May 25, 2010

"I am not a hippie."

Now that I have a wire brush two-week beard, I am constantly reminded of this classic Stranger feature on Robin Pecknold of the post-post-folk band Fleet Foxes.
"I am not a hippie," says Pecknold, sitting in a coffee shop along with his four bandmates four days after they announced signing to Sub Pop. Pecknold pulls at his frizzy, brown, shoulder-length hair.

He says, "I might look like a hippie, but I actually have much disdain for hippies."

This is funny coming from a guy who wore a floppy brown hat during Fleet Foxes' set five months ago at Bumbershoot. It was big and goofy, like something John Lennon would've worn. Pecknold is not wearing the hat now, but he still has a full Jesus beard to go with his long Jesusy hair. He's wearing layers of clothing (a coat, a scarf, a sweater, a shirt) because it's literally freezing outside, as well as one colorful fingerless mitten (he lost its mate). The tips of his fingers are calloused from constant guitar playing. He looks exactly like a hippie.
Pecknold's disdain--which I don't share--is ideological, and you should click through to find out why. And if you haven't discovered Fleet Foxes' blend of mountain melodies and Beach Boys harmonies, you ought to.

May 24, 2010

eat dirt

The University of Washington has a new research facility dedicated to cracking open the skulls of children and revealing the gooey knowledge inside. Sort of:
The Magnetoencephalography (or MEG) machine monitors minute changes in the magnetic field in the brain. The study subject reclines in a chair (or in the case of an infant, a car seat), and the machine fits over the head, like an old beauty-salon hair dryer would, if the hair dryer were the size of a fridge.

The MEG facility at the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington is the first in the world to be designed for use with young children.
(For the irony-impaired, no skulls will be harmed in the making of this research.)

Now, what to study?

How about... the effect of soil bacteria on early child development? Kids like to eat dirt, kids love to learn, and mycobacterium vaccae might help 'em. Let's stick some dirt-eating tykes in a magnetoencephalography machine and see what happens.

For science.

May 23, 2010

Martin Gardner, RIP

Martin Gardner has passed away at the age of 95. I can still remember the first time I read Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science, one of the books that kick-started my critical thinking skills and made me wish I had double majored in English and biology rather than English and history.

Out of all the book's trenchant dissections of all sorts of pseudoscience, my favorite is the bit on hollow earth theories, including Cyrus Reed Teed's unbelievable notion that we live inside a sphere.
The entire cosmos, Teed argued, is like an egg. We live on the inner surface of the shell, and inside the hollow are the sun, moon, stars, planets, and comets. What is outside? Absolutely nothing! The inside is all there is. You can't see across it because the atmosphere is too dense....
One of the Gardner's key insights, in his analysis of crankish patterns of behavior, was to point out the crank's fondness for language games.
Like most psuedo-scientists, who wish to impress the reader with their vast scientific knowledge, Teed has a tendency to let his words carry him into obscurities sometimes hard to follow. Planets, for example, are "spheres of substance aggregated through the impact of afferent and efferent fluxions of essence...." And comets are nothing less than "composed of cruosic 'force,' caused by condensation of substance through the dissipation of the coloric substance at the opening of the electro-magnetic circuits, which closes the conduits of solar and lunar 'energy.'"
It seems hard to believe that at one point Teed--who began calling himself "Koresh"--had roughly 4,000 followers. But then, one skim through Fads and Fallacies proves that it's not so hard to believe after all. It takes the Martin Gardners of the world to puncture our propensity to be drawn to the cruosic force of the absurd.

May 22, 2010

pack smarter

Ten days, one carry-on. I'd tried the rolling-'em-up trick before, but never so comprehensively. And the folding-over-the-other-clothing trick is a new one.

The slideshow couldn't have come at a better time: I'll be traveling to Missouri, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Vermont in the next three months.

May 19, 2010

stolen words, stolen deeds, stolen accolades

A fabulizing triptych.

Gerald Posner, compulsive plagiarist.
Posner has offered a variety of defenses. He apologized after Shafer's stories and blamed the "warp speed of the Net" for screwing up his Beast stories. He told us this past May 16 that a new system of "trailing endnotes" may have caused problems in Babylon. By our third story, Posner said there was a "concerted effort" afoot to "discredit" his work.

Now comes new evidence, again courtesy of Gelembiuk. The 48-year-old Wisconsin student purchased ebook copies of Why America Slept and Secrets of the Kingdom, and ran them through Viper, a free online plagiarism software.

The program found Posner had taken from 24 sources in the two books. Most egregious seems to be his theft from a 1998 book by David Hoffman called The Oklahoma City Bombing and the Politics of Terror. Posner appears to have lifted three passages from the book totaling 927 words in Why America Slept.
Richard Blumenthal, hypocritical pseudo-Vietnam vet.
Richard Blumenthal, the attorney general of Connecticut, has a problem. He's running for the U.S. Senate, and he's been caught on video implying falsely that he served in Vietnam. He'd like your understanding as he explains that he simply "misspoke" about his service. He'd like you to give him a break.

But Blumenthal has never given anyone a break. He has made a career out of holding others to the strictest standards of truth—and mercilessly prosecuting them when they fall short.
Adam Wheeler, faux super-student?
Prosecutors said that Wheeler defrauded Harvard out of over $45,000 in the form of an $8,000 research grant, $6,000 in English prizes, and $31,806 in financial aid.

"Mr. Wheeler pled not guilty. He'll have his day in court," said Steven Sussman, the defendant's lawyer, who was surrounded by a thick crowd of reporters and cameramen. "He's not convicted of anything."

hirsute and cute

Baby sloths!

May 18, 2010

the beard turns one (week)

It's been a little over a week since To Beard or Not To Beard began. Seems appropriate to celebrate the occasion with a brand new tacky tie. (Celebration is better than desolation, right?)

The beard in 23% of its glory:

The tie in all its glory:

May 13, 2010

To Beard, or not to Beard

Capital's debate team is holding my beard hostage. If they can raise at least a hundred dollars next week, I can't shave it. Repeat the feat the next week, and I'll continue suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous facial hair. So, if you are a fan of hockey and lumber jacks, or if you love torturing the hirsute, or if you are a fan of CHS Debate, join the fun.

Click on the photo, or this link, to watch the beard, and my indignity, progress in time.

Oh, and of course, there's a Facebook page.

I'll keep a running beard diary right here using the label "beardathon." Why? Because blogging is how I cope. With the itching. Which started today.

May 6, 2010

take a tour of your school

A creativity / storytelling / extemporaneous speaking exercise.

Take your class on a tour of your school. The catch: they're the tour guides. Make a circuit around the campus, and let individuals stop the tour when they approach a location where they can tell a story, real or imagined, about its significance or history.

If you want to emphasize spontaneity, give about five minutes to prepare, with a notecard for those who need it. If you want a more polished presentation (as a practice, say, for upcoming speeches), give students a day's notice.

The ground rules:

1. Careful in the hallways.
2. Be nice. Don't rag on a teacher you despise. Don't embarrass friends or strangers.
3. Don't monopolize the time. Keep your story under two minutes.
4. Ham it up.

You'll be surprised what you'll learn about your school--and your students.

May 3, 2010

build your own time machine

Stephen Hawking says that time travel into the past is practically impossible. Fair enough. How about traveling into the future?
If we want to travel into the future, we just need to go fast. Really fast. And I think the only way we're ever likely to do that is by going into space. The fastest manned vehicle in history was Apollo 10. It reached 25,000mph. But to travel in time we'll have to go more than 2,000 times faster. And to do that we'd need a much bigger ship, a truly enormous machine. The ship would have to be big enough to carry a huge amount of fuel, enough to accelerate it to nearly the speed of light. Getting to just beneath the cosmic speed limit would require six whole years at full power...

After two years it would reach half-light speed and be far outside our solar system. Two years later it would be travelling at 90 per cent of the speed of light. Around 30 trillion miles away from Earth, and four years after launch, the ship would begin to travel in time. For every hour of time on the ship, two would pass on Earth. A similar situation to the spaceship that orbited the massive black hole.

After another two years of full thrust the ship would reach its top speed, 99 per cent of the speed of light. At this speed, a single day on board is a whole year of Earth time. Our ship would be truly flying into the future.
Hawking estimates that it'd take 80 years to reach the edge of the galaxy. But here's where this method of time travel loses out to a much more plausible (and probably much more affordable) option. Consider that during those 80 years, you'd age at a normal rate--unless, like in a lot of Sci-Fi-let's-travel-to-the-edge-of-the-universe flicks, you were somehow sleeping away the time in suspended animation.

And that's the key. After all, if your only goal is to wake up 150 years in the future without having aged, why travel anywhere? What we need is a Rip Van Winkle technology, not a monstrous spaceship, if we really want to travel in time. The trick isn't to go faster, but to slow down.

May 2, 2010

everyone's a suspect

Should law enforcement be allowed to expand DNA databases to include non-felons? One of the central questions of the latest NFL resolution is answered with a resounding "no" by Tania Simoncelli of the ACLU, in "Dangerous Excursions: The Case Against Expanding Forensic DNA Databases to Innocent Persons," found in The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, Summer 2006.

Simoncelli argues that first, preserving non-felons' DNA "turns the presumption of innocence on its head," turning anyone in the database into a suspect. Even convicted felons aren't automatically guilty of future crimes. This is anti-democratic in nature, and dangerous in practice.

Second, at least in the American system, institutional safeguards enshrined in the Fourth Amendment would be threatened by DNA databases.
Regardless of whether a DNA bank should be considered beyond the general needs of law enforcement, the proposition that the government's "special needs" outweigh the privacy interests of innocent persons seems beyond the pale, as a matter of Constitutional principle. While it is plausible that the courts could uphold the forcible taking and analysis of DNA of persons arrested on the basis of some diminished expectation of privacy while in confinement, the permanent retention of that DNA cannot be justified on this basis unless a suspect is convicted of a crime.
Beyond 4th Amendment considerations, DNA databases create unique privacy concerns.
Unlike fingerprints - two-dimensional representations of the physical attributes of our fingertips that can only be used for identification - DNA samples can provide insights into personal family relationships, disease predisposition, physical attributes, and ancestry. Such information could be used in sinister ways and may include things the person herself does not wish to know.
Abuse of such a system is highly likely.
[S]pecific cases of abuse of police databases indicate that penalties alone do not sufficiently deter misuse. In 2001, it was revealed that more than ninety known cases of abuse of Michigan's Law Enforcement Information Network had occurred over five years. Abuses included police officers and other law enforcement personnel tapping into the network to obtain home addresses or other background information on love interests and seeking revenge or an upper hand in personal, legal or political conflicts. And while Michigan law clearly indicates that such an abuse qualifies as a misdemeanor, punishable by up to ninety days in jail and a $500 fine upon conviction, only three of the officers were prosecuted for these crimes.
Simoncelli details many practical concerns that are of secondary concern here, given that their impact is utilitarian rather than a matter of violated rights. They include the diminishing returns of an expanded dataset, the possibility of false convictions via planted DNA evidence (the paradoxical result of heightened trust in such evidence), overworked crime labs, untold costs (somewhat mitigated by falling prices), and the necessity of a total-population database to ward off concerns about "racial distortions in our criminal justice system."

In all, the article is well worth reading as a primer on some of the primary arguments in the debate.

May 1, 2010

Resolved: Compulsory inclusion of non-felons' DNA in any government database is unjust.

The NFL national tournament Lincoln-Douglas debate topic for 2010 has been released:
Resolved: Compulsory inclusion of non-felons' DNA in any government database is unjust.
A couple obvious themes present themselves immediately. Compulsory inclusion might be unjust for violating the right to privacy; DNA contains information about genetic conditions that are immensely personal. Along similar lines, such information is potentially useful for discrimination (a present-day possibility) or identity theft (imagine a future with biometric, DNA-based national IDs), or might lead to "false positives" due to an overly optimistic reliance (a "CSI effect" of sorts) on DNA evidence, which, although a gold standard of positive identification, isn't perfect. Then there's the tyranny consideration, another step toward the slippery slope to an Orwellian nightmare.

On the other hand, the State's security concerns and desire to avoid falsely identifying non-felons might be abetted by a database that clearly distinguishes felon from non. Furthermore, a DNA database could speed up the search to identify criminals--after all, every felon was once a non-felon.

These are just a few initial, scattered thoughts on the subject. As always, more analysis, links and evidence are on the way, and your comments and questions help fuel the discussion.

Added: The inimitable Radley Balko responds to a call for a national database.

Criminal justice interests aren't the only ones worth considering. In Texas, academic researchers collected mitochondrial DNA samples in a secret database. It's important to note that mitochondrial DNA can't be traced to individuals, but one could easily imagine a public health initiative to gather nuclear DNA.

Added 5/2 The ACLU's Tania Simoncelli offers some arguments in favor of the resolution.

Added 6/7: And there's always the possibility of embarrassing errors.