Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for April 25th, 2011

Government secrecy is often not about national security

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Quite often materials are classified simply to hide embarrassing failure or worse—and that seems to have been the case at Guantánamo. Tom Lasseter and Carol Rosenberg report for McClatchy:

U.S. military intelligence assessing the threat of nearly 800 men held at Guantanamo in many cases used information from a small group of captives whose accounts now appear to be questionable, according to a McClatchy analysis of a trove of secret documents from the facility.

The allegations and observations of just eight detainees were used to help build cases against some 255 men at Guantanamo — roughly a third of all who passed through the prison. Yet the testimony of some of the eight was later questioned by Guantanamo analysts themselves, and the others were subjected to interrogation tactics that defense attorneys say amounted to torture and compromised the veracity of their information. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 April 2011 at 7:19 pm

Pilates and bicycling

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I mentioned to my Pilates instructor that I had recommended the studio to a friend, whose husband was an ardent bicyclist. She immediately said that she would love to do some training with him and show him how to use his entire muscle mass to pedal effectively.

The more I thought about it, the more interesting I thought it would be to have an experienced cyclist or group of cyclists work with Pilates for 5 or 6 sessions just to see what difference it would make. Most biking enthusiasts are reasonably fit, so the sessions would not have to focus on making them fit, but could work directly on learning the Pilates techniques. Moreover, most cyclists are well-acquainted with their cycling ability, so they would be able to detect improvement readily. It would be even better to begin with a solid bank of statistics and measurements of the bicyclists’ performance.

I trotted out the idea—“Get ready for Spring cycling: 5 sessions for $99, limit to 4 cyclists” or some such: an introductory level of pricing, a limited number of sessions—though enough to make a detectable difference—and a limited number of cyclists. That should make for a program that can easily be evaluated by the cyclist and by the studio.

Well: it turns out that my instructor not only had the idea but had taken it even further: she offered to work with a cycling team for no charge at all.

They wouldn’t do it.

I was astonished, but that’s because I’m of a progressive mindset: I believe that it’s always possible to make improvements (in anything: person, process, device, and so on), and trying out something provides a lot of interesting new information because reality is richer than our mental models, so there will always be surprises.

But other mindsets are possible, and cyclists (in her experience) believe that they know everything significant about training for their sport. She also pointed out that cycling is an expensive sport—dressage is somewhat more expensive, but that’s because you must feed the horse day in and day out. (I learned that she was an Olympic cyclist herself, so she probably knows what she’s talking about.)

I’m always astonished when someone won’t even try something new, whether it’s a food, a game, whatever. But clearly many people view innovation and change with great suspicion and wariness.

Now I’m thinking that one could write an interesting article for a bicycling magazine by training a few (well-documented in terms of performance records) cyclists in Pilates for two or three months and measure any differences.

Some additional info on Pilates and cycling here.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 April 2011 at 2:21 pm

Posted in Daily life, Fitness, Pilates

Proraso again

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A superb shave today: two days’ stubble whisked away with a few smooth passes of the Hoffritz (with a Swedish Gillette blade) on my well-softened beard, thanks to the quality of the Proraso lather. The (soft) soap is just as good as the shaving cream: both excellent. The Lucretia Borgia artificial badger brush did a fine job. At the end, a splash of Floïd and I’m on my way into the day.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 April 2011 at 11:09 am

Posted in Shaving

Sleepwalking into the Imperial Dark

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As I noted in the previous post, politicians (and the public at large) generally approach big problems reluctantly: after denial stops working (and denial works extremely well for many, long beyond the point at which most of us abandon it: cf. global warming, evolution, abstinence education, drug laws, and so on), then short-term solutions (band-aids) are tried, and eventually (when it’s too late) the problem itself will be addressed. History lists dozens of empires and civilizations that took this approach to their problems—and now, of course, we see the same dynamic underway in the US.

Tom Engelhardt has a good piece on this in Salon, which begins:

This can’t end well.

But then, how often do empires end well, really? They live vampirically by feeding off others until, sooner or later, they begin to feed on themselves, to suck their own blood, to hollow themselves out. Sooner or later, they find themselves, as in our case, economically stressed and militarily extended in wars they can’t afford to win or lose.

Historians have certainly written about the dangers of overextended empires and of endless war as a way of life, but there’s something distant and abstract about the patterns of history. It’s quite another thing to take it in when you’re part of it; when, as they used to say in the overheated 1960s, you’re in the belly of the beast.

I don’t know what it felt like to be inside the Roman Empire in the long decades, even centuries, before it collapsed, or to experience the waning years of the Spanish empire, or the twilight of the Qing dynasty, or of Imperial Britain as the sun first began to set, or even of the Soviet Empire before the troops came slinking home from Afghanistan, but at some point it must have seemed at least a little like this — truly strange, like watching a machine losing its parts. It must have seemed as odd and unnerving as it does now to see a formerly mighty power enter a state of semi-paralysis at home even as it staggers on blindly with its war-making abroad.

The United States is, of course, an imperial power, however much we might prefer not to utter the word. We still have our globe-spanning array of semi-client states; our military continues to garrison much of the planet; and we are waging war abroad more continuously than at any time in memory. Yet who doesn’t sense that the sun is now setting on us? . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 April 2011 at 10:13 am

A conservative criticizes US support of dictators

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Generally speaking, politicians—including the US Congress and Executive—operate without much concern for the long term. When things start to go south, action is normally postponed until there is a true crisis—and even then the move is to embrace short-term solutions and ignore the long-term. That’s probably simply a human failing, honed by evolutionary demands.

One result is that the US has spent billions in propping up inhumane dictatorships. A conservative writer, John Glaser, raises valid objections in this article in The American Conservative. It begins:

Before the successful ouster of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, Tahrir Square was filled with chants and handcrafted picket signs pleading with the U.S. to stop funding Mubarak’s repressive government. Rubber bullets, shotgun shells, and teargas canisters were collected by the largely peaceful protestors – and given to news agencies to show to the world – with the names of American military contractors branded on them. The Mubarak regime received approximately $60 billion in U.S. aid throughout his tenure.

Uprisings in Yemen and calls for President Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down have been intensifying. Reports in late March of non-violent protestors being shot with live rounds, killing and wounding hundreds, put in question the Obama administration’s escalation of support to Yemen. A June 2010 Amnesty International report published “images of a US-manufactured cruise missile that carried cluster munitions” aimed at “an alleged al-Qaida training camp in Yemen that killed 41 local residents, including 14 women and 21 children.” The bombings were later corroborated to have been launched on presidential orders and in conjunction with the Yemeni government, which has received over $300 million from the U.S. in the past five years.

In Bahrain in late February, when security forces opened fire on peaceful demonstrators and began to enforce martial law, similar revelations of U.S. backing came to the fore. The tens of millions of dollars sent to the Bahraini government each year in part help King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa maintain domestic stability – as well as compensate for his country hosting the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, one of the largest military forces in the region.

The recent onset of anti-government demonstrations across the Middle East has placed an integral pillar of U.S. foreign policy into flux. America’s consistent, decades-long policy of lavish support for Middle Eastern autocrats is becoming prominent enough in the national debate to shake it from its seemingly unshakable roots. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 April 2011 at 9:56 am

Posted in Daily life, Government

Majority of Americans support same-sex marriage

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Little by little:

The article by Nate Silver in the NY Times is well worth reading. I suspect the change is simply because as gays increasingly came out, straights increasingly realized that people they knew and liked were not only gay, they were simply people like themselves (except for sexual orientation), and with that realization became awareness that one would not like for oneself to be forbidden to marry—empathy arose, and treating one’s neighbor as one would like to be treated (which, as I understand it, was an order directly from God (Jesus, for Christian), and Jesus himself never spoke a single word against homosexuality. (I’m sure the Catholic church will point out that He also never spoke a single word against abusing children sexually—but of course that act violates the Golden Rule, despite the Catholic church’s strenuous efforts to minimize, hide, and protect the pedophiles in the hierarchy.)

Recently I had some comments strongly favoring majority rule. Now that a majority favors same-sex marriage, I imagine any objections to such from the “majority rules” section will vanish.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 April 2011 at 9:43 am

Posted in Daily life, Government, Law

Climategate: The backstory

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Extremely interesting article by Kate Sheppard in Mother Jones on the Climategate brouhaha: how it arose, the main players, etc. It begins:

It’s difficult to imagine how how a guy who spends most of his time looking at endless columns of temperature records became a “fucking terrorist,” “killer,” or “one-world-government socialist.” It’s even harder when you meet Michael Mann, a balding 45-year-old climate scientist who speaks haltingly and has a habit of nervously clearing his throat. And when you realize that the reason for all the hostility is a 12-year-old chart, it seems more than a little surreal.

Back in 1999, Mann—then a newly minted Ph.D. (PDF)—and a pair of colleagues constructed a chart that plotted historical climate data, spanning from 1000 to 1980. Because recorded temperatures only begin in the late 19th century, Mann and his team largely relied on so-called proxy records—measurements of tree rings, coral, and ice cores whose variations illustrate temperature changes over the years. The graph showed that after nearly 900 years of relatively stable temperatures, there was a sharp uptick starting in the 20th century. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 April 2011 at 9:31 am

The science behind denial of obvious evidence

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Almost everyone has some resistance to accepting evidence of facts contrary to their beliefs—and that makes sense. Before undertaking a drastic revision of the structure of one’s beliefs, one wants to be sure that the evidence presented in true and the arguments based on the evidence are sound. But some (cf. climate change denialists, evolution deniers, and the like) go beyond all reasonable bounds. Why?

I have occasionally recommended Daniel Goleman’s excellent book Vital Lies, Simple Truths that discusses this phenomenon in various contexts, and now Chris Mooney has an excellent article on the topic in Mother Jones: He begins:

“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.” So wrote the celebrated Stanford University psychologist Leon Festinger (PDF), in a passage that might have been referring to climate change denial—the persistent rejection, on the part of so many Americans today, of what we know about global warming and its human causes. But it was too early for that—this was the 1950s—and Festinger was actually describing a famous case study in psychology.

Festinger and several of his colleagues had infiltrated the Seekers, a small Chicago-area cult whose members thought they were communicating with aliens—including one, “Sananda,” who they believed was the astral incarnation of Jesus Christ. The group was led by Dorothy Martin, a Dianetics devotee who transcribed the interstellar messages through automatic writing.

Through her, the aliens had given the precise date of an Earth-rending cataclysm: December 21, 1954. Some of Martin’s followers quit their jobs and sold their property, expecting to be rescued by a flying saucer when the continent split asunder and a new sea swallowed much of the United States. The disciples even went so far as to remove brassieres and rip zippers out of their trousers—the metal, they believed, would pose a danger on the spacecraft.

Festinger and his team were with the cult when the prophecy failed. First, . . .

Continue reading. Alison Lurie wrote a wonderful novel, Imaginary Friends, inspired by the study. Recommended.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 April 2011 at 8:07 am

Posted in Books, Daily life, Science

Great idea: Opt out of public radio fundraising appeals

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The only problem is that it will not work in your car—yet. But I bet someone will figure out a way.

KQED is now offering a “no-appeals” option—which you can purchase. In effect, by pre-emptively donating, you get to bypass the appeals programming. From their email:

Yes, you can! We listened to your complaints, and we’re proud to introduce technology that enables you to turn pledge off while STILL listening to KQED Public Radio for in-depth news, Forum, Talk of the Nation, Fresh Air, All Things Considered—and the other great programs you look forward to every day!

It’s only possible with our revolutionary new thank-you gift—the PLEDGE-FREE STREAM!

Simply make a $45 contribution to KQED NOW—before the radio pledge drive starts on May 5—and we’ll give you special access with a unique login, so you can listen to KQED programming on your computer or your smartphone without any pledge interruptions!

Right now, this offer is good only for the duration of the May radio drive. So jump on it, and be the very first public radio fans in the nation to TURN PLEDGE OFF!

Clever, though it reeks of “You’re listening a pretty nice program right now. You wouldn’t want it interrupted with pledge appeals, would you?” — a new wrinkle on the old protection racket.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 April 2011 at 7:56 am

Posted in Business

A resurgence of contract bridge?

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In the Great Depression, card games were a godsend: an evening of entertainment for family and friends at the cost of a pot of coffee and some cookies. Lots of games were played, but contract bridge, Vanderbilt’s improvement on auction bridge, was among the most popular: intriguing, with a lot of depth, but also easily played as an accompaniment to conversation.

Movies from the thirties sometimes showed bridge being played, and the dialogue and exchanges showed that the writers and actors played and understood the game, and expected the same from their audiences.

One measure of the quality of the game is the difficulty of finding a good bridge-playing program to play against.

This story in the NY Times promises a possible resurgence is bridge popularity a decade or so from now. That will be a good thing: a wonderful game. I still have fond memories of working toward a better understanding of the game by playing through the deal packs for Autobridge, a terrific device. I’m surprised the current owners of Autobridge have not released it as a program… surely one can now find excellent instructional software for contract bridge—no?

Written by LeisureGuy

25 April 2011 at 7:44 am

Posted in Bridge, Games

When the bots take control, things go insane

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Bots are fast but have weak real-world judgment. So you get things like a used book, an old science book on flies, priced at $2,198,177.95 plus $3.99 shipping. James Fallows describes the situation—hyperfast reactions among bots leading to instability—and includes a mention of a book that sounds intriguing to me: Overconnected: The Promise and Threat of the Internet, which now resides on my Kindle.

UPDATE: TYD points out this explanation of the mechanism that led to the odd prices. Not hyperfast at all, as it turns out.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 April 2011 at 7:20 am

Posted in Books, Business, Technology

Women’s clothing sizes

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I have never understood the way women’s clothes are sized, so it’s some relief to see that they are not understandable: inconsistent, poorly labeled, and in general such a disaster that businesses have emerged that do nothing other than tell women the sizes they wear, by brand. (A given woman can range from triple-0 to 10, depending on the store—here’s the story.)

The temporary fix is a printout from a free in-mall body scan: 20 seconds, and the woman is given a printout of which sizes will fit her in which brands. Very cool. This is the company.

Written by LeisureGuy

25 April 2011 at 7:12 am

Will people click?

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Given the crackdown on quoting from copyrighted material, my own quotes will become much shorter. I had tried to give enough on the blog to encourage the click to finish the story, but now I will have to use much less bait for the click. I do promise, though, that I’ll link only to things I think are interesting—if that helps…

Written by LeisureGuy

25 April 2011 at 7:07 am

Posted in Writing

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