water from the hot side of the faucet.

It's true. Hot water can take lead out of pipes and be unsafe to drink, especially for children. It's ok for washing bodies or hands or dishes. But not for drinking.

And boiling water distills the lead down, concentrating it. Dang.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Framing Debates

There's a great column in the New York Times that talks about how we frame ideas. Choosing different words has a huge effect on how we feel about stuff.

I don't think that the government necessarily should trick us into spending the tax rebate checks they're about to mail us. But it's important to know that these psychological techniques work. Call it a rebate, we save it. Call it a bonus, we spend it. Same money, different label, different behaviour.

Now, when it comes to economic stimulus, I'm swayed by Jerry Springer's argument that the rich already buy everything they want, while the poor will spend money if you give it to them, because they haven't bought everything they want. And David Sarasohn argues that if we increase spending in food stamps, it'll get spend faster than sending checks, because food stamp accounts can be increased in weeks, not months. And it'll all get spent. Feeding the hungry.