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25 March 2008

Hot Air

The local broadsheet has, today, a fascinating article about a college student who successfully memorized the first 3,141 digits of pi. I say that's impressive—I decided that the first 45, ending in 69399, were good enough for government work.

The online version explains how he does it.

When memorizing numbers, [James] Niles-Joyal, 22, does not simply repeat the digits over and over. Instead, the Ashburnham native sees shapes, emotions, and contours in the otherwise nondescript, non-repeating set of numbers. A series of digits can evoke a "white glow" in his brain, while other sets might look wealthy, or dull, or happy.

"I don't think what he's doing is completely different. All of us do unconsciously use mnemonics to remember," [Boston College psychology professor Elizabeth] Kensinger said. "We know someone's name is Steve because they remind us of another Steve."

Alas, the print version, thanks to the crack reporting and copy editing staff, had the following explanation from Dr. Kensinger:

All of us do unconsciously use pneumonics to remember.

So it's all that hot air that helps me remember stuff. And no wonder I had trouble getting things done when I had bronchitis that time.

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Posted by Tim W at 3/25/2008 03:16:00 PM

23 March 2008


It was only a matter of time before some bright corporate type stole the idea of recent tax policy to use as its marketing strategy.

Why should Congress and the White House have a monopoly on giving free things to folks who do not need free things? (For an example of what Congress likes to do, note that in 2005, over 56% of long-term capital gains in the United States were reported by those with adjusted gross income of over $1,000,000 per year. Remember that when the notion of capital gains taxes comes up.)

Today, the local broadsheet talks about the success of a high-end stroller company. And guess how they made their mark?

They ... [hired] a New York public relations firm that works with makers of baby products. The firm included the Vista stroller in a temporary private showroom it set up in a Beverly Hills hotel. The firm invited celebrities to troop through and request the products they liked—which they'd receive free, compliments of the company.

The result was the opportunity to "gift" UppaBaby strollers to actresses like Brooke Shields, Tori Spelling, and Denise Richards. (Ben Affleck and Tom Brady have also received strollers from the company, gratis.)

"We realized it was a big spend on public relations," Lauren says, "but we think you get a lot more bang for the buck from PR than marketing. It can cost $60,000 to put a one-page ad into a parenting magazine for just one month."

Paparazzi photos of celebrity moms using the strollers, it turned out, had even more impact than print advertising.

"If you get a picture of a celebrity pushing your stroller into the tabloids, it's amazing how many people will run out and buy it," says Janet McLaughlin, publisher of the website StrollerQueen.com. "That's like gold."

Good grief. It's bad enough that these strollers cost about the same as an Apple computer. If they really were worth $600 apiece, would the company need to fool its consumers into thinking that their favorite celebrities actually bought them?

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Posted by Tim W at 3/23/2008 12:31:00 AM

16 March 2008

Why Is This So Familiar?

Why is this claim about genetically modified (GM) rice so familiar?

Genetic engineering also helps achieve other goals of the organic farming movement. By reducing the use of pesticides and by reducing pests and disease, it can make farming more affordable and thus keep family farmers in business and assure local food security. It can also make food more nutritious: In 2011, plant breeders expect to release "golden rice," a genetically engineered variety that will help fight Vitamin A deficiency in the developing world, a disease that contributes to the deaths of 8 million young children each year.

They say that this great strain of rice will be released in three years. Oh, yes, I remember that claim like it was yesterday.

AstraZeneca P.L.C., a giant pharmaceutical company, said today that it would sell a genetically altered strain of "golden rice" in the developed world and also help make the technology freely available to the world's poorest countries.

The London-based company, which announced the agreement here in a news conference with one of the scientists who invented the rice, said it would be made available in three years. The rice, which is fortified with beta carotene that converts to vitamin A, would be given away in the developing world in the hopes of improving the health of undernourished people and curing some forms of blindness.

AstraZeneca's announcement came in May of 2000.

The problem is at least threefold. First, the giant agribusiness companies have a great deal more incentive to push new GM varieties that work with their pesticides (like Roundup Ready canola, corn, cotton, and soybeans) or that have other, marketable traits. Amazingly enough, Roundup Ready soybeans have not been there years away from market for the last eight years.

Second, the problem with pushing "golden rice" is that current rice varieties are already quite nutritious—as long as the grain is cooked and eaten whole—think brown rice, not white rice. And plenty of cheap, effective ways to get vitamin A already exist—think carrots and other vegetables. But solving the problem of getting actually existing nutritious food to the poor would require asking why tens of millions are subsisting on little more than polished rice.

Third, despite knowing a lot about the genomes of various plants, scientists do not have a full understanding of how organisms incorporate genes into their genomes, or whether the various bits of "junk DNA" actually affect those organisms. It would be great if someday, scientists could say for sure that inserting gene ZZ9-alpha would do these three things and these three things only—but that day is not coming anytime soon.

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Posted by Tim W at 3/16/2008 04:36:00 PM

09 March 2008

Agressively Stupid Question of the Week

Mark Feeney, in today's Boston Globe writes the following aside in his article about children's cinema:

(How much does the existence of Eddie Murphy's Donkey character in the series owe to the title quadruped in "Sylvester and the Magic Pebble"?)

Let's see. Donkey, in the Shrek movies, is a glib, annoying, wise-ass whose original owner tries to sell him for a few coins, and whose natural family is entirely absent. Sylvester, in Steig's book, is a kind and introverted fellow whose family clearly loves him and who spends most of the book as a rock.

I believe that the answer to Feeney's question is none at all, besides the idea that they both are donkeys.

I thought this is why newspapers had editors. But apparently the bar for acceptable editing is pretty damned low nowadays.

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Posted by Tim W at 3/09/2008 05:18:00 PM

02 March 2008

Republicans and Big Government

Pity the poor Massachusetts Republican. A good year is a year in which they contest perhaps three-quarters of the seats in the legislature, and win one-quarter of those. The traditional bogeymen of politics do not work—voters seem unconcerned about gay marriage, welcoming of immigrants, and unworried about the black underclass.

Indeed, in a special election to be held on Tuesday, the Republican party is trumpeting its candidate's support of affordable housing and devotion to environmental causes, even to the point of driving an electric car to work.

Alas, the Massachusetts Republican party, that bastion of small government, is located at 85 Merrimac Street, which is at the southern end of the Bulfinch Triangle in Boston. That Merrimac Street is not underwater is entirely due to public works projects to remove one of the three original peaks of Beacon Hill to fill in the old mill pond beyond it.

Indeed, the state Republican Party owes the very existence of its headquarters to one of the first massive public works projects in Massachusetts history.

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Posted by Tim W at 3/02/2008 07:24:00 PM

We Won't Have Bill Buckley To Kick Around Anymore

What can one say about a man so devoted to small government and private enterprise that his talk show, with fully 1504 episodes, appeared on the Public Broadcasting Service. (I mean besides pointing out to Americans that their tax dollars helped subsidize William F. Buckley's collection of fine liquor.)

It is certainly fair to point out that in the late 1950s and early 1960s, National Review filled the niche of a serious magazine that catered to intellectuals who somehow felt that it was right to continue Jim Crow laws in the South and deprive African-Americans of the right to vote.

And, as Dennis Perrin has so ably described, Buckley's performances look ludicrous at best whenever he had actual left-wing guests on his program who were not intimidated by being on television.

But my favorite quip of Buckley's was his infamous gibe that he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than the 2,000 members of the Harvard University faculty. Besides the fact that this is an insult to self-proclaimed manly man Harvey Mansfield, one wonders what Buckley's intellectual descendants at National Review would think about the first 2,000 names in the 2007 Boston telephone directory, given the magazine's obsession (390 hits) with "Islamofascism" in recent years.

By my count, the first 2,000 names include Aakjar, Ababe, Ababu, Abasali, Abbar, Abbas (4 names), Abbasi (5 names), Abbay, Abbaz, and so on through Abdi (14 names), Abdiaziz, Abdille, Abdin, Abdinur, Abdiraham, Abdirehman (3 names), until we get to Aburubieh, Abusabib, Abusief, Abuwi, and Abu-Zahra. And that is in the first 1,000. The second 1,000 features dozens of Ahmads and Ahmeds. All these new names (not to mention all the Acevedos) makes the Adamses look like a real minority.

(Worse let for the Buckleyites, many of these folks with telephones might be—horrors of horrors—immigrants!).

A just God would be making Buckley eat every word of his racist editorials right now, and for a very long time to come.

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Posted by Tim W at 3/02/2008 02:43:00 PM

Wicked Cool

Right now, the online Encyclopedia of Life is more skeleton than full-bodied specimen, but the plan for now is to expand it to 1.8 million full pages over the next 10 years. (Right now, only 25 pages have all planned features. Check out the creators' plans.) And, much to the consternation of the acolytes of the Church of the Market, it is free, as in covered by one of the Creative Commons licenses.

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Posted by Tim W at 3/02/2008 02:34:00 PM

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