Friday, April 27, 2007

U.S. Military = Green Lantern Corps?

Matthew Yglesias's Green Lantern Theory of Geopolitics sounds wacky but actually does a pretty good job of describing what the problem is with how Bush and his supporters view the war in Iraq, and more specifically why they want to run Harry Reid out of town on a rail when he says the war is lost (i.e., shooting the messenger).

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Please Sponsor My Walk Against Hunger

Howdy folks. This Sunday, April 29, I'll be participating in the Peninsula Harbor CROP Walk. This is a 10-km walk around the streets of fabulous San Pedro, California to raise funds for Church World Service's interfaith efforts to fight world and local hunger. My sister is a high school teacher and is heading a team of some of her students called Team Jester (after the St. Joseph's HS mascot). You can find out more about Church World Service here.

Donation is easy! Just follow this link and you will be taken to my personal donation page where you can make a secure online credit card donation. Donations of any amount are appreciated.

I used to do the Long Beach CROP Walk every year when I was a little kid and it was always a happy event.

UPDATE: The walk went well. San Pedro is HILLY. I was pretty pooped when I was finished, but a good time was had by all, and thanks to anyone who made a donation.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Escape from Iran

This is a pretty fascinating story (found on Mark Evanier's blog - dig the awesome Jack Kirby design work) about how the CIA turned a group of American consulate staffers into a fake sci-fi film crew to escape from the Ayatollah's revolutionaries in 1980.

Monday, April 23, 2007

A Trip to the Carrizo Plain

Sunday I went for a long (~350 miles) afternoon drive, heading over the mountains and into the Carrizo Plain National Monument, a little-known valley in the southeastern corner of San Luis Obispo County that preserves a large stretch of native grassland.

On the way out, I passed through the western corner of the Antelope Valley on CA-138, where there were some pretty neat clouds coming off of the mountains.
I don't know what this property was, but they had a lot of bones in their fence.
I got off I-5 at CA-166 and took this photo looking south at Wheeler Ridge from the overpass.
Finally I reached the Carrizo Plain (the south entrance) with about an hour left before the sun went down.
Only about half of Soda Lake Road is paved; the rest is passable by an ordinary 2WD vehicle, but it's rocky enough to be annoying.
The Carrizo Plain is extremely serene; my whole time there I saw only two other vehicles.
I think this sign means "watch for tule elk." I didn't see any of them, but I did see a pronghorn antelope, which Wikipedia says is the second-fastest land animal on earth (58 mph, slower only than a cheetah). CORRECTION: Upon further review, I'm pretty sure this is a sign warning of pronghorn, not of tule elk. These folks agree. I think they chose a weird angle on the horns for the silhouette.)
You can, of course, add pronghorns to the list of animals I've seen in the wild. The one I saw was crossing the road. It saw my car and quickly ran away before I could take a photo. This is what one looks like (photo from Wikipedia).
Incidentally, there's been something of a controversy with the CPNM over the past few weeks, as the Wilderness Society wanted to nominate the area as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but some locals thought this would lead to further restrictions on their land. The Board of Supervisors voted against supporting the nomination, and they received criticism from some circles for passing up a possible worldwide recognition.

You can follow the debate in the San Luis Obispo Tribune's pages here, here, here, here, here, and here.

A Good Reminder About the Saints

James Martin, S.J., reminds us that being canonized does not mean that a person was without flaws, even after their conversion. This is a big misconception about saints that a lot of people, Catholic and otherwise, have, and I'm glad to see it clarified in a secular forum.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Top 20 Democratic Candidates

Monday I noted that I could think of reasons why the top 3 candidates of either party wouldn't win*. John Moe of McSweeney's has me beat by listing pros and cons of the top 20 Democratic candidates, including a few you probably hadn't considered.

*For the record:
  • Hillary: Lots of people intensely dislike her. Seems phony.
  • Obama: Seems vaguely foreign. Maybe too far left.
  • Edwards: Nice, but seems kinda like a lawyer.
  • McCain: Lost credibility as a maverick when he became Bush's big supporter.
  • Romney: Flip-flopping Mormon from Massachusetts.
  • Giuliani: Not going to make a lot of friends in the Bible Belt.
Dark horse bonuses:
  • Richardson: Has substance, but lacks top-of-the-ticket charisma.
  • Gore: Not running. Polarizing. When he acts natural, he seems like he's following a consultant's advice to "act natural."
  • Newt Gingrich: I don't think Republicans realize how unlikable this guy is to the general populace.
  • Fred Thompson: Seems like the poor man's Ronald Reagan, a desperate ploy by conservatives unhappy with the choices they've got.
Nevertheless, of course, somebody's going to win.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

More Guns => More Crime or Less Crime?

Megan McArdle has what are at least the first steps towards a theoretical model relating the prevalence of guns to crime levels. As far as I know, it's untested against real-world data, and I don't necessarily agree with all the assumptions being made, but as a first-order approximation, it makes a certain amount of sense:

In other words, the curve will peak near the point where the majority of criminals who want guns have them, and the majority of law-abiding citizens do not.

In my view the biggest assumption being made here is the idea that we can neatly divide the world into criminals (who use guns for nefarious purposes) and law-abiding citizens, who do not do so. We can do "more likely" vs. "less likely," but I'm worried that this model neglects how easy access to guns can enable a formerly-law-abiding citizen to elevate a fit of passion to greater lethality.

UPDATE: This discussion on BoingBoing led to this academic paper analyzing data on multiple shootings vs. state laws readily allowing concealed weapons. The data strongly support (more so than I had expected) the theory that "shall carry" laws prevent mass shootings. Virginia has such a law, but handguns were not allowed on campus.

UPDATE 2: Check the comments for a link to an article pointing out serious flaws in the aforementioned paper's research. I've only given a quick read to both the original paper and the response and haven't scrutinized the data in either one; I'll leave the links up to let you make your own conclusions.

UPDATE 3: Meteor Blades on Daily Kos has some very well-reasoned thoughts about what level of gun control vs. gun freedom he'd like to see; his positions closely mirror my own, with the caveat that I don't actually own any guns myself.

Cho Seung-Hui's Plays

For those among you interested in the macabre, a classmate of Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui has posted what appear to be (unless this is a hoax) two of the plays he wrote for a class, Richard McBeef and Mr. Brownstone. I read them; they're really lousy. They're also quite angry and juvenile; in retrospect, of course, it seems obvious that Cho was disturbed (and maybe abused).

But you know what? There are a lot of depressed, disturbed young people in this country, but 99.999% of them don't become mass murderers. One might have concluded that a writer like this might attempt suicide or something, but there's no way a teacher or classmate could have predicted he'd go so far. So I'm not really sure we can learn from this. The guy needed help, but I don't know how much you can really expect the people around him to have done. Do we really want anyone who writes an angry play to be sent to a psychiatrist?

Monday, April 16, 2007

Va. Tech Shooting

Last night before going to bed I was looking at a Virginia guidebook and wondered where Virginia Tech was, because I wasn't sure what the full name of the institution was to search for it. (I had turned off the computer for the night.)

This morning I got into work, checked the news online, and, well, I found out where Virginia Tech was. But I would have rather not found out that way. Yeesh. That's really awful.

Every once in a while an event comes along that seems mandatory for bloggers to comment upon, but it's not like anybody's really going to have anything new to say right now, since we hardly know any of the details of the situation. That doesn't stop a lot of people from using the occasion to say that it proves their position on gun control, whatever that position might be. I could construct scenarios that support either side right now, but without knowing more details it's just conjecture, and I'd be speaking from a position of hindsight, anyway.

I wrote about guns a while ago here. I think anybody who says, "If only [insert speaker's position on gun control] were the law, then this wouldn't have happened" is wrong. Or at the very least, any law in one direction is going to have tradeoffs in some other direction. Not to say I'm a nihilist - I'm not - but we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking any solution we come up with will be all-powerful to stop violence.

This is also probably a mental health issue, too, but, again, musing on that would also be a matter of conjecture.

NOTE: I've been tweaking the wording of this post here and there.

John McCain's Moment has Passed

Fred Kaplan at Slate skewers John McCain's position on the war:
To put it another way, he's a stalwart for the war as long as he has to appeal only to hard-core Republicans (who still support the war)—yet he'll accede to reality (and the views of the broader American public) after he's cleared that hurdle and won the party's nomination.

Ouch. Remember when it used to look like John McCain was going to be President someday?

Truth be told, though, I can take the top 3 candidates from both major parties and give you reasons why each of them can't win. And yet, most likely, for one of those six individuals, I'm wrong. I hope it's Obama.

Friday, April 13, 2007

D&D final episode script

Remember the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon from back in the 80s? Remember how the series ended without the kids ever getting back home? Michael Reaves, who wrote many of the episodes, has posted a screenplay for a potential series finale that was bought by the production company but ended up orphaned, never produced. I hadn't seen that show since it was first on the air, but I could imagine how it would look pretty well from the teleplay. It would have made for a pretty satisfying finale.

MORE: I got the pointer (and the screen grab) from Mark Evanier's site, which is just chock-full of stories about the entertainment industry, stuff behind the scenes in the comic book business, and a bizarre multi-page collection of reviews of "Great Los Angeles Restaurants That Ain't There No More" which mostly ends up being vivid stories about entertaining places that he admits had mediocre food. I have a feeling that if I had a time machine and went back several decades just to visit as a tourist, I'd be really disappointed by the food.

Phantom Pickoff

Check out this amazing decoy play that the University of Miami pulled on Wichita State in the 1982 College World Series. The Miami Herald has an article remembering the play in today's paper. Even better than the hidden ball trick.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

L'affaire d'Imus

I remain dumbfounded that Don Imus making a crass racist/sexist comment became a news item for an entire week. Firing him is worse than he deserves, but I'm sure he'll find a slot on satellite radio or something in a few months.

LAist's Tony Pierce (who is black) made a good point:
Last week UCLA accepted 11,837 new students, but only 392 were black. This is in the wake of last year's disgrace of only accepting 249 black freshmen with just 100 actually enrolling. To me that is way more troubling than a cheesy DJ trying to have some sort of edge, because it shows a major university in a large city faced with an obvious problem but still can't find more than a handful of blacks to offer a higher education.

Either it means that blacks, particularly those in LA, are not getting proper high school educations that would make them eligible to attend their local UCs, or UCLA doesn't really give a shit. Those are issues that I'd rather the press be focused on right now instead of Al Sharpton and Don Imus posturing and tapdancing.

Incidentally, I think the source of the problem is more likely the former than the latter. The problem, of course, is bigger than just UCLA; the problem is that across America from kindergarten through high school, a lot of black students aren't getting the education they need to succeed. There's a lot of reasons why this is, and fixing the problem is going to take a lot of work from a lot of different angles. But really, I think at this point --- 140 years after slavery but only 40 years after desegregation (my own father graduated from a segregated high school in Florida) what the black community needs is a couple of generations of black children wanting to succeed in school, believing they can succeed in school, and given the tools and attention they need to succeed in school. Do that, and nobody's going to have to worry about affirmative action, the disintegration of the black family, the huge number of black men in prison, or even idiots on the radio.

UPDATE: I should probably note that I've never listened to Imus's program myself, so I couldn't tell you how much of a pattern the notorious comment was. I couldn't even tell you if his show was on the air in L.A.; I never came across it myself. In the mornings, I typically listen to Adam Carolla, Kevin & Bean, a CD, or baseball news on XM.

Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles

And so do I!

A 52-minute video is about 50 minutes longer than I'm normally able to tolerate watching on my computer, but I absolutely loved this BBC documentary from 1972 in which British architecture professor Reyner Banham takes us on a tour of L.A. Reyner visits many of my favorite spots in the city and has a wonderful attitude. He appreciates the good stuff.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

News Flash: David Sedaris makes stuff up

Jack Shafer of Slate is shocked, shocked to discover that not everything humorist David Sedaris says is 100% true:
If writing fiction is the license Sedaris and other nonfiction humorists need to get at "larger truths," why limit this exemption to humorists? Let reporters covering city hall, war, and business to embellish and exaggerate so they can capture "larger truths," too. I'm sure that Stephen Glass, Jayson Blair, Christopher Newton, and Slate's "monkeyfishing guy" would back this idea, especially if applied retroactively.
You might think from that excerpt that Shafer is kidding, but read the whole thing; he's dead serious. How much of a moron do you have to be to not see the difference between somebody telling funny stories about playing Santa's elf in a department store and somebody trying to present fakery as serious journalism?

The commenters in The Fray are all defending Sedaris, as well they should. I know Slate thrives off of articles that buck conventional wisdom, but I have to wonder why an editor didn't sit down with Shafer and tell him the lighten up.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

News about Organisms

1. A study suggests that early organisms on Earth were purple.

2. A dead sperm whale washed ashore in Isla Vista, and a UCSB student was arrested for trying to take its teeth.

Check out the new links

Check out the sidebar on the right, where I've added and organized a whole bunch of links I frequent. Peruse these to peer into the mind of Adam Villani.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Odd Lists

1. Wikipedia has a list of people currently in space. Right now the list has six people on it, which is accurate.

2. You can also see the comings and goings of the various members of Black Sabbath, of whom there have been no fewer than 22! Believe it or not, the list includes one founding member of The Clash.

Friday, April 06, 2007

In the news

1. The L.A. Times is reporting that a study in the journal Science is predicting that climate change could result in a permanent drought throughout the Southwest by 2050. Note that the model used increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere until 2050, at which point they would begin to decline. Let's hope we can get them to start declining sooner.

2. The freed British sailors are recanting the statements they made under duress while being held in Iran. It's great that they were able to get back home peacefully, but I'm pretty sure Ahmadinejad sees this whole venture as a victory on his part. Message to the world: go outside your territorial waters, capture British sailors, blatantly lie about where you captured them, make them and the British leadership look like fools for a couple of weeks, and then look magnanimous when you offer them back as a "gift" on a religious holiday. And oh yeah--- the whole thing points out how the U.S. and U.K. aren't in much of a position to complain about Geneva Convention violations. What a revoltin' development.

3. A condor flies in San Diego County for the first time in 97 years.

4. God bless Steve Lopez, an L.A. Times columnist who's managed to survive the recent downsizing of the paper's staff, and is now wasting no time going after the paper's new owner for how he and his neighbors in Malibu are blocking access to a public beach.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

The IRS is Friendly and Efficient

So, a few weeks ago I received a letter in the mail from the IRS saying I owed them $4,854. Needless to say, I found this alarming. Upon inspection, however,I realized that what had happened was that somehow the IRS took the stock options I had exercised in 2005 (and had already paid taxes on) and decided that the gross of those stock sales was unreported income. In other words, back in 2005 I got a net of somewhere in the neighborhood of $4,000 on the exercise, which I had then paid taxes on, and now the IRS thought that I had $17,000 of unreported income. So I got various documents from my old employer and the broker, filled out some IRS paperwork, wrote a cover letter, put them all in an envelope, and before planning to take them over to the post office, I decided to call up the IRS to make sure I was doing everything by their deadline.

After introductions, the conversation went basically as follows:
Me: I'm wondering if I'm OK on the deadline or if I need to ask for an extension.
IRS lady ("Mrs. Boyington"): First, what was the issue?
Me: I exercised some stock options and I got a letter saying I owed taxes on the gross, not the---
Mrs. Boyington: Stock options? Oh, OK. I can take care of that.
Me: Really? I have the paperwork here that I was going to send in.
Mrs. Boyington: That's not necessary. I can make this go away here on the phone.

So it all got taken care of in about a 3-minute phone conversation. Thanks, IRS!

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Bad Place Names in Virginia





Montana Quarter

I acquired a Montana state quarter over the weekend. They certainly have the most badass quarter design thus far.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Jellyfish with human-like eyes

Here's the article. Yearrghh! These fuckers give me the willies.