Sunday, August 31, 2008

Meanwhile in New Orleans

Joseph Romm has written up a sobering analysis of how global warming could make hurricanes such as Katrina and Gustav both stronger and more likely to occur:
How did Katrina turn into a powerful Category 5 hurricane ? The National Climatic Data Center 2006 report on Katrina begins its explanation by noting that the surface temperatures (SSTs) in the Gulf of Mexico during the last week in August 2005 “were one to two degrees Celsius above normal, and the warm temperatures extended to a considerable depth through the upper ocean layer.” The report continues, “Also, Katrina crossed the ‘loop current‘ (belt of even warmer water), during which time explosive intensification occurred. The temperature of the ocean surface is a critical element in the formation and strength of hurricanes.”

An important factor was that the ocean warming had penetrated to a considerable depth. One of the ways that hurricanes are weakened is the upwelling of colder, deeper water due to the hurricane’s own violent action. But if the deeper water is also warm, it doesn’t weaken the hurricane. In fact, it may continue to intensify. Global warming heats both the sea surface and the deep water, thus creating ideal conditions for a hurricane to survive and thrive in its long journey from tropical depression to Category Four or Five superstorm.

So Why Do I Continue to Pay Attention to CNN?

Two reasons, basically of equal importance.

First, a huge number of other people around the world watch and read CNN's stories. If I were to immerse myself exclusively in new media sources, I'd have no idea what the average person was actually hearing about the state of our crazy planet.

Second, CNN is fast, fast, fast. They update more quickly and in a more user-friendly way than anyone else. The truly excellent news sources I prefer to use are much smaller and more financially limited organizations. They simply can't provide the scope of coverage that CNN can.

There's also the occasional excellent story or essay I run across on CNN's site, but some small quantity of precious stones can be found scattered about in any sufficiently large muddy swamp.

But back to my main two reasons for getting news from CNN. Could those reasons go away? Perhaps.

Addressing the second reason first, we may be seeing just the faintest first glimmers of an alternative to CNN's organizational structure, which tragically links ubiquitous access and super-fast filing times with shallow reporting and a constant fear of rocking the boat and losing its mainstream audience. Take note of how I syndicate content produced by such excellent and discipline-specific writers such as Glenn Greenwald and Joseph Romm. A loose network of writers distributed both in terms of geography and field of expertise may eventually be able to provide ubiquity and speed on a level that could compete with the likes of CNN.

Think of it as open source journalism. Rather than manufacturing a news product through the use of a stultifying byzantine hierarchy infected throughout with corporate hacks, this new network could operate based on voluntary syndication of content created locally under the direction of a set of standards agreed upon by some form of consensus amongst those taking part. These ideas are far from well-formed at this point. But hopefully posting them here will help change that.

So what does an open source news network need? News consumers of course, but concerning ourselves with them first would put the cart before the horse--an apt analogy as journalists are to a large degree horses that pull passive consumers along on an intellectual journey through the world. Hopefully, if someone builds it, they will come.

Continuing to work backwards from the consumers, the next logical step is the publisher. In the digital age, publishing isn't difficult. Any old website will do. And if our goals are ubiquity and speed, then it seems like a good idea to let anyone who wants to be a publisher be one. The only requirement is that they include the ads integrated into whatever content they receive. Let them add in more of their own ads if they want. As long as the original ads are included (as they are in the monetized RSS feeds I syndicate on my shared items site), whoever initially put out the item in question will continue to receive revenue from it.

Editors may or may not play an important role in open source journalism. Traditionally, editors exist to point reporters in the right direction and make sure their output is of sufficient quality. But if anyone can report and write whatever they want, there may be enough wheat mixed in with the chaff such that publishers would be able to reject any low-quality content. Thus, market forces could directly drive journalists in the direction of quality reporting and writing.

In order for open source journalism to be able to compete with an organization such as CNN, there would need to be quite a substantial network of participating writers. And as I said earlier, the participants would need to be spread out all over the place and have some degree of expertise in numerous different fields. Such people need not be full-time employees of any news organization, so they could potentially significantly outnumber the personnel even the largest news behemoth is able to employ.

Note: Though I've been using terms like "writer" a lot in this post, all of this could also apply to people creating audio and video content.

The small contributions of individuals writing about what's going on in their geographic proximity and/or field of expertise could be woven together by interconnected networks of gatekeeper-publishers. Perhaps the end product could be something as comprehensive as CNN's website. And perhaps it could even be of higher quality.

Whether or not such a system is practical, there's no doubt that some bloggers are currently engaging in reporting that is vastly superior to what's available through the mainstream media. The radical disparity between the mainstream media and the blogosphere in coverage of the current government crackdown against anti-RNC protesters in Minnesota proves this point beyond any reasonable doubt.

Currently, however, there isn't a good way to aggregate such reporting into a single news source that a casual news consumer (as opposed to a writer/nerd like me) can easily access. Unless and until we find a solution to this problem, only a small number of people are ever likely to read these stories even though they're so much better than what's available at mass market sites.

Update on the Mayhem in Minneapolis

Glenn Greenwald continues to describe the situation on the ground as well as engaging in excellent legal analysis, reporting that, unsurprisingly, the federal government is involved in raids on protesters:
As the police attacks on protesters in Minnesota continue -- see this video of the police swarming a bus transporting members of Earth Justice, seizing the bus and leaving the group members stranded on the side of the highway -- it appears increasingly clear that it is the Federal Government that is directing this intimidation campaign. Minnesota Public Radio reported yesterday that "the searches were led by the Ramsey County Sheriff's office. Deputies coordinated searches with the Minneapolis and St. Paul police departments and the Federal Bureau of Investigation."

Mincing no words, Greenwald directly and chillingly concludes:

Any rational person planning to protest the GOP Convention would, in light of this Government spying and these police raids, think twice -- at least -- about whether to do so. That is the point of the raids -- to announce to citizens that they best stay in their homes and be good, quiet, meek, compliant people unless they want their homes to be invaded, their property seized, and have rifles pointed at them, too. The fact that this behavior is producing so little outcry only ensures, for obvious reasons, that it will continue in the future. We love our Surveillance State for keeping us safe and maintaining nice, quiet order.

However, it seems increasingly likely that Hurricane Gustav will force the GOP to radically truncate its convention. So perhaps this nauseatingly authoritarian crackdown will turn out to have been for naught.

Obviously, my plans to head up to Minneapolis Wednesday night are very much up in the air at this point.

The Nile Valley Restaurant's Buffet is Delicious

I just finished one of the best lunches I've ever had eating out in Iowa City. Though I'd noticed the Nile Valley Restaurant, 335 S. Gilbert St., before, only today did I get around to giving it a try. If you like Mediterranean dishes such as hummus, baba ganoush, and falafel, this the place for you.

Though there are plenty of menu options available, the all-you-can-eat buffet only costs seven dollars and allows a person to sample the numerous available dishes. And despite my high opinion of the lunch buffets at Thai Flavors, Masala, India Cafe, and David's Place, Nile Valley has managed to rocket to the top of my list of places to eat enormous amounts of tasty, nutritious vegetarian food in Iowa City. Its wide selection of both hot and cold dishes is especially impressive. And the buffet is even available during the dinner hour, too.

Nile Valley has a website listing their menu, hours, etc.--check it out.

Some Thoughts on the Nature and Importance of Freedom

I went out last night and had a truly grand evening in downtown Iowa City. While my friends and I were at a bar, one of my them tried to walk outside to talk to some people who were smoking there. However, the bouncers quickly rebuffed him because he tried to carry an alcoholic beverage out into that establishment's beer garden after it had been closed down for the evening.

These events sparked a conversation between another friend and me about our experiences in Beijing, China. I spent much of the summer there two years ago and she did the same this year. Despite many Americans' belief that China is a totalitarian state in which all behavior is highly regulated, the truth is that in many ways those living in Beijing enjoy more freedoms than we have here in Iowa City. It's true that the vast majority of China's citizens lack the ability to vote in meaningful elections and that attempts at organizing political dissent are quickly quashed. But in their daily lives Beijing's residents are free to do anything we can do here. That city's citizens can work and live where they please as well as spend the money they earn on a wide variety of consumer goods and services. And when it comes to certain types of recreational activities, those living in Beijing have much freer reign than those of us in Iowa City.

For one thing, Beijing either doesn't have or doesn't enforce laws against carrying open alcoholic beverages in public. During my time there I saw numerous university students walking around campus late at night with open beers in hand, talking, laughing, and having an all-around good time. I indulged as well, often sipping liter bottles of beer on the steps of my dorm and talking with my classmates. We would wave in a friendly fashion to any police or security guards who happened to walk buy and they'd generally smile and wave back.

Furthermore, Beijing has no smoking ban. Want to smoke on campus? No problem. Want to smoke in a bar? Go right ahead! Have an urge to light up in your dorm's lobby? Have at it--the security guards stationed in your building are likely to join in. Attempts to micromanage individuals' private activities are noticeably absent in China.

There's no question that I value my political rights in the United States to a great enough extent that I'd be quite unwilling to trade them for the simple individual freedoms enjoyed by Chinese citizens. However, there's no reason we can't have both. Tragically though, most Americans seem to have lost interest in preventing the government from engaging in whatever arbitrary nanny-state nonsense its bureaucrats choose to pursue at any given time. In the name of democracy and the alleged public good we allow our city government to forcibly detain people and lock them up for doing something as innocuous as sipping a beer or puffing on a cigarette in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Maintaining a reasonably safe environment for the city's residents is indeed the whole reason we have a city council and police for in the first place. But we've given them carte blanche to regulate almost anything they see fit in virtually any manner they see deem appropriate. This is madness. We must push back against this encroachment of our basic liberties and demand that the government justify all its actions thoroughly and reasonably.

Ultimately, people have to take responsibility for themselves. Engaging in risky behavior ought not be grounds for getting drug off the street and locked up in a cage for the night unless that behavior puts other, non-consenting people in danger. Strolling through the Ped Mall with a beer can in one's hand a a cigarette hanging from one's lips just doesn't rise to that level.

Because the government has proven itself so thoroughly incapable of restraining itself, we must organize and push back against it ourselves. Remember, local-level elections are notorious for their low voter turnout. It is well within the power of the freedom-loving denizens of Iowa City to reverse the alarming trend towards group control of people's lives and reestablish liberty as the highest value and ultimate goal of our polity.

How to Get Out (and Stay Out) of Iraq

Thomas Barnett lays out the best strategy for leaving Iraq such that we are least likely to ever feel pressured to return:
With American combat troops now slated to depart Iraq by 2011, our intervention moves into its final phase, with the crucial goal being the expansion of economic opportunity for ordinary citizens.

Our - and Iraq's - success here will determine the likelihood of our military's return down the road under less favorable circumstances.

Much is made of Iraq's seeming unwillingness to spend its oil profits on infrastructure, the assumption being that Baghdad is milking American taxpayers. Let me offer another explanation: Iraq lacks sufficient "counterparty" capacity to negotiate, conclude and manage the necessary deals with the outside world.

He goes on to argue that helping Iraq develop that ability over the next two years is key to the success of our withdrawal.

Barnett's new book, in which he lays out his vision for America's role in the world after George Bush's ignoble rule ends, comes out early next year.

Sarah Palin...arg!

I'm going to get on board with Christopher regarding Senator McCain's VP pick. Sarah Palin is in no way, shape, or form a good choice for America. Saturday was McCain's birthday. By now, concerns regarding his age have been adequately voiced. Any Republican VP nominee must be scrutinized extensively, as relying on the vitality of the presidential candidate is a dubious endeavor. In a clear display of political pandering, McCain, now 72, chose Palin to lure disappointed Clinton supporters. It is absurd, if not insulting, for anyone to assume that supporters of Hillary Clinton would fall in line with McCain, simply because he has chosen a woman running mate.
Clinton supporters were not behind Hillary simply because she was lacking a Y chromosome. They believed then, and still do, that Hillary was the best candidate for the Democratic party. These voters rallied behind a candidate that did not believe creationism should be taught along side evolution in public schools.They supported a candidate that would not continue to argue against global warming. Furthermore, they voted for a candidate that, as a woman, would understand the importance of choice.
I have always appreciated McCain's "straight-talk." A phrase, which now brings bile to the back of my throat. Every quality that had once endeared me to McCain, now forces me to gnash my teeth in disdain. McCain is no maverick and his running mate is an insult to the intelligence of the American public.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Meanwhile in Minneapolis

The abuses of police power in Denver last week are already being greatly surpassed by what's going on up in Minnesota.

Throughout the day today Glenn Greenwald has been reporting on some massive police raids on suspected protestors in Minneapolis:
Protesters here in Minneapolis have been targeted by a series of highly intimidating, sweeping police raids across the city, involving teams of 25-30 officers in riot gear, with semi-automatic weapons drawn, entering homes of those suspected of planning protests, handcuffing and forcing them to lay on the floor, while law enforcement officers searched the homes, seizing computers, journals, and political pamphlets. Last night, members of the St. Paul police department and the Ramsey County sheriff's department handcuffed, photographed and detained dozens of people meeting at a public venue to plan a demonstration, charging them with no crime other than "fire code violations," and early this morning, the Sheriff's department sent teams of officers into at least four Minneapolis area homes where suspected protesters were staying.

I highly recommend clicking through and reading his extensive posting on the ongoing situation.

In addition to writing about what's happening, Greenwald and his associates have also uploaded the following two videos to YouTube:

Brendan Kiley has also been doing some good reporting about the raids:

An older woman, walking her dog, walked by while Branch was telling his story. “I’m so sorry my city is treating visitors this way,” she said. “The mayor lives in my neighborhood and I’m going to call him about this!”

The raids are, among other things, stranding visiting protestors without lodgings. (If anybody in the Twin Cities areas wants to host a visitor or two, many of whom have brought tents and sleeping bags, call the “housing hotline”: 612-419-7809.)

Of course, as always, the storm troopers in question could rely on CNN to fail to even bring up any First or Fourth Amendment issues in their article:

Police raid headquarters of RNC protesters
St. Paul Police spokesman Tom Walsh said they were executing a search warrant.

"The cause for the search warrant is not public at this time," Walsh said.

The cause for the search warrant is pretty obvious: intimidating protesters out of exercising their constitutional rights. But don't get me wrong. Most of these self-described anarchists are fringe nuts whose primary impact is to make anyone who tries to raise some of the issues they're concerned about appear as crazy as they are.

Of course the police need to be able to conduct legitimate searches for legitimate threats, but that simply doesn't seem to be what happened today. And if these kids don't have any rights to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures or to the freedom of speech or to peaceably assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances, then none of us do. First they came for the anarchists, then they came for the outspoken journalists, etc.

I'm not suggesting that the mainstream media have to argue that the police acted in bad faith in situations such as this. That's what opinions writers such as myself are for. All I'm saying is that not even questioning the police about the searches' legitimacy or asking a couple of law professors to comment on that issue is a serious betrayal of journalists' alleged role as the Fourth Estate.

But the good news is that--barring excessive interference by Hurricane Gustav--I'll be traveling up to Minneapolis Wednesday night and staying through Friday morning. Though I don't have credentials to get me into the convention itself, I'm confident plenty of interesting action ought to be going down outside the glorified circus that is the main event.

Anyone have a motorcycle helmet I can borrow? I may need one as much as Hunter S. Thompson did in Chicago in 1968--wearing one protected him when the police beat him up while he was covering the melee the Democratic convention sparked that year.

Note to CNN: Presidential Elections aren't Games

CNN's coverage of McCain's choice of Palin for his running mate is every bit as vapid and shallow as I imagined it would be:

Palin: Pioneer, maverick -- and now game-changer
What do we know about Sarah Palin, the 44-year-old first-ever female governor of Alaska, wife and mother of five, and now GOP vice presidential nominee?

On Friday, a new part of her identity dominated the political scene: game-changer.

She enters an already historic election, knowing well two of the biggest things McCain needs her to do: shore up votes among social conservatives and win over disaffected Hillary Clinton-supporting Democrats, many of them women.

Hey, Josh Levs (the hack writer behind the above article), your research abilities are apparently about as faded and vanishingly miniscule as your byline. But don't feel bad--I wouldn't want my name particularly visible on such a trite piece of nonsense.

This isn't a game. It's an election--and an damned important one.

John McCain is 72 and has a history of malignant skin cancer. His VP has to be ready on day one. By which I mean ready to lead, not ready to pander to disgruntled women who think supporting female candidates regardless of their political positions is in some way indicative (let alone compatible!) with serious feminism.

And as I've already pointed out, what we know about Palin is that she denies humanity's role in global warming and thinks creationism is worthy of time and attention in our nation's already embarrassingly low-quality science classrooms. She, like George W. Bush, obviously puts ideology ahead of empirical reality.

All this horse race reporting is pure horse shit. It's so self-referential and devoid of meaning it would make Derrida blush. Of course Palin's alleged identity as a "game-changer" is dominating the "political scene." It's all the hacks in the mainstream media are babbling about. How are substantive issues supposed to enter the public discourse of journalists don't bring them up?

Friday, August 29, 2008

Obama's Ratings

Over 40 million people tuned in to watch his acceptance speech Thursday night.

(Via Bleeding Heartland.)

Sarah Palin is a Far-Right Ideologue

Rather than yammering on about whether Sarah Palin was a "smart choice" for John McCain's running mate, the media should be focusing on whether she has a history of making smart choices. She doesn't.

For one thing, Palin denies that greenhouse gas emissions from human industrial activity are causing climate change.

Furthermore, she continues to prove her obvious lack of scientific knowledge by arguing that creationism ought be taught alongside evolution in public schools. Unsurprisingly, the religious right loves her.

Oh, and she's not on the record as having any foreign policy views of any kind.

Sarah Palin is embarrassingly unfit to be president.

But what she a "smart choice" for McCain? I guess we'll have to wait and see.

I just know she wouldn't be a smart choice for America.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Nano Flaws?

A couple of days ago, a UI alumnus named Addison Killean Stark who has degrees in chemistry and mathematics wrote the following letter to the editor, criticizing a column I wrote about the future of molecular manufacturing:
In his Aug. 1 column, "Ending scarcity," Daily Iowan columnist Christopher Patton argues that nanotechnology, and particularly molecular manufacturing, could spell the end of economic scarcity. However I contest that Patton's argument is flawed on a number of levels.

First, and perhaps most importantly, Patton assumes that the raw materials for such a process would be "abundant" and "cheap." However, if we as a society were to build the majority of our consumer products from the atomic level up, an incredibly large source of ultra-pure atoms would be needed. Additional mining and industrial chemical processing would be required to supply the market for these chemical feedstocks. Hence, we would still be dependent on scarce resources that, under these new market pressures, would become more expensive and scarce.

Additionally, Patton does not consider the energetic costs of manipulating systems at the molecular level due to entropic limitations and system inefficiencies. As we have learned from recent global developments, energy is neither an abundant nor cheap resource.

I do believe that molecular manufacturing may play an important role in high-tech manufacturing (such as for the development of ever faster and smaller microelectronics) where material scarcity and cost is less of a concern than the performance of the end product. Patton's overly optimistic argument lacks any firm scientific, technological, or economic reasoning, and it should be taken with the largest grain of salt that you can molecularly manufacture.

This video provides a thorough refutation of all of Stark's points:

Yep. Plants. The very existence of life is the proof of concept for robust molecular manufacturing.

Plants synthesize large-scale structures from individual molecular components all the time--it's called "growing." They don't need a clean room to accomplish this; any dirty old field will do just fine. And they don't need to be hooked into the power grid either, as the sun provides them with all the energy they need.

If one were to compare the quantity of biomass assembled by plants each year with the quantity of the output of all of humanity's factories, it's pretty obvious which would be greater. Yes, we obviously don't yet have the technological know-how needed to mimic life's intricate molecular machinery. But when we reverse engineer it, making most of what we need will get a lot easier.

Regarding Stark's criticism of my lack of scientific citations, I'd like to point out that I only get just over 700 words for my columns. Also, I write for a popular audience and try not to bore them. However, I did toss out MIT researcher Neil Gershenfeld's name at the end. Anyone with an Internet connection can easily Google him and learn more about his work, which is fascinating.

There are also plenty of other great nanotechnology websites to explore. I particularly recommend checking out the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology. Of course it's possible all these people are overly optimistic about the promise of molecular manufacturing. But it's not as though I'm just making this stuff up. No one who had really looked into the matter would suggest that I am.

Police Brutality at the DNC

As with the ABC incident I blogged about earlier, one would think the police would learn to avoid doing stuff like this with cameras rolling:

(Via City Pages.)

But so many people have video cameras in their cellphones now that there are almost always cameras rolling. Maybe someday the countless videos like this one online will add up to some political pressure in the direction of training police officers not to hit people for no reason. Maybe.

Two Tips of the Hat to ABC News

First, check out this story about a journalist from ABC getting arrested for photographing Democratic Senators and they fraternized with VIP donors:
Police in Denver arrested an ABC News producer today as he and a camera crew were attempting to take pictures on a public sidewalk of Democratic senators and VIP donors leaving a private meeting at the Brown Palace Hotel.

Police on the scene refused to tell ABC lawyers the charges against the producer, Asa Eslocker, who works with the ABC News investigative unit.

But wait, it gets better (by which I mean worse):
During the arrest, one of the officers can be heard saying to Eslocker, "You're lucky I didn't knock the f..k out of you."

Of course this sort of thing happens all the time. However, police are usually smart enough not to mess with organizations as big a ABC. Especially when the cameras are rolling. I hope ABC doesn't just let this go.

Second, check out this excellent video report about an anti-drug police operation gone terribly wrong.

Again, this sort of thing happens all the time. But the police usually have the good sense not to get pretty, college-educated white girls killed. I'd be really impressed with ABC if they'd start reporting on how much this sort of things goes on in America's inner cities.

Note to Hillary Haters

See, she knows how to be classy:

(Via Sullivan.)

Bill was pretty forcefully supportive as well.

I fully admit I got a little carried away in my criticism of the Clintons during the primary. We should all use this as a lesson in keeping calm even in the heat of a contentious political contest--including the upcoming election.

Demonizing one's political opponents can be counterproductive because it can make one look fanatical to undecided voters thus rub them the wrong way. It's entirely possible to attack people's ideas forcefully without becoming obnoxious. Preaching to the choir can be fun, but it doesn't accomplish much. Remember: aim for the undecided.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

An Urgent Question

How can we as journalists best transcend the ideological divisions that are so deeply embedded (perhaps irrevocably) in our discourse and thought? Or, put another way: How can we best convince those with whom we disagree on fundamental issues that we still desire in good faith to engage in a legitimate conversation?

Because that's clearly what we need. The issues our society faces are too profound for us to remain satisfied with talking past each other most of the time.

Ideas, please!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Meanwhile in Denver

Unfortunately, no one from the Daily Iowan is in Denver to cover the Democratic convention and the antics surrounding it. But plenty of other journalists are--and the Internet allows me to direct you to their work, so that's what I'll do throughout the week.

Continuing its involvement with political coverage this election season, Google provides a number of ways to check up on events in Denver this week and in Minneapolis later on. Check out the numerous interesting political links on Google's corporate blog if you want in on the action.

For some insightful criticism of the protesters outside the convention, check out this post by Eli Sanders:
It occurred to me during a cold shower yesterday—a nice way to cool off when it’s in the 90s here in Denver, and a good place to hide out and think when you’re crashing in a tiny apartment that’s quickly becoming a journalist tenement—that the DNC protesters must not have been watching the Democratic primaries.

The entire protest movement here is organized under the rubric of “Recreate ‘68,” no doubt meant to evoke a certain nostalgia for a time when hippies and other anti-war protesters famously confronted the Democratic party establishment in Chicago over the Vietnam War and the lack of openness in the convention process at the time. On the plane here I was reading an old photocopied magazine clipping from 1968 that Annie Wagner pulled out of a drawer at her Seattle apartment the other night. It’s Esquire magazine’s take on the 1968 protests and police violence, written by Jean Genet, William Burroughs, Terry Southern, and John Sack. It’s an amazing collection of work, and it’s quite possible that a lot of the younger “Recreate ‘68”-ers here in Denver have no idea who most of those writers are—which is part of the point they’re missing.

Also via Slog, here's an entertaining clip of protesters interacting with a Fox News reporter (warning: profanity abounds):

Unsurprisingly, both the protesters and Fox News reporter come across as jerks. But the reporter's assertion that the protesters don't believe in free speech is pretty stupid. Of course they do--that's why they're so happy to suggest that some unspecified person or group of people have intercourse with the Fox network.

Not all free speech is intelligent speech, as both Fox News and wacky leftist protesters demonstrate on a regular basis.

Back to School/Work

Greetings, dear readers, and welcome to the new school year at the UI. Despite my busy schedule (and propensity to prioritize socialization over many other possibly more productive activities), I'll be doing my best this semester to post at least once per day. Hopefully, I'll be able to do better than that.

However, the purpose of this post is to ask for assistance. If you read this blog, try to post a comment now and then. Doing so provides me with feedback and incentive to post more. If you don't comment, I don't know you're reading my diatribe.

And if you wonder where I get all of my weird ideas, check out my shared items page--that's where I post much of what I read. The url is pretty easy to remember:

Finally, I'm a perfectionist so this is hard as hell for me, but I'm going to throw caution to the wind and stop concerning myself with making sure my posts here are always stylistically pleasing--or even grammatically correct. Perfection (well, ideally) is for the print edition. This is all about spontaneity and speed.

And here we go!

Monday, August 18, 2008

More Questions Regarding the Anthrax Case

Glenn Greenwald continues to ask the questions the mainstream media fails to even consider in their coverage of the largely-ignored anthrax attack mystery:
The more that is revealed about the FBI's still largely-secret case against Bruce Ivins, the more doubts that are raised about whether their accusations are true. A particularly vivid episode illustrating how shoddy the FBI's case seems to be occurred in the last several days.

Ever since the FBI accused Bruce Ivins of being the sole anthrax attacker, one of the most glaring of the many deficiencies in the FBI's case is the complete lack of evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, placing Ivins at the New Jersey mailboxes (the proverbial "scene of the crime") on either of the two dates on which the anthrax letters were sent.

Read the whole post here--we can't let this get swept under the rug.

Humanity's Shared Ancestry

My discussion yesterday of computer translation tearing down language barriers and uniting humanity as never before got me thinking about our species' origins.

Here's a fascinating TED (the annual technology, entertainment, and design conference in Monterey, California) lecture about humanity's common ancestors and how advances in genetics are allowing us to sort out our tangled, ancient family tree.

(I attempted to embed the video in my blog post, but Blogger seems not to like the TED conference's flash code. If anyone could help me troubleshoot that, I'd appreciate it immensely.)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Onion on the Miller Case

As usual, the satire is top-notch--despite the seriousness of the actual story:
A University of Iowa professor is accused of fondling students in exchange for higher grades. What do you think?

The Internet's Future

Vint Cerf, one of the guys who actually invented the Internet and currently a Google vice president, argues that we've only seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the global computer network's social, political, and economic effects:
The web is already making strides toward becoming truly global. While I was chairman of ICANN, one of the organisations that helps ensure that the internet works uniformly around the world, we adopted rules to allow the system of domain names to accommodate non-Roman characters, making the web more accessible to people whose languages use other scripts, such as Arabic, Korean or Cyrillic.

There are improvements in automatic language translation tools and, in particular, the field that we call machine learning. It is already possible to do a Google search and explore the results in English across web content in 23 different languages, from Czech to Hindi to Korean. Speakers of any of those languages can now explore content on the web written in any of the others.

The technology isn't perfect yet, but it's rapidly improving. Even in its present form, it's easy to imagine a not-too-distant future in which automatic translation will allow two people in the world to message one another in real time, each experiencing the chat in his or her tongue. Just imagine what a significant step that will be.

The end of the language barrier will unite humanity as never before. Social organization around the globe will change radically. With geographic and linguistic obstacles to collective action removed, it seems only cultural and ideological distinctions will remain.

Nation states as we know them might lose control. But what will replace them?

(Via /.)

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Recommended Multimedia

Experienced science journalists George Johnson and John Horgan's quasi-weekly Science Saturday diavlog on is generally informative. This week they discuss such topics as the Large Hadron Collider, animals that seek out drugs, and how the Internet encourages critical thinking.

Friday, August 1, 2008

No Fast Food for You!

Slate has an excellent article up about the insanity of banning new fast food restaurants from poor areas:
The war on fat has just crossed a major red line. The Los Angeles City Council has passed an ordinance prohibiting construction of new fast-food restaurants in a 32-square-mile area inhabited by 500,000 low-income people.

We're not talking anymore about preaching diet and exercise, disclosing calorie counts, or restricting sodas in schools. We're talking about banning the sale of food to adults. Treating French fries like cigarettes or liquor. I didn't think this would happen in the United States anytime soon. I was wrong.

The authoritarian nature of this ordinance is breathtaking to me. The government ought not to even have this kind of power--regulation, yes, flat-out bans such as this, absolutely not.

Seriously, who do the Los Angeles city councilors think they are? And what do the think they're doing? Protecting poor people from making bad decisions? Why don't we just assign them jobs, housing, and ration cards already? Is there any part of their lives the nanny state shouldn't control?

On a side note, I'm no longer a metro reporter. Thus, I'm free to go off on as many anti-nanny state tirades as I see fit. Brace yourselves!

(Via Radley Balko.)

Recommended Multimedia

Francis Fukuyama and Robert Kagan discuss the meaning of the economic successes in China and Russia, despite a decided lack of multi-party democracy in either country.

As always, we in the US need to be careful not to throw stones lest we shatter the intricate, ornate glass house in which we live.

About those Anthrax Attacks

Glenn Greenwald asks some disconcerting questions and suggests some terrifying answers:
Clearly, Ross' allegedly four separate sources had to have some specific knowledge of the tests conducted and, if they were really "well-placed," one would presume that meant they had some connection to the laboratory where the tests were conducted -- Ft. Detrick. That means that the same Government lab where the anthrax attacks themselves came from was the same place where the false reports originated that blamed those attacks on Iraq.

It's extremely possible -- one could say highly likely -- that the same people responsible for perpetrating the attacks were the ones who fed the false reports to the public, through ABC News, that Saddam was behind them. What we know for certain -- as a result of the letters accompanying the anthrax -- is that whoever perpetrated the attacks wanted the public to believe they were sent by foreign Muslims. Feeding claims to ABC designed to link Saddam to those attacks would, for obvious reasons, promote the goal of the anthrax attacker(s).

I highly recommend reading the entirety of Greenwald's post on this matter. These are questions that demand straight answers, both from the federal government and from ABC.

Ending Scarcity

All economic systems thus far have been based on allocating scarce resources. Nomadic tribes clashed over the best hunting grounds, agricultural fiefdoms sought control over the most productive farmland, and industrial nation-states have warred over large mineral deposits. Historically, there simply hasn't been enough food, shelter, and consumer goods to go around. Thus, those with the most brute force backing them have traditionally taken what they wanted at the expense of those who were helpless to stop them.

Thankfully, however, not all of economics is zero sum, meaning that getting more for oneself doesn't always require taking something from others. Advances in the power of technology and the sophistication of social organization has allowed the human race to radically expand the size of the pie from which all our shares are cut. In an undeveloped state, any given area of land can only support a relatively small number of hunter-gatherers. But the advent of agriculture enabled an enormous increase in food production per square mile, allowing the development of cities. And industrialization has made mass production possible, providing the average person access to more manufactured goods than would have been imaginable before.

Supposing that further increases in available resources through advancements in technology and social organization won't happen would make little sense, given what we know has transpired in the past. In fact, a paradigm shift every bit as disruptive as the agricultural and industrial revolutions experienced thus far is rapidly approaching.

Increasingly, discussions of developments in the field of nanotechnology are moving out of publications geared only toward scientists or futurists and into the mainstream media. Nanotechnology simply refers to technology that involves the use of nanometer-sized objects - a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. Though this relatively young field of science and engineering has many potentially promising applications, the most important by far is molecular manufacturing.

Molecular manufacturing is exactly what it sounds like: constructing artificial objects using components and processes at the molecular scale. Currently, electronics manufacturers are creating computer chips composed of transistors measuring only a few tens of nanometers across. In cutting-edge research projects, scientists and engineers are learning to build numerous types of structures at an equally minuscule scale. Eventually, these techniques will enable us to build almost anything from scratch.

One of the most important facts one needs to understand in order to grasp molecular manufacturing's full potential is that the vast majority of the products we use in our daily lives are composed of complex arrangements of just a few basic elements. Readily available raw materials can be combined to create almost any substance a person could ever need. Types of atoms that are uncommon on our planet's surface are important as well, but they are only needed in very small amounts.

Once molecular manufacturing has grown out of the lab and matured enough to achieve mass commercialization, material scarcity as we have traditionally known it will come to an end. Imagine a machine approximately the size of a car that is capable of printing out any desired object so long as it is supplied with the requisite elements, energy, and design schematics. If such a device were run on solar or wind power and were connected to the Internet, anyone in possession of one could at no cost over that of abundant, cheap raw materials easily create any object with its plans available online.

The most radical thing such a universal micro-factory would be able to do would be printing out all of its own parts. Thus, these amazing machines will be capable of reproducing themselves. If such a device were capable of manufacturing all of its components in a 24-hour period, then one could hypothetically go from having one such machine to having 1,073,741,824 of them in a single month.

Some researchers in the relevant fields, such as Neil Gershenfeld at MIT, believe advanced molecular-manufacturing technology will be available within the next twenty years. If this turns out to be correct, the world we know is about to be turned on its head. Without scarcity there would be no need for capitalism. All people would be able to provide for themselves directly.

(Cross-posted on the DI's main website.)