Instructions from the Bench

The judge in A.W.'s case advocates for how he thinks the matter should be settled.
THE COURT: –You’ve decided to battle, and he comes back. And see, you’re — you — you’re the kind of guy, you don’t want to get into this to settle this, mano y mano. You want to get all these friends who got nothing else to do with their time, in this judge’s opinion, because — my God, I’m a little bit older than you are, and I haven’t got enough time in the day to do all the things I want to do. And I thought by retirement, I would have less to do. I got more! Because everybody knows I’m free! So they all come to me. But you, you are starting a — a conflagration, for lack of a better word, and you’re just letting the thing go recklessly no matter where it goes. I mean, you get some — and I’m going to use word I (ph) — freak somewhere up Oklahoma, got nothing better to do with his time, so he does the nastiest things in the world he can do to this poor gentleman. What right has that guy got to do it? 
WALKER: He has no right to do that, Your Honor. 
THE COURT: Well, he’s — you incited him. 
WALKER: But, your honor, I did not incite him within the Brandenburg standard though. 
THE COURT: Forget Bradenburg [sic]. Let’s go by Vaughey right now, and common sense out in the world. But you know, where I grew up in Brooklyn, when that stuff was pulled, it was settled real quickly. 
WALKER: I’m not sure what that means, your honor. 
THE COURT: –Very quickly. And I’m not going to talk about those ways, but boy, it ended fast. I even can tell you, when I grew up in my community, you wanted to date an Italian girl, you had to get the Italian boy’s permission. But that was the old neighborhoods back in the city. And it was really fair. When someone did something up there to you, your sister, your girlfriend, you got some friends to take them for a ride in the back of the truck. 
WALKER: Well, Your Honor, what– 
THE COURT: –That ended it. You guys have got this new mechanical stuff out here, the electronic stuff, that you can just ruin somebody without doing anything. But you started it.
So, you know, I guess you know what the court in Maryland thinks you should do next.   If anyone complains, tell them the judge so instructed you from the bench.

Considering the President's Economic Vision

The ads are already out:  President Obama said at a press conference that "the private sector is doing fine."  Republicans are playing the clip of those few words, merry in the sense that it demonstrates that the President is out of touch.

Let's consider the remark in context, though, because it's a revealing description of how he thinks about the economy.

The truth of the matter is that, as I said, we created 4.3 million jobs over the last 27 months, over 800,000 just this year alone.  
The private sector is doing fine. Where we're seeing weaknesses in our economy have to do with state and local government. Oftentimes cuts initiated by, you know, Governors or mayors who are not getting the kind of help that they have in the past from the federal government  and who don't have the same kind of flexibility as the federal government in dealing with fewer revenues coming in.
What's really interesting about this set of remarks is not the factual claim, but the interpretation of the facts.  The facts cited are roughly correct:  for example, government jobs really have declined rapidly during the Obama administration.  The reason is roughly what he says it is:  lots of state and local governments operate under balanced budget amendments, and aren't free to deficit-spend past their eyeballs, hair, and ten-gallon hat.

What we're left with, then, is the interpretation of the facts.  It's pretty clear that the recovery is unusually anemic by historic standards.  It's also true that the 4.3 million jobs 'created' haven't made up for the number of jobs lost:  when you take account of the number of people who have left the workforce entirely, things look different.

Also, we can see that the private jobs that do exist are objectively worse than the jobs that used to exist.  Consider the movement from full-time to part-time jobs by employers -- a way of avoiding having to provide the benefits that have become an expected part of full-time labor in America, and thus a way of paying workers lower total compensation for each hour of work.  Or consider the increasing classification of lower-wage jobs as "seasonal" rather than "part-time."  A seasonal worker can be paid below minimum wage.  And of course, raises and bonuses for lucky workers who do still have full-time jobs are not much forthcoming, while the costs of energy and food are spiking.

All this means that workers are being pinched horribly:  many can't find work, and if they can it pays less than it used to pay, especially relative to the costs they encounter.  They may now  have to buy benefits on the open market, where they are also more expensive.  Companies are finding people will take these jobs in spite of the vastly reduced compensation, though, because there are so many people who have no work that the market value of your work is just less than it used to be.  Presumably you aren't a worse worker, but you're not worth as much anymore.

This is interpreted as "fine."  OK; that's the Republicans' point.

What I find as interesting, though, is the complaint about the shrinking of government.  What the President really finds to be out of order is that state and local governments are having to respond to the economic crisis by tightening belts.  The main thing he wants to fix is to achieve higher levels of government employment.

The thing is, though, this was a policy decision by the electorates of these states and localities.  They can change the laws themselves, if they want to do so.  What they decided was that, during hard times when tax revenues are lower, government should spend less.  That means cutting some of the nice things that we enjoy government doing -- parks and recreation services, librarians, and so forth -- as well as being more careful with essential services.  Perhaps taxes or fees can be raised to pay for these, but if not, services must be more carefully allocated so as to do with less.

If people get tired of this, they can vote to rescind balanced budget amendments.  They want it this way; and at various times, 32 states have passed resolutions asking for a Constitutional Convention to require the Federal government to act this way as well.

So what we have here is a stark difference of opinion, among broad sections of the public, about how government should respond to fiscal crises.  The President is painting this as a government failure, but in fact it's the state and local governments acting exactly the way their citizens want them to act.

There's another issue behind the decline in government jobs.  The failure of Congress to pass a budget for years now has led to tremendous uncertainty; combined with the failure of the so-called "super-committee," even many Federal departments are going to get cut and nobody can be quite sure how big the cuts will be, or whether Congress will finally move to avoid them.  Thus, even some Federal departments -- certainly this is true for DOD -- have great uncertainty that is keeping them from starting new projects or hiring new people.

This last is a much clearer case of government failure.  Congress has failed as an institution, but not in failing to provide extra goodies for state and local governments to use in dodging the will of their constituents.  Congress has failed to do its most basic duty for the good order of the Federal government.

That's the one aspect of the situation the President didn't talk about.  He sees a problem where state and local governments are acting appropriately according to the mandate they have received from their citizens; he sees no problem where Congress is blatantly failing to perform its most basic function.

The private sector?  Well, whether or not you agree that it's "fine," it should be obvious that it's not of particular interest to him.

Let Me Just Say...

...that I am always surprised by how much energy there is in a big white oak hitting the ground.

Venus transit

My husband found me this spectacular shot of the transit. I forgot to mention in my prior post why people went to such trouble to view the transit every century or so from as many spots on the globe as they could manage. (Captain Cook, for instance, arranged to watch it from the South Pacific.) The purpose was to use the parallax effect to estimate the distance of Venus from the Sun. Astronomers already had a pretty good idea of the relative size of various planetary orbits, but hadn't figured out a way to put an absolute measurement on any of them. Accurate measurements of the timing of the Venus transit from distant spots on Earth permitted a triangulation that yielded not only the distance of Venus from the Sun but also, by extension, the distance of the other planets.

The stages of grief

I can't find a direct link to this video on YouTube, so you just have to click through to the HotAir article, which also has another amusing clip, but it's the Jon Stewart routine that really cracked me up.

Something tells me these guys may not enjoy the rest of 2012.

Authorized. Lock it Down.

"Siri, kill that guy:  Drones might get voice controls."

Once again, Shlock Mercenary is ahead of the curve.

Sen. Chambliss on SWATting

One of my Senators, Saxby Chambliss, has taken a hand in the SWATting business.  I particularly appreciate this part of his letter to Attorney General Holder:
I appreciate your attention to this matter, and I look forward to your response no later than June 29, 2012. 
What was it they used to say about a mailed fist in a velvet glove?

Trying to Sort out the Numbers on Wisconsin

One of the claims being made about Wisconsin is that it represents a lesson about how money, post Citizens United, is now purchasing elections.  That seems like a potentially serious concern no matter where you sit:  even if you're entirely sanguine about the effect of money on elections (taking fundraising capacity as a sort of proxy for competence), it makes it hard to draw lessons for the November race because the Romney/Obama contest likely will be on fairly even terms.

However, looking around at the numbers being floated today, I'm not sure what lesson to draw.  Here are some things being reported:

1)  $63.5M total was spent on the elections, with $22M coming from outside superPACs.  Union money amounted to around $5.5M, although the wording of the story makes the precise figure a little unclear.  There was an eight-to-one advantage for the Republican candidate for governor over the Democrat.

2)   Big Labor spent $21M on the elections.  Democrats and their backers spent $23.4M, with "outside groups" who were against Republicans spending $18.6M.  I'm not clear from the wording here whether that 18.6M is out of the $23.4, or additional.

3)  $44M total was spent on the elections, with Democrats outspending Republicans $23.4M to $20.5M.  There was a Democratic advantage even on outside spending, with outside Democrat-leaning money coming to $18.6M to Republican outsiders $15.9M.

There's a big difference in the lessons to learn here, depending on whether story 1 is correct, or story 3 is correct.  Story 2 shares some figures with story 3, but that may be simply because they are sharing sources.  Until we know what number set is correct, it's hard to judge what the lesson is.  It could vary from "having more money is the main thing" to "having more money didn't help."

Sweet Mental Revenge

In honor of the Wisconsin recall, a little song by our own Waylon Jennings.  There are some lessons in the analogy.  Once we were all on the side of the firefighter's unions; once we loved them.  Why not?  They fought to defend the principle that the firemen who protected us all deserved the best we could give them.  Now, well... like the teacher's unions, we find ourselves paying so much for retired members that we can no longer afford to continue the function that originally earned our gratitude and honor.

So here we are.

Here is another version, a little more recent.  It makes a nice contrast.  Waylon Jennings always wanted the style to change and update with the times; he would have been pleased, I think.

Wisconsin blowout

Wisconsin voters spanked big labor today in its efforts to oust Governor Scott Walker and his lieutenant.  In the 2010 race between the same candidates, Walker beat Barrett by 5%.  Tonight, according to both Fox and MSNBC, the advantage looks to be about 20%, though the L.A. Times is still predicting a "photo finish."

Anno Domini 774

A mysterious source of radiation was captured in tree rings sometime from 774 to 775.  Scientists say it wasn't solar flares or supernovae; it's some mystery what it might have been.

I'd just like to note the entry from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for that year.
This year the Northumbrians banished their king, Alred, from York at Easter-tide; and chose Ethelred, the son of Mull, for their lord, who reigned four winters. This year also appeared in the heavens a red crucifix, after sunset; the Mercians and the men of Kent fought at Otford; and wonderful serpents were seen in the land of the South-Saxons.
Now, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is a pretty sober document.  Most of the entries were made by monks, recording the chief events of the year.  However, once in a while one does get a surprising claim -- for example, see the entry for the year A.D. 793, the year the Vikings first appeared in England and plundered the holy island of Lindisfarne.

Still, in spite of the occasional entry that contemporary readers are inclined to reject, it's generally a reliable source for information.  If they say a red crucifix appeared in the heavens that year, I'd be inclined to consider that as a possible physical description of whatever it is that caused the strangeness in the tree rings.

Point of Parliamentary Procedure, Lileks:

James Lileks is not happy with the soda ban in NYC.  He's also a little irritable about people who refer to sodas as "poison."  He has a few examples of the difference between things like d-CON and things like Coca-Cola, and then adds:
Oh but she has a six ounce glass bottle, and now we have redonkulous sizes! Yes. That's true. And I apologize for reviving the word Redonkulous. But if soda is poison, then portion size is irrelevant. The Mr Yuk stickers don’t say “call 911 but only if you drank a lot of bleach. A little is okey-doke, though." So it's not a poison unless you drink huge amounts all the time, which is also true of shampoo and vodka and sugary lemonade little kids sell at card tables on the corner in summer, and motor oil. Right? So it's not poison.
Actually, the way d-CON works is through an anticoagulant that my grandmother used to take by prescription for her heart condition.  Also, a little chlorine bleach -- two drops per quart of water according to this government-issued pamphlet -- is a useful disinfectant for drinking water in many situations.

The distinction between "poison" and "not poison" is actually pretty hard to draw.  Plain water can kill you if you drink too much of it.

Catching Bank Robbers in Colorado

So, on the one hand, they did catch the guy.

On the other hand, the reporter has a good point.  What happens if the bank robber decides to open fire, now that you've handcuffed every single adult in the area?

For that matter, what justifies putting chains on free men and women when you know that almost none of them are guilty?  The assumption that it is OK to chain people up at the convenience of the state is the sort of thing that strikes me as fundamentally wrong in a free country.

Venerean transit

Even rarer than a Diamond Jubilee is a transit of Venus across the face of the Sun, which (weather permitting) we should get a chance to see near sundown on Tuesday, June 5.  Grab that chance, for you won't likely get another.  Like a solar eclipse by the Moon, a transit occurs only on the infrequent occasions when a celestial object passes between the Earth and the Sun just when the slightly tilted planes of the orbits of the Earth and the other body intersect at a "node."  In the case of Venus, with its 225-day "year," things line up properly according to a 243-year cycle, during which there are a pair of transits about 8 years apart.  Because the last transit occurred in 2004, Earth residents won't see another one until well into the 22nd century.  In ordinary years, Venus will pass the Sun as many as 18 solar diameters above or below, casting no shadow.  (I don't remember hearing a word about the 2004 transit, do you?)

Watching a transit of Venus, like watching a solar eclipse, requires care to avoid eye injury.  Most darkened glasses are considered insufficient.  The safest and easiest viewing results from watching an image projected through a tiny pinprick in paper.  As you can see from the picture, however, the disk of shadow is quite small.  Better viewing probably can be found in a planned NASA webcast.

Though the first documented awareness of a visible transit across the face of the Sun was in the 17th century, ancient cultures have tracked the orbit of Venus for millennia.  Beginning in about 1200 B.C., Babylonian astronomers noticed the regular patterns of the heavenly bodies and produced star catalogues.  By the 7th century B.C., they had produced a careful chart of the risings and settings of Venus over a period of 21 years, perhaps the earliest evidence of an understanding of the periodicity of planetary phenomena.  The Babylonians seem to have concentrated on periods and prediction without developing a spatial, geometric model for the movement of the planets.  It fell to the Hellenistic Greeks to postulate ideal circular motions.  An early 3rd century B.C. astronomer named Aristarchus is said to have been the first to deduce that the Earth spins around its own axis while rotating around the sun.  Although his arguments persuaded a 2nd century B.C.  Chaldean astronomer named Seleucus, most of the ancient world, including Aristotle and Ptolemy, adopted a geocentric model that persisted for over a thousand years.

The geocentric model was supported by careful observations that permitted surprisingly good predictions of the location and timing of astronomical events.  It suffered from two serious drawbacks, however.  First, the planets were required to inscribe all kinds of complicated little circles within circles ("epicycles") in order to conform to astronomical observations of periodic retrograde motion.  These epicycles were not so much errors as unnecessary complications resulting from adopting an extremely inconvenient point of reference.  Copernicus solved the "wheels within wheels" problem in the 16th century A.D. by returning to the heliocentric model that never should have been abandoned in the first place.  Unfortunately, his model could not improve on the Ptolemaic predictions because of the second drawback in both systems:  the over-simplified assumption that planetary motions were the perfect circles that all right-thinking people considered essential for dignified celestial bodies.  As a result, even the more open-minded authorities were slow to jettison the old geocentric model.  Johannes Kepler soon solved that problem by figuring out in the early 17th century that the orbits must be elliptical, with the sun at one focus of the ellipse.  (At about this same time, Galileo Galilei was using the brand-new telescope to discover that Jupiter had its own moons in orbit around itself, and that Venus showed phases just like the Earth's moon, suggesting that it orbited the sun rather than orbiting the Earth.)  It fell to Kepler, with his unprecedented grasp of the mathematical underpinnings of orbital mechanics, to make a successful prediction of a transit of Venus, in 1631, which went a long way toward conferring respectability on the new-fangled model.

Galileo conducted careful experiments with falling bodies and figured out that objects near Earth followed parabolic trajectories, in which the lateral movement varied directly with time but the vertical movement varied with time squared.  It did not occur to him, however, or to anyone else, apparently, to connect this mathematical pattern with the movements of the planets.  It required the incomparable genius of Isaac Newton, late in the 17th century, to connect the two in a single law of gravitation.  He is famously supposed to have considered the falling of an apple from a tree in conjunction with the Moon hanging overhead, and to have imagined stretching the curving path of a thrown object until it could stay aloft all the way around the horizon and describe a full orbit.  All these motions, whether of apples or planets, are varieties of what we now call conic sections:  the shapes that can be derived geometrically from the essential characteristic of an inverse square law, including circles, ellipses, parabolas, and hyperbolas.
  • Circle:  x2 + y2 = r2
  • Ellipse:  x2 / a2 + y2 / b2 = 1
  • Parabola:  x = y2
  • Hyperbola:  x2 / a2 - y2 / b2 = 1
The heliocentric view has not been an unalloyed popular success.  Polls still show that something like a fifth of the population believes the sun revolves around the Earth.  Chances are, the transit of Venus won't change their minds.

Diamond Jubilee

The Queen of England celebrates her Diamond Jubilee this weekend, the first since Queen Victoria's.  That one occasioned Kipling's Recessional, so recently quoted here.  I wish to remind readers of the Hall of the reason why we have cause to love this particular woman.  We must never forget...
....that this queen had the Coldstream Guards play "The Star Spangled Banner" at Buckingham Palace after 9/11; or that she sang it, herself and from memory, at a religious ceremony not long after.
Nor should we forget the faithful friendship of Her Majesty's armed forces in the nearly eleven years of war that have followed.  Here are some members of those armed forces performing for her on her 85th birthday.

The author of that piece wrote another famous song.  Already Kipling's prophecy has caught that one.

May our British friends have good kings and queens in the years to come.  On this occasion, congratulations, ma'am.

Mark the Jews

CUNY has an idea.
Touting a move to make its faculty more diverse, CUNY administrators have broken out Jews into a separate minority group: “White/Jewish.”
Two questions:

1)  How does CUNY "make its faculty more diverse" by changing how the same set of people are labeled?

2)  Why wouldn't Jews want to be clearly labeled?  It's not like this is some unheard-of reform that's never been tried before.

Actually, one more question:  how do we mark Sammy Davis, Jr.?


Can nation-states really produce scarier malware than unaffiliated geeks?  While the Iranian nuclear program continues to struggle with the setbacks imposed by Stuxnet, a new and even more imposing program has been discovered infiltrating the Middle East.  "Flame" has a number of modules, including this impressive function:
Among Flame’s many modules is one that turns on the internal microphone of an infected machine to secretly record conversations that occur either over Skype or in the computer’s near vicinity; a module that turns Bluetooth-enabled computers into a Bluetooth beacon, which scans for other Bluetooth-enabled devices in the vicinity to siphon names and phone numbers from their contacts folder; and a module that grabs and stores frequent screenshots of activity on the machine, such as instant-messaging and e-mail communications, and sends them via a covert SSL channel to the attackers’ command-and-control servers.
I feel we're in a period much like the dawn of the antibiotic age, with doctors stumbling around trying out brand-new strategies to fight naive pathogens. H/t, again, Rocket Science.

Latrines, taboos, vulgarity, and the Internet

Some scholarly articles are unusually rich in detail.  Who knew that a medieval cure for bed-wetting was to feed the offender with ground hedgehog, while "among the Dahomeans of West Africa repeat offenders had a live frog attached to their waist to shock them into self-mastery"?

The anthropology of physical elimination is rich.  One cited researcher proposes a link between intolerant societies and their marginal control of excretion-borne health threats:
Recently it has even been argued that cross-national differences in closed-mindedness and intolerance are excretion-related:  countries with higher levels of parasite stress, associated psychologically with disgust and materially with poor sanitation, are less likely to have robust democracies, individual freedom, equitable distribution of economic resources and gender equality (Thornhill et al., 2009).
Another interesting link may be found between the rise of the internet and the decline of robust "latrinalia":
Arguably in the internet age there is little point writing taboo thoughts on bathroom walls: why scribble for a meagre one-at-a-time audience when you can make equally vulgar anonymous comments on a public discussion board or chatroom?
H/t Rocket Science.

The hand weaver and the factory maid

AVI's posting of a Steeleye Span song led me, as such things often do, to a YouTube jaunt.  Here is a song about the social dislocations of the industrial revolution:  a hand-weaving man's girlfriend has become a factory maid who no longer wants to let him into her bedroom at night.  It's always been one of my favorite Steeleye Span productions, not only for the way Maddy Pryor alternates with the instruments between the primary and secondary tunes, but for the glorious a cappella ending chorus, with her terrific voice tripled in tracks.  The YouTube notes suggest that this is a mashup of at least three traditional songs.  The uploader provided appropriate images of looms and fabrics.

Oh, when I was a tailor, I carried my bodkin and shears. 
When I was a weaver, I carried my roods and my gear. 
My temples also, my smallclothes and reed in my hand. 
And wherever I go, there's the jolly bold weaver again.

I'm a hand weaver to me trade; I fell in love with a factory maid. 
And if I could but her favor win, I'd stand beside her and weave by steam.

Me father to me scornful said, "How could you marry a factory maid? 
When you could have girls fine and gay, dressed like unto the Queen of May?"

"As for your fine girls, I don't care. If I could but enjoy my dear, 
I'd stand in the factory all the day, and she and I would keep our shuttles in play."

I went to my love's bedroom door, where oftentimes I had been before. 
But I could not speak nor yet get in the pleasant bed where my love lay in.

"How can you say it's a pleasant bed, when nought lies there but a factory maid?" 
"A factory lass although she be, blessed is the man that enjoys she."

Oh, pleasant thoughts run through me mind, as I turn down her sheets so fine 
And see her two breasts standing so, like two white hills all covered with snow.

The loom goes click and the loom goes clack 
The shuttle flies forward and then flies back 
The weaver's so bent that he's like to crack 
Such a wearisome trade is the weaver's.

The yarn is made into cloth at last 

The ends of weft they are made quite fast 
The weaver's labors are now all passed 
Such a wearisome trade is the weaver's.

Where are the girls?  I will tell you plain: The girls have all gone to weave by steam, 
And if you'd find them you must rise at dawn, and trudge to the mill in the early morn.