Thursday, May 17, 2007

Slow chase: The New York Police Department has just bought a fleet of ten Segways for its patrols. I have to admit that I’m skeptical: How, exactly, is this any different from walking? Even at top speed, a Segway is only a little faster than running. But apparently the NYPD thinks otherwise. Thanks to the Times for picking this up:

Ten of the two-wheeled Segways are to be deployed today as patrol vehicles on pathways and boardwalks in parks, at beaches and at stadiums, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said at a news conference yesterday.

Twenty-five officers have completed training as Segway drivers, he said, enabling them to maneuver the devices safely for up to eight continuous hours.

“Their obvious advantages are visibility and mobility,” Mr. Kelly said. He was referring to the battery-charged agility of a Segway, which can roll up to 12.5 miles per hour, and to the imposing stature the devices tend to give officers, who are eight inches off the ground and ride standing up.


The potential for preventing crime, and arresting lawbreakers, remains to be seen. Mr. Kelly said that the Segways would be driven only on marked pathways or boardwalks, and that officers would be under strict orders not to venture on city streets or sidewalks.


Whitewash: After the 2004 election, the Election Assistance Commission ordered a study on vote fraud and voter intimidation throughout the country. The end result was, in a surprise for those of us who have seen no data indicating significant vote fraud, a study that said that vote fraud was a pervasive problem. Slate got their hands on a first draft, though, that says exactly the opposite — just like the chapter on global climate change in the EPA’s annual Report on the Environment, which was edited by political apparatchiks to downplay the evidence for global warming. What insight the draft of this paper on vote fraud lends us into this White House.

In their “predecisional” draft (excerpted below and on the following four pages) [Job] Serebrov and [Tova] Wang reported that “the only interviewee who believe[d] that polling place fraud is widespread” was Jason Torchinsky of the American Center for Voting Rights, a conservative organization that’s been accused of fronting for the GOP. (It’s Republicans who typically complain about voter fraud, because the allegations are usually directed at minority and low-income voters who tend to vote Democratic.) Most other interviewees, though not unanimous, showed “widespread … agreement that there is little polling place fraud” (Page 4). Nonetheless, the draft report observed, the Justice Department’s public integrity section is pursuing voter fraud cases energetically: “While the number of election fraud related complaints have not gone up since 2002 … the number of indictments the section is pursuing” against “alien voters, felon voters, and double voters” has risen substantially (Page 5).

Serebrov and Wang submitted their initial findings to be “vetted and edited” by an Election Assistance Commission working group. That’s when the hackwork began.

The final report asserts, falsely, that “there is a great deal of debate on the pervasiveness of fraud in elections.” Wang, the Democrat, has objected in writing that this and other revisions were made “without explanation or discussion.” A gag order in the original contract forbids her to discuss the matter. Serebrov, the Republican, isn’t happy either. The New York Times reported (subscription required) that he complained to a staffer for the Election Assistance Commission that neither consultant “was willing to conform [their] results [to] political expediency,” and that Serebrov “could care less that the results are not what the more conservative members of my party wanted.”


A train runs through it: The Times’ “The Lede” blog reports on the first trains to cross the DMZ between South Korea and North Korea, one going each way. This is the first time that a rail link — even just as a publicity stunt, like this one — has existed between the two countries since 1951. Holy cow:

Aboard each train were 100 South Koreans and 50 North Koreans, including "celebrities, politicians and a South Korean driver from one of the last trains to cross before rail links were cut in 1951," Reuters said.

After traveling about 15 miles past the zone into the other nation, both trains returned to their starting points. No plans to begin regular rail service were announced.

In South Korea, the event was covered live by all major networks. North Korea noted the event in its enigmatic way, releasing a four-paragraph report from its official news agency, according to Reuters. That report does not appear to be posted on the official site so far, but a visitor can find “Greetings to Norwegian King” and an ode to “Favorite Bean Foodstuffs.”

As the Northern train arrived in South Korea, it bore a sign on the front reading "The Train Once Boarded by Great President Kim Il-Sung," the nation’s version of "Elvis slept here."


Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Now they'll really love him on the South Side: If you go back far enough, everyone has some interesting historical footnotes. Like me being very, very distantly related to Johann Strauss the composer, for instance. It doesn't say very much about you, if you ask me. Nevertheless, seems to have discovered good, solid evidence that Barack O'Bama has a little Irish brogue in him:

The junior senator from Illinois, seeking the Democratic nomination for the White House, has made much of his background as the son of a Kenyan father and American mother. Far less publicized is the European side of his family tree -- including, new research has found, a great-great-great grandfather from the heart of Ireland.

A genealogy Web site,, has spent months looking to pin down the origins of Obama's ancestors -- including Fulmouth Kearney, who immigrated to the United States at 19 and has ties to Obama's Kansas-reared mother, Ann Dunham.

Kearney is a common name in Ireland with roots in many counties. But the Utah-based organization got lucky when it made a call in March to Canon Stephen Neill, a parish priest from the Anglican-affiliated Church of Ireland.

Neill had just inherited rolls of baptisms, marriages and deaths dating back to the 1700s from a late parishioner, who had kept the records in her home. In the index he found Joseph Kearney, Fulmouth's father, a cobbler in the village of Moneygall, County Offaly -- which, back in those days of British rule, was known as King's County.

Neill hadn't been told by researchers why they wanted to know about the Kearneys of Moneygall. When he called them weeks later with his find, he was surprised to learn that Fulmouth was an ancestor of the Democrats' rising star.

"Everyone here says he's going to have to call himself O'Bama from now on,'' Neill said in an interview. "People are fascinated that such a remarkable man, and a potential president of the United States, could be connected to such a tiny, unremarkable place as Moneygall."

The village today is home to about 300 people, has two pubs, a Catholic church, and a Gaelic sports ground. A busy highway cuts through the middle.


Road to somewhere: Where I live in Orlando, all but one of our limited-access highways are toll roads, and the tolls are expensive enough. In China, where tolls are comparatively more expensive and where the rule of and respect for law has always been compromised by bribery and money, people are going to seemingly ridiculous lengths to avoid tolls. So some villagers are striking back:

By 2020, if all goes as planned, China will have completed almost 53,000 miles of expressways, a network roughly equivalent to the Interstate System in the United States. China considers expressways crucial to maintaining its economic growth and developing its western and interior provinces.

But the cost is so exorbitant that China is financing much of the system with tolls that are, by Chinese standards, pricey.

Two people who should know are Mr. Wang and Mr. Gu. The two men — who were nervous about divulging their first names to a snooping foreigner — are posted at a dingy intersection in this farming village in Hebei Province.

Not far away is a highway tollbooth. Every day cars and heavy trucks, as steady and determined as a trail of ants, try to skip the toll by cutting through the village on a narrow road.

Mr. Wang, 65, and Mr. Gu, 58, try to send them back. They say the tollbooth operator is paying the village a monthly fee to help crack down on toll jumpers. For its part the village is trying to stop heavy trucks from ruining its roads. The two men regulate traffic with a long, crooked stick that goes up and down like a crude crossing barrier.

Mr. Gu does the talking. Mr. Wang wields the stick.

“Can I get through?” one motorist asked on a recent afternoon as other cars waited.

“No,” Mr. Gu replied. Only local people are allowed to pass.

“Is there any other way around the toll?” the driver asked, smiling. “Come on, let me through.”


Monday, May 14, 2007

Someone needs less caffeine in her life: In Springboro, Ohio, an admitted Starbucks addict is giving up the juice after she found an anti-religious quote on her paper cup as part of the company’s program to spur discussions between their customers. The cynic in me says that, having just about killed local coffee shops like Evanston’s Unicorn Cafe, which have served as discussion-places since the 17th century, now Starbucks realizes their value. Anyway, only in America could this happen, I think:

[Michelle Incanno would] buy the company’s coffee beans every week. Whenever she’d get the chance to drop by a Starbucks, she would, placing the same order every time: a large, house brewed coffee with nonfat milk and two Splenda. When the Seattle-based chain opened a drive-through near her Springboro home, she was in java heaven.

That was until she got an unexpected jolt last week from her coffee cup.

Printed on the cup was: “Why in moments of crisis do we ask God for strength and help? As cognitive beings, why would we ask something that may well be a figment of our imaginations for guidance? Why not search inside ourselves for the power to overcome? After all, we are strong enough to cause most of the catastrophes we need to endure.”

It is attributed to Bill Schell, a Starbucks customer from London, Ontario, and was included on the cup as part of an effort by the company to collect different viewpoints and spur discussion.

“As someone who loves God, I was so offended by that. I don’t think there needs to be religious dialogue on it. I just want coffee,” said Incanno, a married mother of three who is Catholic.


P.S.: I know I’ve been away awhile. My time at work is much, much busier now than it was when I started this blog. But I’m going to try to get back into it.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Jesus Is Just Alright: Since the 2004 election plastered Democrats as “out of touch” with “values voters,” I’ve been keeping a little catalogue of all of the various times that I see liberal writers, bloggers and politicians pointing out that much of the political philosophy that Jesus himself argued for is fairly liberal, all things considered. Mark Kleiman wins not only this week’s prize for best reference, but vaults himself nicely into the Top 10 all-time by making it a parenthetical, for writing it from a Jewish perspective, and for getting in a knock at kashruth laws, all at once:

[I]t’s also true that the worldwide Sexual Purity League, no matter which religion it’s connected to, takes the violation of sexual taboos as more basically, more shockingly immoral than any other sort of norm violation. (Drug abuse is a close second.) Illicit sex is dirty — that is, polluting — in a way that theft, slander, and assault simply aren’t.

(Back when a certain rabbi of the School of Hillel was preaching up a storm in Galilee, food taboos had some of the same salience that sexual taboos have now. He didn’t make himself popular with the local equivalent of the Traditional Values Coalition or Moral Majority when he pointed out that it’s not what goes into your mouth that really pollutes you, since it’s all going to wind up in the same sewer, but rather what comes out of it: perjury and slander, for example.)


Sunday, February 25, 2007

Partying while Rome burns: I don't normally agree with much on Ben Stein, but he and I see eye-to-eye in his Sunday column in the Times. He asks, why are rich Americans squandering their massive Bush tax give-aways on parties while poor Americans are dying by the truck-full in Iraq? He can't believe that the $10 million b'nei mitzvah exists, and neither can I. The Republicans holler that it's wartime, that dissent is impermissible; but neither is profligacy:

I started to feel hysterical [watching Donny Deutsch's program on lavish parties]. Is this what America is all about? We're in a war and we cut taxes to stimulate the economy — and it probably did (Ed. note: Uh, not bloody likely) — and we are having million-dollar parties at home while our soldiers are paid starvation wages to offer up their lives in Iraq? We're in a war and the government cannot afford to pay for adequate training for our soldiers, but the society at home is routinely having million-dollar weddings and bar mitzvahs?

Can anyone say "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire"?

We are creating a debt that is about $3 trillion greater than it was when Bill Clinton left office, and one sequel is $10 million birthday parties? Is this what supply-side is all about? To obligate future generations so our generation can have $10 million parties for teenagers?


In the Happiest City on Earth: This month, National Geographic makes the point that I’ve made since I arrived here, that there would be nothing in Orlando if not for Disney World. But writer T.D. Allman sees beyond that. As Allman sees it, Disney not only made Orlando, it made it what it is, and made it the model for the new suburbs sprouting up all around America. Where the old-line suburbs in older cities — I lived in Evanston, Ill., a classic example — are much more mixed-use, much denser, much more gridded, it was Disney’s influence that made suburban Phoenix, Chicago, Seattle and Atlanta more alike than different. It’s a brilliant article, in other words:

In this place of exurban, postmodern pioneers, the range of choices is vast even when the choices themselves are illusory. Here life is truly a style: You don’t want to live in a mass-produced, instant “community”? No problem. Orlando’s developers, like the producers of instant coffee, offer you a variety of flavors, including one called Tradition. Structurally it may seem identical to all the others. Only instead of vaguely Mediterranean ornamental details, the condos at Tradition have old colonial finishes. In Orlando’s lively downtown, it’s possible to live in a loft just as you would in Chicago or New York. But these lofts are brand-new buildings constructed for those who want the postindustrial lifestyle in a place that never was industrial.

Orlando’s bright lights are not the garish displays of Las Vegas or the proud power logos of New York. Instead, Orlando glimmers with the familiar signage of franchise America: Denny’s, Burger King, Quality Inn, Hampton Inn, Hertz. Orlando also leads in the culinary transformation of the exotic into the familiar. From its Orlando headquarters, the Darden Corporation, the city’s first Fortune 500 company, mass-markets theme foods. It standardizes the output of Red Lobsters and Olive Gardens everywhere.

All over Orlando you see forces at work that are changing America from Fairbanks to Little Rock. This, truly, is a 21st-century paradigm: It is growth built on consumption, not production; a society founded not on natural resources, but upon the dissipation of capital accumulated elsewhere; a place of infinite possibilities, somehow held together, to the extent it is held together at all, by a shared recognition of highway signs, brand names, TV shows, and personalities, rather than any shared history. Nowhere else is the juxtaposition of what America actually is and the conventional idea of what America should be more vivid and revealing.

Welcome to the theme-park nation.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

But how many Jewish mothers does it take to screw in a CFL lightbulb? Australia is making moves to become the first country to phase out the use of incandescent light bulbs, in exchange for compact fluorescent bulbs, which use much less electricity. These aren’t your grandparents’ Carter-era sickly white fluorescent bulbs, either: The only incandescent bulb I use is on a dimmer switch, with which ordinary CFL bulbs are incompatible, and the lighting’s better as well as cheaper in my apartment. Between Australia, California and Wal-Mart, we might just change the world. From the Times:

“The most effective and immediate way we can reduce greenhouse-gas emissions is by using energy more efficiently,” Mr. Turnbull said. “Electric lighting is a vital part of our lives; globally, it generates emissions equal to 70 percent of those from all the world’s passenger vehicles.”

He pointed to International Energy Agency data showing that a worldwide switch to compact fluorescent lights could result in energy savings equivalent to five years of Australia’s present electricity use by 2030.

Australia already has minimum energy performance standards that apply to appliances, and a similar system will be put into effect for light bulbs. The standards would ultimately make it impossible to sell incandescent bulbs. Mr. Turnbull said the government would consider some exceptions, like medical lighting and low-power oven lights.


But it never tastes that way when I make it: My mother has a recipe that she often makes when I come home, a chicken dish that she’s been making for years. I cannot replicate it. Don’t we all have a recipe that way? Kim Severson, of the Times, put this to the test, attempting to trace her mother’s pasta sauce all the way back to Italy in the hopes of understanding it. She failed gloriously:

Among my four siblings, how mom makes her sauce has been a constant source of discussion. We’re all decent cooks, but none of us can get it just right. When does she put in the paste? Is a little bit of roasted pepper essential? Do you need to use oregano in the meatballs?

This is a problem my cousins have, too. Sharon Herman still lives in Cumberland [Wisc.], not far from the Zappa family dairy farm. Her mother (my aunt and godmother, the late Philomena DeGidio) was one of the oldest of the Zappa girls and was considered the best sauce maker. My cousin has lived for years under the cloud of never having mastered the master’s sauce.


I use fresh basil and fresh bread crumbs instead of Progresso in my meatballs, but I still stick to dried basil and oregano in the sauce. My canned tomatoes come from Italy, even though my mother thinks Contadina or Hunt’s is just fine.

It never tastes just like hers, but I keep trying. And maybe that’s the problem. Perhaps I’m too fixated on my fancy-pants ingredients. Or perhaps it’s just a psychological quirk of the kitchen. The one that makes you think nothing ever tastes as good as your mother’s


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

You've got to make your free throws: In electronics as in sports, sometimes, it's the little but dependable things that count. Free throws are free points. And remembering to back up your hard drive means never losing data. It's how I survived with the same computer, through three hard drives, for five years (and before that, for six years with four different hard drives, on the same desktop). But I didn't remember to back up my iTunes library, and I lost several hundred dollars worth of paid music. Bandwagon is a service that aims to fix that... and I'm going to give it a whirl. I want to get back to some of my distant tech-blogging roots, from the early days of the Idea Salon. It sounds like it uses Amazon's S3 service, or at least the idea behind it, which I find fairly impressive -- the tech details will be disclosed along with the review.

Anyway, Bandwagon's introductory, pre-launch offer is $69 per year for regular storage -- I'll let you know how it goes. (Fair disclosure: They're bribing us bloggers with a year of free access. But you know I'm impartial.) From their site:

What we are
  • Bandwagon is for music geeks that use Macs.
  • Bandwagon is for people that use rsync, ftp or cds + dvds to backup their iTunes and want to find a better way.
  • Bandwagon is for smart people that have a huge music library that has never been backed up.
  • Why is this distinction of what Bandwagon can (and cannot) do important?
  • [Link]

    But he never got the Mount Hood Freeway: Robert Moses is the Antichrist to a certain generation of urbanist thinkers, and to those of us who grew up in places where his influence was at its lowest. He was the urban planner who gave New York City the BQE, the LIE, the West Side Highway, the FDR, the Van Wyck, the Cross-Bronx, et cetera. He was the urban planner who nearly destroyed America’s great cities to make more room for cars and sprawl. I was fortunate to grow up in Portland, Oregon, one of the least Moses-friendly places on Earth, which memorably rejected one of his pet projects and became the first city in America to tear out a freeway. But three new exhibits in New York are trying to reclaim Moses’ legacy. I’m not buying it, but the Daily News is:

    Finkelpearl says that while there is a desire to look at Moses’ achievements more evenhandedly, the estimation of the man himself is unchanged. His racism, for example, is well-documented, but it was standard for the time. It did not prevent him from building a swimming pool in Harlem. He also built Lenox Terrace, the first building in Harlem that had 24-hour doorman service and upscale amenities.

    As for his destroying the South Bronx, Ballon points to an overhead view that shows the George Washington Bridge shortly after its completion in 1929.

    “It was like a cannon pointed at the South Bronx,” she says. “You had all this traffic coming over needing to go North and East - where was the logical place to sort it out?”

    An interesting part of the third Moses exhibit, “Slum Clearance and the Superblock Solution” at the Wallach Art Galleries at Columbia University, is the unused designs for Lincoln Center, one of his grandest projects.

    Coming back from Columbia on the M11 bus, however, passing blocks and blocks of high-rise apartments, reinforces Jacobs’ objections to Moses’ plans: The buildings are drab, the grounds lifeless, a stark contrast to the streets just south, where tenements have been renovated, new businesses seem to be thriving and the streets themselves are inviting.


    Monday, February 19, 2007

    Whitewashed: A New York man who was a major Republican campaign contributor was indicted on charges of financing terror on Friday. Abdul Tawala ibn Ali Alishtari, a.k.a. Michael Mixen, contributed $15,000 to the RNCC in 2002 and 2004. That’s right, a major Republican financier is also literally a supporter of terrorism. Bet you won’t hear about that on Fox News, hmm? From CBS News:

    The indictment said Alishtari tried to support terrorists between June and December by accepting an unspecified amount of money to transfer $152,000 that he believed was being sent to Pakistan and Afghanistan to support an Afghanistan terrorist training camp.

    He believed the money would be used to fund the purchase of night vision goggles and other equipment, the indictment said.

    He was also charged with money laundering for allegedly causing the transfer on Aug. 17 of about $25,000 from a bank account in New York to a bank account in Montreal, Canada. The money was to be used to provide material support to terrorist, prosecutors said.


    CBS News has confirmed that Alishtari is a donor to the Republican Party, as he claims on his curriculum vitae. Alishtari gave $15,500 to the National Republican Campaign Committee between 2002 and 2004, according to Federal Election Commission records. That amount includes $13,000 in 2003, a year when he claims to have been named NRCC New York State Businessman of the Year.

    Alishtari also claims to be a lifetime member of the National Republican Senate Committee’s Inner Circle, which the NRCC describes as “an impressive cross-section of American society – community leaders, business executives, entrepreneurs, retirees, and sports and entertainment celebrities – all of whom hold a deep interest in our nation’s prosperity and security.”

    Update: Chris notes in the comments that Fox News did, in fact, post this story on their Web site, and I'm man enough to note that. But I have yet to hear any word that they've put it on TV, or that, for instance, the usual suspects -- Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, et al. -- have so much as mentioned this story. Imagine if he'd been a Democrat, what an uproar it would've caused.


    Pharoah, let my people donate blood: Since 1985, the Red Cross has disallowed blood donation from any man who has had sex with another man since 1977. At the time, this made sense, given the limited reliability and high rate of false negatives of the AIDS testing regime. But, Bill Hooker at 3 Quarks Daily argues, today, the logic behind this ban no longer applies, so we are excluding a critical supply of blood donors for purely non-scientific reasons. I once had administered a lunchtime debate about this, in college, and I made almost the same argument, and was told by a Coulter acolyte, “Gay sex is inherently risky and immoral behavior. We should not reward it.” The opposition is not logical any longer. From 3QD:

    A variety of expert presentations at a March, 2006 FDA workshop on behaviour based donor deferrals indicated that, with the advent of [nucleic acid testing], the window period for HIV infection is less than 12 days. In the US, the residual risk of transmission of HIV or HCV by blood transfusion is estimated, by a variety of models, to be around 1 in 2,000,000 donations. This is clearly a very conservative estimate, since there are around 15 million donations every year and I could only find mention of four authenticated transfusion-related transmissions of HIV since NAT was implemented in 1999 (none of which involved [men who have sex with other men]). At the same FDA workshop, Celso Bianco re-ran an earlier prediction using risk and other estimates that were getting general agreement at the workshop and came up with a figure, which he called conservative, of one infected unit per 32 years.

    So, while it seems intuitively likely that including a high-risk group (as judged by increased prevalence) in the donor pool would increase overall risk, calculating — or rather, estimating — that increase is far from straightforward. The only numbers I could find were presented by Andrew Dayton to the same FDA workshop:

    The 5-year [deferral, instead of a lifetime ban] would result in possibly a 25 percent increase in the current residual risk, and the 1-year would be 40 percent.

    So, worst case scenario: 1.4 transmissions per 2 million donations, instead of 1.0 — or about three extra cases per year (and remember that, to date, the observed level of transmission is much lower than the estimate). I’m not familiar with what sorts of risks are considered acceptable in public policy formation, but I can say outright that I would be prepared to accept that risk to my own person as the cost of allowing MSM to participate on a more equal footing in a profound act of community altruism. (To say nothing of a 1% increase in a critical health resource that is often in short supply.)

    Furthermore, given that the window period is less than two weeks and you can only donate every eight weeks, there is an obvious method for reducing the risk even further. According to the AABB, red blood cells can be stored cold for 42 days or frozen for ten years, and plasmaand cryoprecipitated antihemophilic factor can be frozen for at least a year; of the fractions into which whole blood is routinely divided, only platelets have a shorter effective storage life, about five days. It is clearly possible to hold (at least most of the fractions of) any first-time donation until the donor returns and can be re-tested; two clear tests eight weeks apart are definitive proof of HIV-negative status.