Tuesday, May 30, 2006

More on the Hypocrisy of Petro-Politics

George Monbiot has an article excoriating global leaders for their hypocrisy in petro-politics. Monbiot compares the condemnation of Evo Morales for nationalizing Bolivia's oil industry (to help the poor) with the global silence when the government of Chad spent its oil revenues to acquire more arms and torture its political opponents, even though Chad had made agreements to spend the money on the needy.

Democracy and its discontents

More people voted for the winner of American Idol this year than have ever voted in a US presidential election. My spin on this is that people are more interested in entertainment than in fixing the serious problems the world faces.

Of course, the choices in terms of candidates that voters are presented with are often less than appealing with the candidates revealing few real differences and basically asking the voters to pick the winner based upon who has the cutest family. And after two hundred years of gerrymandering, the vote is essentially rigged at the structural level and the vote is all but a foregone conclusion.

But if we want to leave a better world for our grandchildren, if we don't want civilization to collapse under the pressures of climate change and the end of cheap oil, then we must demand more from our elected representatives. We must demand leadership and not photo ops, we must endeavor to make difficult choices in a complex world.

Which is why our grandchildren are totally screwed.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Master of Information

I presented my portfolio yesterday and it went well. I passed with distinction, so I may now bill myself as a Master of Information. That rolls off the tongue more easily than Master of Library and Information Science.

I posted a version of my portfolio |PDF| online in case anyone is interested. This version can only be read online, (unless you hack Adobe's DRM) but if you'd like a version you can print, send me an email.

My friends Mun Mun, the Strawman and Brian sat in on my presentation. It's always nice to have moral support during those times in life when years of hard work come down to a single, defining moment.

Monday, May 22, 2006

SSRIs increase brain cell growth

Over at Wired's Bodyhack blog, I saw a link to this article which indicates that SSRI's spur the development of new neurons in the brain.


Kathleen Doheny writes:
The researchers decided to look at how the use of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants -- the widely used class of drugs that includes Celexa, Paxil, Prozac and Zoloft -- might spur brain cell growth. To do so, they tracked the way in which stem cells -- undifferentiated cells that can grow into specialized cells -- became neurons in a special mouse model given the antidepressant Prozac (fluoxetine).

"Stem cells in the brain go through several steps before they become neurons," Enikolopov said. Examining the cascade of events, his team found that "cells which are born from the stem cells, called amplifying progenitors, are the cells being targeted by Prozac," he said. According to Enikolopov, Prozac zeroes in on these amplifying progenitors and increases their numbers. Within three to four weeks, his team noticed an increased number of mature neurons. |Health Day|
This reminds me of a character in Voice of the Whirlwind by Walter Jon Williams who was hooked on a drug that was designed to regrow severed spinal cords. The drug had the effect of increasing intelligence, but there was a negative feedback loop. If you stopped taking the drug you ended up dumber than you were in the first place.

I don't know if this research indicates that SSRI's make you smarter, but it is an interesting factoid, nonetheless.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Blogging Consultant

I remember being told in high school that something like 50% of the job positions in the year 2010 didn't exist at that moment in 1990.

Today I ran across this woman, Suw Charman, who is a professional blogging consultant.

Hard to believe that's a real job, but if they pay you for it, I figure it's real.

That was pretty mind-boggling to me as a high school students. How do you prepare for jobs that don't exist yet?

Life gets more complicated every single day...

Famous Last Words

Saw this quiz over at the Bellman.

Safety Neal's Last Words Will Be:

"I can pass this guy."

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

A Wiki of Wiki

I gave a presentation on Wikis today and you should check out WikiIndex if you haven't already. There are over 2500 wikis listed there. Who would have guessed there were so many?

Do you know of wikis that aren't listed there? Then go ahead and add them! I did a quick write-up of the high points of my presentation here if you're interested.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Trial by Blog

Korea is experimenting with trial by blog. While many courts have been working on electronic docketing, it sounds as if the Koreans have a more sweeping revolution in mind for litigation.
``Internet-based trials will also help the public understand how our legal system works and what we are trying to do. It’s not that we believe we can expand the Internet-based model in all cases, but we are looking for ways to take advantage of the advancements in technology,’’ he said.

The plans for the Internet-based trial systems were first suggested by the Supreme Court last year, as part of initiatives to reduce complications in legal procedure and better educate the public on court matters, including how lawsuits are set in motion, the rules of trial conduct, and the procedure for pursuing appeals. The court established an Internet site (exdoc.scourt.go.kr) to experiment the electronic-filing of court documents.

Authorities believe there is a possibility Internet-based trials could be deployed in some parts of civil cases. Depending on the results of the Seoul Administrative Court’s experiments, the Supreme Court will decide whether it will push for the revision of the current law on civil procedures and designate the types of trials appropriate for the Internet.

``We believe Weblogs will allow us to conduct trials and hearings on simple civil matters through the Internet. The point is to not waste too much of our time on predictable cases that are similar to each other with similar ways of being dealt with,’’ said Chang Jun-hyun, who is a researcher for trial procedures at the Supreme Court. |Korea Times|
Having worked as a clerk of the court for limited civil actions in Kansas, I think this seems quite reasonable. The courts are looking for methods to economize on the processing and storage of paperwork for minor civil actions. The amount of paperwork required to collect on a bad check is shocking.

Thanks to Debby H. for the link!

Thursday, May 11, 2006

US Economy gathers steam

Those irrepressible capitalists over at the Wall Street Journal are bullish on the economy and the ability of our economy to weather rising energy costs.

E.S. Browning writes:
What helped drive stocks higher in the late 1990s was the rise of the Internet and information technology. They combined to boost labor productivity and to spark the market's love affair with technology companies such as Cisco Systems Inc. and Dell Inc.

Today, the stock market is benefiting from something broader: consumer demand at home and powerful economic growth abroad.

A series of developments that skeptics thought would kill the bull market -- resurgent inflation, rising labor costs, falling consumer spending, a collapsing housing market -- haven't materialized. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke gave investors a boost in late April when he told Congress that surging energy prices have so far failed to bleed into other prices.|WSJ (Sub'n Req'd)|
I admit to being one of those skeptics. I'm glad the economy is holding up. Hopefully this will give people the opportunity to convert to more energy efficient resources before it's too late. Anecdotally, I am seeing evidence of this. Recently one of my co-workers went to look at gas-sipping Toyota compacts and was told there was a waiting list for these cars in the Twin Cities metro area. Then I asked a building inspector about tankless water heaters and he told me I was the fifth person to ask him about them this month. And it's early in the month! (But he didn't know much about them, actually...)

The Irrelevance of Evolution

Author Tom Wolfe recently argued that culture is far more important than evolution in the development of the human race since we developed the power of speech.
Evolution ended when man learned to talk, argued Tom Wolfe in the 35th Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities. In remarks prepared for delivery on Wednesday night in Washington, the novelist and journalist invited his audience to set Darwinian theory aside and "look at the actual nature of the human beast -- at artificial selection, 100 percent manmade.....Evolution came to an end when the human beast developed speech! As soon as he became not Homo sapiens, 'man reasoning,' but Homo loquax, 'man talking'!" |Chronicle of Higher Ed (Sub'n Req'd)|
It's an interesting thought, and one that I am inclined to agree with. Evolution moves slowly (even under punctuated equilibrium) with species slowly responding to environmental changes. But humans long ago discovered how to change our environment. Of course, it turns out that the long range consequences of our actions were far beyond our ken, but that is usually the case for us, we are finite creatures and our actions have many unintended consequences.

Outlawing social software in libraries & schools

The whole uproar over MySpace strikes me as a lot of sound and fury over nothing. It's like Congress falling all over itself to protect children from violent video games, I think it's a matter of going after the symptoms of a violent society and ignoring any prospect of addressing the true scope of the problem.

Now a group of representatives, billing themselves as the Suburban Caucus, want to prevent schools and public libraries from allowing access to MySpace and other social networking sites.

More coverage at the Tech Law Prof Blog.

This type of thing drives the libertarian in me crazy. I'm not a hard core libertarian, but I do think the government far too often pokes its nose into people's business. I was talking to Spammy T the other day and he summed it up well when we said:

Every time I send a note to my congressman or senators for some [Electronic Freedom Foundation] issue, I make sure to add in my own verbage about how we need fewer federal laws, not more and how the federal government needs to be smaller. If we could get a streamlined federal government that actually ONLY did what it's supposed to constitutionally (interstate trade and mutual defense), we'd be able to also streamline the tax system as well as the intellectualy property system to make sense again. First thing I'd do would be to revoke corporations' status as "people".

Danah Boyd offers an interesting perspective on why this generation of kids are so attracted to online spaces:

As the real world is perceived as more dangerous with child abductors lurking on every corner, kids flock online to hang out with friends, express their hopes and dreams and bare their souls with often painful honesty -- mostly unbeknownst to their tech-clumsy parents. "We have a complete culture of fear," said Danah Boyd, 28, a Ph.D student and social media researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. "Kids really have no place where they are not under constant surveillance."

Driven to and from school, chaperoned at parties and often lacking public transport, today's middle-class American kids are no longer free to hang out unsupervised at the park, the bowling alley or to bike around the neighborhood they way they did 20 years ago. "A lot of that coming-of-age stuff in public is gone. So kids are creating social spaces within all this controlled space," said Boyd. |Wired| (emphasis mine)

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Cassandra Syndrome

While in practice I'm pretty cheerful and optimistic, I consider myself a cynic. I think we all have to work hard to make the world a better place, and there's nothing for it but the doing.

Progress is not inevitable. I fear that we could quite easily slip back into a new Dark Ages. We must prevent that. I am concerned about recent trends such as global warming, species extinction, over-reliance on petrochemicals and computer technology, Bush's doctrine of pre-emptive nuclear strikes, the rise of fundamentalism (Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist...ok, maybe not Buddhist), Bush's endorsement of torture and disappearing of political enemies...

If you believe the polls, almost 3 out of 4 Americans feel our country is moving the wrong direction.

I live an incredibly lucky life and I hope we can secure an equal or better quality of life for future generations. But I am not optimistic that those of us in the US will change our wasteful, polluting ways before its too late. And I fear that India and China will embrace our wasteful, polluting ways and push global civilization over the brink.

I hope I'm wrong, truly I do. But I'm not optimistic.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Quote of the Day: The Lot of All Men

It was his lot, as is the lot of all men, to live in bad times.

- Jorge Luis Borges, A New Refutation of Time, 1946

Saturday, May 06, 2006

How well prepped is your city for the coming oil crisis?

The Coming Oil Crisis
Business Week's cover story this month discusses the changes in the global politics of oil and how national oil companies and nationalization of resources is fueling uncertainty and driving production down.

While most analysts think oil will hover at its current price, some think that if prices mimic the last big runup between 1970 and 1980, oil could hit almost $200 a barrel by decade's end, or about $6 for a gallon of gas. Some options traders are already betting that oil, now around $72 a barrel, could rise to $100 by December. Washington consultants PFC Energy figures the world is consuming oil at more than two times the rate of discovery of new supply. Conservation and efficiency gains have already saved billions, but they have not been enough to offset sharply rising demand from China and India.|Business Week|

Make no mistake, there is a crisis looming for energy costs world-wide.

Readiness of Cities for the Coming Oil Crisis
Sustain Lane has an short piece ranking how well cities in the US can be expected to fare in the face of rising oil prices.

Saint Paul isn't listed, but I was gratified to see that Minneapolis comes in at number 14. But then I noticed that Los Angeles comes in at number 20. Surely they jest!

It appears to me that they're being serious, which makes me think their methodology is seriously flawed. I'm not a statistician, but I think the problem is that they are looking at cities by their legal boundaries independent of the sprawling megalopolis they inhabit. The City of Long Beach and the City of Los Angeles are hardly separable at street level.

I think the exercise that Sunstainable Lane is performing is admirable and this is a question I have asked myself idly several times in the past, but I think their method needs to be revisited. But at least they tried.

I usually just shrug my shoulders and conclude that America's car-centric way of life is in deep trouble.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Bolivia Nationalizes Gas & Oil

The new president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, has nationalized the energy resources of Bolivia. This should make the international energy markets a bit more interesting.

Actually, I think this could be a good thing. Hopefully the instability in oil and gas prices will help spur the citizens of the world to get serious about adopting alternative energy measures and decreasing greenhouse gases.

Throughout the [election] campaign, Mr Morales...wanted to renegotiate foreign ownership of Bolivia's natural resources. This would not be appropriation, they said, it would not be nationalisation, it would be a renegotiation of existing contracts on terms that would provide a greater share of the revenues for the state.

Throughout the campaign, hydrocarbons were the most frequently mentioned natural resources. Bolivians have long been sensitive about foreigners exploiting their resources, and not without reason. First came the Spanish, to rid the country of its silver, starting at Potosí in 1545. By the 20th century, tin mining had taken over. Today, Bolivia has the second largest reserves of natural gas in Latin America after Venezuela; 45% of it is exported to Brazil at a low price. But in the late 1970s, faced with crippling debt, Bolivia began to place its public assets in private hands: the mines, the railways, electricity, water, the state airline, hydrocarbons all went through a process delicately termed "capitalisation" in order to avoid the word "privatisation".

But the economic rigour demanded by the neo-liberal orthodoxy failed to produce the expected results. Poverty remained rampant, as did political instability....

For the US it could mark the fulfilment of another of Mr Morales' pledges, to be "Washington's worst nightmare". After a lot of bellicose comment during the campaign, the Bush administration has adopted an unexpectedly conciliatory tone....

"It's going to be difficult for the Republicans to resist saying, what are we going to do now? The commies are running amok in Latin America. But the truth now is that the US has run out of options. There's not much [the US] can do, short of killing the leaders."|Guardian (emphasis added)|

I hope the Bushies don't try to pull a Salvador Allende on Evo Morales. I think the fact that there are now several socialist leaders in Latin America makes the option of force less useful. Killing the president of Bolivia would anger the presidents of Brazil and Venezuela and vice versa.

Hopefully the Bushies have enough contact with reality to realize this.

Wikitruth takes on Wikipedia

My friend the Strawman sent me a link to Julian Dibbell's article on a new site called Wikitruth exposing some of the machinations behind the scenes at Wikipedia.

As of this writing there is a Wikipedia page on Wikitruth, but it has been locked down, allegedly due to vandalism. Which seems reasonable given some of the unflattering things said about people on Wikitruth.

Unfortunately all human institutions are subject to the vagaries of human ego. And Wikipedia has very quickly become an institution to my mind, a deeply flawed institution...but an institution nonetheless.

Spring comes to Minnesota

It rained all last weekend and the plants have been growing incredibly fast as a result. Spring has finally sprung in Minnesota.

Yesterday there was a rabbit in my yard munching grass. I was taking Halle for a walk and she wanted to stalk the rabbit, of course, but it was way too fast for her.

During our walk we saw a mallard drake hanging out by a drainage pond down the block. After Halle's walk I headed back to work only to see another rabbit in front of William Mitchell.

I think the Twin Cities do a good job of blending the urban environment with nature through their parks, lakes, and greenbelts.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Writing on the Wall: The Shrinking American Standard of Living

Yesterday was the Day without Immigrants and the failure of modern Know Nothing legislators to face reality is shocking to me. Morons like Tom Tancredo and Dana Rohrbacher refuse to accept economic and demographic reality. As if walling ourselves off from the rest of the world and return to the blessed 1950's is an option.

Dana Rohrbacher told the Minutemen's Rally in DC: “There is no job that Americans won’t do for the right amount of compensation,” he stated at the rally. “Illegal immigration depresses wages and is both an economic and security threat to our country.” |House.Gov|

I single Rohrbacher out because I saw his line of drivel on Larry King Live last night, but what he and his fellow racists fail to accept is that the American standard of living is unsustainable.

Some jobs are being outsourced offshore while other jobs are taken by immigrants. No wall is going to stop that. I think it's time we accept that the American standard of living needs to come into parity with that of the rest of the world and that transition is going to be very painful for us.

Maybe we can slow things down a bit by building walls and bombing brown people continuously, but nothing can stop this leveling of the economic playing field.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Quote of the Day: Idiots Generalize

To generalize is to be an idiot. To particularize is the alone distinction of merit — general knowledges are those knowledges that idiots possess.

- Annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses, pp. xcvii—xcviii [circa 1798—1809]