Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Our cute hamster

His name is Bandit. We gave him a cookie. He started by nibbling on it, and then became very enthusiastic about putting big pieces into his pouches.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Scott Adams regains the ability to speak

I had no idea that Dilbert creator Scott Adams had lost the ability to speak normally, but he reports in his blog that by speaking in verse he was able to re-wire his brain to get it working right again. That's pretty amazing.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

On alternative medicine

I liked this article about how research refutes the claims of various alternative medicines. It really bothers me how pharmaceutical companies get cast as villains while people will go ahead and trust alternative treatments without any kind of reliable scientific testing. I'm reminded of this Onion article, "Revolutionary New Insoles Combine Five Forms of Pseudoscience."

Have you seen this supposed health supplement "Airborne" that comes in a friendly, cartoon-covered box with the reassuring words, "Created by a School Teacher?" First off, why should I expect a schoolteacher to be an expert on health supplements? Shouldn't "Created by a Pharmaceutical Researcher" carry more weight? Obviously teachers come into contact with a lot of germs from students, but I would imagine one would build up some immunity after a while anyway.

The directions for this thing seem like a scam, too. How often do they recommend you take it? "Take Airborne a day or two before entering crowded places like airplanes, movie theaters or offices." "Many people do take one Airborne as a daily dietary supplement." Judging from their online pricing, that would come to about $300 a year. But how many times every year do you enter a crowded place and not get sick? I'm in an office nearly every day, and I caught a cold only once over the past year. That's not very much to begin with. But for eleven and a half months, my "do nothing" approach worked. If I were inclined to believe in Airborne and had been taking it, it might have sounded impressive to some if I were to go around saying I had taken it every day for nearly a year and hadn't gotten sick. Even including the last two weeks, where I did get sick, I imagine "I took Airborne every day for a year and only got sick once" could sell it for some people. That's how anecdotal evidence works. Most of the time, sure, you'll take it and not get sick. But that's because you usually won't get sick anyway.

If they were really interested in producing a product with verifiable results, they'd do scientific tests and actually come up with real evidence, not just anecdotes. If they're so confident their product works, why not test it so that they'll know for sure? Because it's a lot easier to cook something up in your kitchen and sell it with advertising, friendly cartoons, and gullibility, that's why.

Update: I knew I'd seen the cartoonists' work before; it's Lloyd Dangle, creator of the Troubletown strip found in alt-weekly newspapers. Dangle's got a blog entry comparing his work with the knockoffs on the boxes of drugstore generic brands. Of course, it's standard practice for the generic brands to copy the look and feel of the name brand, but it's pretty funny comparing Dangle's masterwork of commercial art with the cheap knockoffs (which, I'm sure, work just as well or as poorly as the original).

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

1 vs. 100

A few days ago over on Donna's blog I commented on what I saw as the problem (scroll down to Oct. 17 and read Comment #4) of the new game show "1 vs. 100." The easy questions are one thing, but the big issue is that there's little incentive for the contestant to do anything other than just build up to about $100,000 and then walk away from the game. I had originally criticized "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" for being too easy on the contestants before letting them see the question before deciding if they wanted to answer it, but I can see in 1 vs. 100 that if they have to decide before they see the question, contestants will just become very risk-averse, which makes for a boring finish. This problem is especially true when they may very well be risking their $100,000 in the bank just to get the chance to see the pot go up to, say, $148,000 or something. It's just not worth it to risk that amount.

Anyway, my nemesis Ken Jennings has the behind-the-scenes scoop on that show, and has the same issues with the format as I do. It's got potential, but they'll need to fix it or else viewers will just tune out.

(For those of you interested, the link under "my nemesis" is a full report on my Jeopardy! game against Ken.)

Friday, October 20, 2006

Endy's catch

So how about that amazing catch Endy Chavez made in last night's loss to the Cardinals? I was actually listening to the radio (ESPN Radio's Dan Shulman and Dave Campbell are so much better than the clowns Fox has announcing on TV) and from the way it was described I knew I had to see it for myself:
Another, closer shot:
Overall, a pretty ho-hum series, but that was a real doozy of a Game 7.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Idiocracy screenplay

Download a .pdf of the screenplay for Mike Judge's very smart, very funny satire Idiocracy.

Natural Wonders

Yesterday I mentioned various lists of Seven Wonders of the World. Did you happen to take a look at CNN's list of Seven Wonders of the Natural World? Here's their list:
  • Grand Canyon, Arizona
  • Paricutin volcano, Mexico
  • The harbor at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  • The Northern Lights
  • Mt. Everest, Nepal/China
  • Victoria Falls, Zambia/Zimbabwe
  • Great Barrier Reef, Australia
As a disclaimer, I should note that the only one of those sights I've seen is the Grand Canyon, but doesn't it seem like one of those seven is considerably less spectacular than the others? Yes, I'm referring to Rio de Janeiro harbor. From the photographs, yes, it does look very pretty, but aren't there beautiful harbors all around the world? They even admit that it's polluted and that one of the world's largest cities happens to have built up next to it. That bay they were paddling around in Vietnam on The Amazing Race last week looked more spectacular. I'll venture that the harbor in Rio de Janeiro isn't even the most wondrous natural sight in Brazil, or is the Amazon River and its rainforest just not all its cracked up to be?

I can't narrow it down to seven, but here's the most wondrous sights of the natural world that I've seen, in no particular order:

Don't count your chickens before they've hatched

Just about everybody talking about the upcoming election has been talking about how doomed the Republicans are, but I'll still go on record saying I think the result I'd be least surprised by would be for party control of neither the House nor the Senate to change. The big plus in the Democrats' direction, of course, is that the idea that the Republicans running the country have been doing a lousy job has finally expanded beyond the liberal base and has taken hold in the country's political center, and even with a lot of Republican voters. So there's a lot of anti-Republican sentiment, and indeed, when asked in a "generic poll" of which side a respondent favors, voters overwhelmingly favor Democrats.

But there's still a lot of obstacles the Democrats will have to surmount if they want to retake Congress:
1. People may not like Congress in general, but there's a good chance that they favor their own specific Congressman. They're the ones who voted him in in the first place, he shares their interests and gives them pork projects, etc.
2. Not only that, but, as I've said before, gerrymandering gives incumbents an even bigger inherent advantage.
3. While sentiment may be running particularly low on Republicans these days, the Dems haven't exactly rallied around many positive concepts that could define them beyond "not Republicans."
4. Gas prices have been dropping. This is kind of like the difference between somebody jabbing you with a pointy stick a lot and jabbing you with a pointy stick a little less often, but it at least makes people somewhat less dissatisfied about things.
5. Some candidates elected as Democrats might switch sides and become Republicans.

Basically, I think control of both houses of Congress are pretty much up for grabs. I wouldn't be terribly surprised either way, though I'd certainly be happy if the Democrats can pull through with a win, providing a necessary check on Bush's bad ideas for the last two years of his Presidency.


Hotel/casino mogul Steve Wynn sold Picasso's La Reve for $139 million and then accidentally poked a hole in it.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The "Seven Wonders" Parlor Game

With six of the original Seven Wonders of the World no loner standing, a group called New7Wonders is sponsoring a poll to pick seven new wonders of the world. They've narrowed things down to a list of 21:
  • Acropolis, Athens, Greece
  • Alhambra, Granada, Spain
  • Angkor Wat temple, Cambodia
  • Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico
  • Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  • Colosseum, Rome
  • Easter Island Statues, Chile
  • Eiffel Tower, Paris
  • Great Wall, China
  • Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey
  • Kiyomizu Temple, Kyoto, Japan
  • Kremlin/St.Basil's, Moscow
  • Machu Picchu, Peru
  • Neuschwanstein Castle, Fussen, Germany
  • Petra ancient city, Jordan
  • Pyramids of Giza, Egypt
  • Statue of Liberty, New York
  • Stonehenge, Amesbury, United Kingdom
  • Sydney Opera House, Australia
  • Taj Mahal, Agra, India
  • Timbuktu city, Mali
The only one of those sites that I've visited is the Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto. It's quite nice, but I'd pick the Todaiji Temple in Nara with its giant Buddha over the Kiyomizu. The rest all sound like fascinating places, but personally if I had to pick seven from the list, I'd definitely go with the Pyramids at Giza and the Great Wall of China, and then for the next five, probably Angkor Wat, Chichen Itza, Easter Island, the Eiffel Tower, and Machu Picchu. Maybe the Taj Mahal over one of the other sites.

What do some of the rest of you who may have seen more of these in person think? What would you add to the list? Wikipedia has some other wonder lists people have compiled.

One good source for ideas is the much larger list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites; I've visited three in Japan, one in Mexico, and nine in the United States (including Puerto Rico). A couple of those weren't really "full" visits, just brief drive-throughs and such.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Liberalism vs. libertarianism

There's a good discussion of left-liberalism vs. libertarianism on Matthew Yglesias's blog here. I particularly liked the arguments by the commenter who calls himself "StJoe." My thoughts in a nutshell: hands-off governments and free-market approaches are good starting points, but we need to be aware of the limits of these tactics when they meet the real world. And, as StJoe points out, libertarians have a tendency to only see government coercion as a bad thing, and are blind to other forms of social coercion. Completely free markets are largely theoretical constructs when one considers how we're constrained by our access to capital, information, etc.

That said, Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom was a very inspirational book that convinced me on the basic value of a free market over a top-down controlled market. But I still think he has too much trust in the market's ability to fix problems on its own. I also think that libertarians do have too much trust in people's ability to make good decisions on their own, and government regulations are something of a bulwark against that. Some of that is because we're never completely informed of all the variables and possible consequences, but time after time we can see that people do not always make decisions that are in their best rational interest.

"Splitting Images"

Check out this list of celebrity impersonators available from a British company. Click on the names for photos. Most of the impersonators look maybe about one or two degrees closer to the celebrity they're impersonating than an average person dressing up as that celebrity for Halloween would, although remember that the Clint Eastwood or Ronaldo impersonator you hire for your party is probably going to have an English accent, which can't help matters. I get the feeling that these Tiger Woods or Mariah Carey impersonators didn't even go out and buy new clothes before trying to land gigs at corporate events. Some of the pictures just look frightening.

What goes through the mind of a woman who realizes she qualifies as a Camilla Parker-Bowles lookalike? I also have to wonder what universe England is in when someone can be paid money to appear as a Raisa Gorbachev impersonator.

Or, even in England, I have to imagine the only use for a Linford Christie impersonator might be for if you're planning some kind of real estate fraud and you want to bring in a Linford Christie lookalike to show prospective marks that you're legitimate because you've got a national hero backing their investment.

Political Quickies

1. Cartoonist Peter Bagge satirizes anti-immigrant hysteria.

2. Suggestions on making single-payer health care an option, not a requirement.

3. While Caltech's been shut out, Americans have run the table on this year's Nobel Prizes so far. While we do have some legitimate contenders for the Literature prize, it's likely that even if Philip Roth or Joyce Carol Oates takes that one our streak will be snapped when the Peace Prize gets announced on Friday. Slate says the smart money on the Peace Prize is for somebody involved with the Aceh peace process.

4. Apropos to the redistricting stuff I spoke about earlier, I got my sample ballot in the mail and noticed that in my Congressional district (CA-32), the Republicans don't even have a candidate on the ballot. It's just Democratic incumbent Hilda Solis vs. Libertarian "stockbroker/composer" Leland Faegre. More on how redistricting rigs elections. I'm voting for Solis, but I feel like a chump for having the election decided back when they drew the district lines a few years ago.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006


Considering that the NLCS begins tonight and the Dodgers got knocked out four days ago, I'd better blog about it now before the Dodgers' season turns from old history to ancient history. Obviously, it's disappointing to see the Dodgers get swept again. Since 1988 the Dodgers have somehow managed to win only a single game in their four trips to the postseason. They usually field a good team, but rarely do they put together a great team. What added insult to injury was how in the elimination game, so many Mets who hurt them were ex-Dodgers, from the much-missed Paul LoDuca and Shawn Green to Guillermo Mota and even Jose Valentin. Man, that stung.

I'm not sure which direction the Dodgers will be going next year. Free agents Nomar and Gagne are great contributors and fan favorites as long as they stay off the disabled list, which seems to be pretty difficult for those two. A lot of rookies made big contributions this year, and will likely get better next year (and for a discount price, too), so presumably we'll have money to spend on free agents. I don't think we've really had a big-impact slugger since we traded Mike Piazza, and while some people tout Derek Lowe or Brad Penny as Cy Young candidates, that's mostly because the pickings are so slim in the NL this year; another top-grade starting pitcher would give the bullpen more rest.

It's hard to see the future, though; if the young players play to their potential and we make a couple of good free agent signings, we could have a great team next year. But if we instead see the Andre Ethier of September, the post-All Star Break Matt Kemp, injuries, and/or free-agent fizzle-outs, we could be in for a bad one. I really can't say.

I will say that the Tigers seem to be the Team of Destiny right now. Their pitching looks phenomenal and their offense is putting hits together when they need to. The celebration at Comerica Park when they beat the Yankees in the ALDS was the biggest outpouring of joy I've seen on a ballfield for anything short of an actual World Series championship.

I'm having a hard time feeling excited about the NLCS, however. I'll have to watch it tonight and see what sort of vibe I get. I may end up on the Mets' side after all just to cheer on Lo Duca and Green.

Correction: Jose Valentin, not John Valentin

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Baseball postseason

I'm not going to bother making predictions; there's plenty of guys on ESPN or SI who can break things down and tell you Yankees-Mets is the most likely (and most boring) outcome. Obviously I'm pulling for the Dodgers all the way, but I have a lot of other horses in the race. The Tigers are the best story of the year, redeeming nearly two decades of awful baseball with a miracle first half of the season that still got them into the playoffs when they cooled off in the second half. After the Dodgers, I'd be happiest to see them take it all.

Conversely, I'd root for anybody except the Giants or the Cuban National Team against the Yankees, the most obnoxious franchise in North American sports. Their cross-town cross-league rivals aren't much better.

Inbetween are four teams I don't really actively like or dislike. The Padres are semi-local and always seem to trip up the Dodgers, but it's hard to have hard feelings for a team that carried fellow Long Beach Poly Jackrabbit Tony Gwynn on their roster for 20 years. The A's are the Moneyball poster boys, which makes me want them to win to rub it in the traditionalists' faces, and makes me want them to lose to rub it in the faces of those who think Billy Beane is god. The Twins are hard not to like after nearly being contracted a few years ago, and their teams of 1987 and 1991 were full of all sorts of warm, fuzzy moments. The Cardinals... eh. They've got the best player in baseball, they've got great fans, they've got a weird manager, and they're a perennial contender who hasn't won the Series since 1982, but I find it hard to get excited about them.

In short, here's my ranking of all 8 playoff teams. Use this chart to see at a glance who my rooting interest is for any potential matchup, but note that positions 3 through 6 are subject to change due to compelling performances or stories during the postseason.
  • 1. Los Angeles Dodgers
  • 2. Detroit Tigers
  • 3. San Diego Padres
  • 4. Minnesota Twins
  • 5. Oakland Athletics
  • 6. St. Louis Cardinals
  • 7. New York Metropolitans
  • 8. New York Yankees

For example, in the Division Series, I'm pulling for the Dodgers, Tigers, Padres, and Twins. But if the ALCS ends up as, say, A's - Yankees, I'd become a temporary Oakland fan.

Three Recommended Movies

1. You may not have heard of Idiocracy, the latest from Mike Judge. That's because after keeping it on their shelf for a while, 20th Century Fox unceremoniously dumped it in a few theatres in only a handful of the major markets, spent what looks like about five bucks on the advertising, didn't screen it for critics, and didn't even assemble a trailer. All that for a guy who brought us the cult classic Office Space, the seminal "Beavis and Butt-head," and "King of the Hill," a show that's been a mainstay on Fox's TV network counterpart for the past 10 years.

Anyway, that's why I should have recommended the movie three and a half weeks ago when it opened and I saw it, not now, when for all I know the Academy theater in Pasadena may be the only place in the country where it's still playing. This thing needs all the help it can get. What it is is a satire about an average guy played by Luke Wilson who finds himself 500 years in the future, where society has devolved into a bunch of drooling idiots obsessed with sex, violence, and name brands. There, he finds that his average intellect makes him the smartest man in the world, and the people of the future appoint him Secretary of the Interior and ask him to solve all their problems.

Is the movie uneven? Yeah. But is there a lot of smart, funny stuff in it that will have you shaking your head at the idiocy in today's society while chuckling for weeks at the many quotable lines? Yes.
2. As is often the case, the inimitable Vern speaks the truth about the new Tony Jaa martial arts movie The Protector, or, as Vern would prefer, Where are My Elephants? I really have no idea how coherent this movie was before the Weinsteins got their hands on it and edited 20 minutes away, but it sure isn't coherent now. The flip side of that, though, is that they basically left us with nothing but wall-to-wall martial arts action. If you missed Jaa's Ong-Bak, this guy has the agility and inventiveness of Jackie Chan combined with the raw ass-kicking ability of Bruce Lee. The acting, script, direction, production values in general, etc. for this thing are all subpar, but trust me here, Tony Jaa is so electrifying that you won't care.

3. If you're wondering what the deal is with the movie ratings system in the U.S., you should really make an effort to see This Film is Not Yet Rated, a new documentary by Kirby Dick (Chain Camera, Derrida) about the Motion Picture Association of America. Dick exposes them as a secretive cabal that claims to allow freedom from government censorship while providing a useful service to families, whereas in actuality they exist to help the major Hollywood studios make as much money as they want while putting a happy face on the movie industry for the American public. The two main problems with the MPAA are that they operate as a secret, faceless, arbitrary bureaucracy that only works openly with the big money in Hollywood while leaving independent artists in the dark, and the fact that by rating movies they become a de facto censorship board, one that is extremely lenient on violence while being excessively harsh on movies that treat sexuality like an adult would. I knew a lot of what was in this movie already, but it lays out its case very well and can serve as a real eye-opener. It's entertaining, too; Kirby Dick is an accomplished documentarian, not just somebody with an axe to grind and a camera.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Iraq: The World's First Suicide State?

I find myself baffled by much of the Iraq war and can offer little in the way of productive advice (besides "why not avoid policies that don't accomplish much but piss a lot of people off?"), so there's something to be said about this article by Brendan O'Neill about how he finds himself baffled by the Iraq war, offering little in the way of productive advice. On the other hand, I'm not sure if I agree with him about the lack of ideology in the insurgency. O'Neill seems off-put by the "lack of politics" of the insurgents, but it seems to me their actions are motivated by an effort to use chaos as their weapon to destroy any efforts to produce a governed, even halfway-modern state so that they can instead have a land ruled by theocratic, hard-line mullahs. Just take a look at Somalia for a blueprint; the first strong government emerging there after 15 years of anarchy is one ruled by Islamic militants.

Update: I corrected the sentence up there to read "...policies that don't accomplish much...," which was my original intent.

Precision vs. Accuracy

Electoral-Vote.com has an instructive post today about the difference between "margin of error" and accuracy in a poll, and about the importance of which questions are asked in what order. To a certain extent I think sites like this that predict the outcomes of elections are misleading, since they present what looks like a full prediction, like "48 Democrats, 52 Republicans," when in reality several of those races are too close to call statistically.

Namesake vindicated

Sound analysis indicates that Neil Armstrong really did say "One small step for a man..."

I received my middle name, Neil, in honor of Armstrong, having been named after the first man on the Earth and the first man on the Moon.

Update: Hey look, I'm famous! This post got linked to on Slate (scroll down to the bottom).