Columbine Killers Documented Training on Tape

Thursday, October 23rd, 2003

FOXNews has video footage of the two Columbine killers and a couple friends — including a girl — “plinking” various targets in the woods with a number of different firearms. In all honesty, it looks like a group of teenagers joking around, trying to look like Hollywood action heroes: firing from the hip, holding the pistol sideways (like a gangsta), firing a sawed-off shotgun one-handed, cocking that same shotgun Linda Hamilton-style (with one hand, holding it vertically, jerking it up and back down again), etc. It doesn’t seem sinister at all — until you realize they went on a homicidal rampage later. Here’s how Columbine Killers Documented Training on Tape describes it though:

In a snowy, wooded area in Colorado, the two teenage Columbine High School shooters laugh as they fire round after round at bowling pins and trees and wonder aloud what it would be like if real people were their targets.

The Joel Test: 12 Steps to Better Code

Tuesday, October 21st, 2003

In The Joel Test: 12 Steps to Better Code, Joel Spolsky clarifies his ninth step — Do you use the best tools money can buy? — with a colorful anecdote:

At my last job, the system administrator kept sending me automated spam complaining that I was using more than … get this … 220 megabytes of hard drive space on the server. I pointed out that given the price of hard drives these days, the cost of this space was significantly less than the cost of the toilet paper I used. Spending even 10 minutes cleaning up my directory would be a fabulous waste of productivity.

User Interface Design for Programmers – Chapter 9

Tuesday, October 21st, 2003

Joel Spolsky wrote a book called User Interface Design for Programmers (back in 2000), and he put some of it up on the web. Chapter 9 includes an amusing anecdote about how software gets used in the real world by real users:

In the days of Excel 1.0 through 4.0, most people at Microsoft thought that the most common user activity was doing financial what-if scenarios, where you do things like change the inflation rate and see how this affects your profitability.

When we were designing Excel 5.0, the first major release to use serious activity-based planning, we only had to watch about five customers using the product before we realized that an enormous number of people just use Excel to keep lists. They are not entering any formulas or doing any calculation at all! We hadn’t even considered this before.

I’ve also read that the most popular database software in the world is Excel — even though, of course, it isn’t even a database management system.

Quislibet: A Musical Interlude

Tuesday, October 21st, 2003

Winds of Change pointed me to an excellent piece of translation work. It shouldn’t take long to recognize the original work that Quislibet: A Musical Interlude has translated into Latin:

magnae clunes mihi placent, nec possum de hac re mentiri.
(Large buttocks are pleasing to me, nor am I able to lie concerning this matter.)
quis enim, consortes mei, non fateatur,
(For who, colleagues, would not admit,)
cum puella incedit minore medio corpore
(Whenever a girl comes by with a rather small middle part of the body)
sub quo manifestus globus, inflammare animos
(Beneath which is an obvious spherical mass, that it inflames the spirits)
virtute praestare ut velitis, notantes bracas eius
(So that you want to be conspicuous for manly virtue, noticing her breeches)
clunibus profunde fartas(*1) esse
(Have been deeply stuffed with buttock?)
a! captus sum, nec desinere intueri possum.
(Alas! I am captured, nor am I able to desist from gazing.)
o dominola mea, volo tecum congredi
(My dear lady, I want to come together with you)
pingereque picturam tui.
(And make a picture of you.)
familiares mei me monebant
(My companions were trying to warn me)
sed clunes istae libidinem in me concitant.
(But those buttocks of yours arouse lust in me.)

By all means, read the whole translation.

Libertarian Paternalism Is Not An Oxymoron

Monday, October 20th, 2003

In Libertarian Paternalism Is Not An Oxymoron, Cass R. Sunstein and Richard H. Thaler argue that paternalistic policies don’t have to involve coercion; simply changing the default rules, framing effects, and starting points can change behavior without twisting any arms:

The idea of libertarian paternalism might seem to be an oxymoron, but it is both possible and legitimate for private and public institutions to affect behavior while also respecting freedom of choice. Often people’s preferences are ill-formed, and their choices will inevitably be influenced by default rules, framing effects, and starting points. In these circumstances, a form of paternalism cannot be avoided. Equipped with an understanding of behavioral findings of bounded rationality and bounded self-control, libertarian paternalists should attempt to steer people’s choices in welfare-promoting directions without eliminating freedom of choice. It is also possible to show how a libertarian paternalist might select among the possible options and to assess how much choice to offer. Examples are given from many areas, including savings behavior, labor law, and consumer protection.

As an example, they ask us to consider two studies of savings behavior:

  1. Hoping to increase savings by workers, several employers have adopted a simple strategy. Instead of asking workers to elect to participate in a 401(k) plan, workers will be assumed to want to participate in such a plan, and hence they will be automatically enrolled unless they specifically choose otherwise. This simple change in the default rule — from nonenrollment to enrollment — has produced dramatic increases in enrollment.
  2. Rather than changing the default rule, some employers have provided their employees with a novel option: Allocate a portion of their future wage increases to savings. Employees who choose this plan are free to opt out at any time. A large number of employees have agreed to try the plan, and only a few have opted out. The result has been to produce significant increases in savings rates.

We are losing the peace… in Europe

Monday, October 20th, 2003

We’ve been hearing a lot about nation-building in Iraq versus nation-building in Germany and Japan after World War II. In We are losing the peace… in Europe, Den Beste points us to some old Life magazine articles from just after the end of WWII:

Oh, dear; it seems as if we’ve won the war but are losing the peace… in Europe, in 1946. Jessica’s Well makes a magnificent discovery: an issue of Life Magazine published in January of 1946 which contains articles about how badly things are going in Europe in the aftermath of the war. This was about seven months after V-E day, and about five months after V-J day and the end of the war. That’s just about where we are now relative to the end of major combat operations in Iraq, and the article sounds uncannily like much of the negative reporting we’re seeing now from Iraq. One could take that article and replace ‘European’ with ‘Iraqi’ and ‘Nazi’ with ‘Baathist’ and ‘Hitler’ with ‘Saddam’ and it would sound like it had come out of the NYTimes in the last week

Definitely read the original Life articles.

Manufacturers Supersizing Stretchers

Friday, October 17th, 2003

This isn’t a humor piece. Manufacturers Supersizing Stretchers:

The sharply rising number of obese Americans is leading medical-equipment manufacturers and ambulance crews to supersize their stretchers.

Manufacturers are adding thicker aluminum frames, bulkier connectors and extra spine supports to create stretchers with a capacity of 650 pounds, instead of the standard 350 to 500. Ambulance crews are switching to the heavy-duty models to avoid injuries to rescue workers and patients alike.

This passage gets a bit Onion-esque:

Josh Weiss, a spokesman for Southwest Ambulance, which serves the Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz., areas, said the company’s paramedics used to employ a tarp to carry patients too big for a standard stretcher.

“You’d have to have five to 10 different firefighters lift it up. It was unsafe for our units. There would be many physical problems for our crews,” he said. “Back injuries would often occur.”

Southwest, which operates 225 ambulances and answers more than 200,000 calls a year, recently replaced its stretchers with those that can handle up to 650 pounds. It has also created a special unit with wider ambulances that have special hydraulic lifts and shock absorbers to carry the obese.

Attack of the Dean-Leaners

Friday, October 17th, 2003

In Attack of the Dean-Leaners, Julian Sanchez questions libertarians’ allegiance to the Republican party:

I don’t even really care whether George W. Bush is, in his heart of hearts, a convinced Rothbardian while Howard Dean sleeps with the Communist Manifesto under his pillow. Because libertarians shouldn’t be distracted by what policies the president, deep down, really wants. They should care about what he can get.

As Cato Institute economist William Niskanen observes, government tends to grow more slowly during periods when the executive and legislative branches are controlled by different parties. The mono-party regime of George W. Bush, who delivered a touching encomium to Milton Friedman mere weeks before signing new steel tariffs and a bloated farm bill into law, has increased domestic spending faster than conservative bete noire Bill Clinton. Bush has even beaten the “big government” Clinton’s record when it comes to the growth of the regulatory state.

At present, the alliance (such as it is) between libertarians and the GOP seems to consist of the following compromise: we hold our noses and vote for Republican presidential candidates in close elections, while they agree to pay lip service to our cherished ideals of limited government. This seems like a fair enough trade on its face, but as “no new taxes” taught us, the lips of Republican elected officials are typically disconnected from their arms when it comes time to sign legislation. Perhaps it’s time for libertarians to stop getting starry-eyed over the candidates who write us the prettiest love poems and begin comparing policy outcomes.

When we look at those outcomes, we find that, as Harvard’s Jeffrey Frankel wrote in late 2002, there is a dramatic disconnect between rhetoric and reality: “The pattern is so well established that the generalisation can no longer be denied: The Republicans have become the party of fiscal irresponsibility, trade restriction, big government and bad microeconomics. Surprisingly, Democrat presidents have, relatively speaking, become the proponents of fiscal responsibility, free trade, competitive markets and neoclassical microeconomics.”

Thomas Sowell: Silly letters

Thursday, October 16th, 2003

Evidently Thomas Sowell, black conservative, gets a lot of silly letters. From Thomas Sowell: Silly letters:

One of the silly things that gets said repeatedly is that I should not be against affirmative action because I have myself benefitted from it.

Think about it: I am 73 years old. There was no affirmative action when I went to college — or to graduate school, for that matter. There wasn’t even a Civil Rights Act of 1964 when I began my academic career in 1962.

Moreover, there is nothing that I have accomplished in my education or my career that wasn’t accomplished by other blacks before me — and long before affirmative action. Getting a degree from Harvard? The first black man graduated from Harvard in 1870.

Becoming a black economist? There was a black professor of economics at the University of Chicago when I first arrived there as a graduate student.

Writing a newspaper column? George Schuyler wrote newspaper columns, magazine articles, and books before I was born.

A recent silly e-mail declared that I wouldn’t even be able to vote in this year’s California election if there hadn’t been a Voting Rights Act of 1965. I have been voting ever since I was 21 years old — in 1951.


Thursday, October 16th, 2003

Nocebos describes a sort of dark placebo effect:

The nocebo effect arises when you expect a poor health outcome, and then get one. For obvious reasons, nocebo effects are harder to test scientifically, because researchers do not wish to create them on purpose.

Robert Ehrlich, in his Eight Preposterous Propositions, reports a few experiments. A group of hospital patients were given sugar water, and were told it would induce vomiting. Eighty percent of the patients vomited as a result.

Eighty percent of the patients vomited as a result. Crazy.

Many Chinese and Japanese people believe that the number four is unlucky. Scientists studied a sample of 200,000 such people, living in America. On the fourth day of the month, the death rate from heart attacks was thirteen percent higher.. In California, where Asian population concentrations might reinforce superstitious beliefs, the death rate on the fourth was twenty-seven percent higher. I wonder how many of the ‘heat deaths’ in Europe were accelerated, simply because some people thought they were supposed to be dying.

Sports Officials Warn of Skin Infection

Wednesday, October 15th, 2003

An ordinary skin wound can turn into a life-threatening blood or bone infection. Ick. From Sports Officials Warn of Skin Infection:

Health and sports officials are warning schools and sports teams about a hard-to-treat skin infection once common to hospitals and prisons that’s now plaguing athletes on the playing field.
Though usually mild, methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) can progress to a life-threatening blood or bone infection. Several athletes who got the infection have been hospitalized.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the infection, which can look like an ordinary skin wound or a boil, is often not diagnosed or ends up being treated with antibiotics that can’t cure it. Symptoms include fever, pus, swelling or pain.

That Damn Bird

Tuesday, October 14th, 2003

Sunday, on my way back from a short vacation, I started reading Octopus and the Orangutan: More True Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence, and Ingenuity, by Eugene Linden, author of The Parrot’s Lament. Interestingly, parrots display many of the same intelligence traits as primates — despite the fact that they’re not very closely related at all. That Damn Bird is chock full of interesting tidbits:

In the 1970s, Greenfield looked at young children and found that at the time they start serially and hierarchically stacking toys like cups and rings in perfect order, they also start combining their labels in somewhat regular syntactic patterns; that is, they begin to produce phrases like ‘Want cookie,’ or ‘Want more milk.’


At this time, she also was looking at data from chimpanzees that were using sign language and computers to communicate with humans, and found that, lo and behold, just when the chimps started to stack their cups and rings hierarchically, they also started putting together their symbols to form phrases like “Want more banana.”


One of my students was cleaning up the laboratory and we recycle whatever we can, so she was collecting all the empty bottles, throwing them in a bin, and separating out all the caps and putting them on the counter where Griffin [a grey parrot] was sitting. She calls me over and says, “You told me that parrots are destructive foragers and that they don’t really put things together, so come here and take a look.” And there was Griffin, taking smaller caps and putting them into bigger caps, and picking up the pairs and throwing them off the side of the counter. This incident occurred at about the same time that he was saying things like “want walnut,” and “green grape,” and other combinations of that nature.

The same region of the brain that handles physical combinations seems to handle linguistic combinations. In primates, that’s Broca’s area, a region with many mirror neurons:

Mirror neurons are those bits of the brain that respond to an action the same way whether you see the action being performed or if you do the action yourself. This response occurs for both gestural actions (those done physically, with one’s hands), and those done orally (with one’s mouth). And many of these neurons are in Broca’s area. Thus data exist that can be interpreted to support the gestural origin of language; that is, that a small change in one part of the brain could have led to the change from learning communicative gesture to learning speech through an imitative program, and that the same area could indeed initially be used for both simple gestural and linguistic combinations.

Incidentally, higher primates can imitate well, but monkeys can’t. Monkey see; monkey no do.

This bit of the researcher’s bio caught my interest:

My interest in parrots developed in a somewhat unusual way. My doctorate is actually in theoretical chemistry from Harvard, but I was not a very happy chemist. I was good at it, but not very satisfied. While working on my doctorate, I saw several NOVA programs — that was the first year of NOVA — programs on the signing chimps, on singing whales, on communicative studies with dolphins, and the critical one, “Why do Birds Sing?” Researchers presented data on the complex communication of songbirds, and how it was somewhat learned.

And there was a striking interview with Peter Marler, who, as a botanist/chemist graduate student, noticed the different chaffinch dialects in the various areas in which he was collecting biological samples, and who described how he switched from chemistry to birdsong. It was an epiphany for me: First, the realization that one could switch from chemistry to studying birds; second, that nobody was studying birds the same way that primates were being studied. I had had parakeets as a child, and my pets always talked. So, here was a creature that could actually talk to you, and that seemed rather intelligent, and no one was trying to teach it to communicate with humans using meaningful speech. That’s when I decided to pursue this topic.

By the way, I did finish the doctorate. I spent 40 hours a week finishing the doctorate, and another 40 hours a week reading in the libraries at Harvard and sitting in on courses, training myself in biology, in child language, in psychology, a little bit of anthropology — all the topics one would need to pursue studies in animal-human communication.

These ideas sound just like something I wanted to devise for infants:

One of the things we were trying to do when I was at the Media Lab was to devise different types of computer-based enrichment programs for these birds. We created something called “InterPet Explorer,” which was a modified Web browser for the bird. We hadn’t developed it fully, but the bird had four choices of input. It could see video, listen to music, see pictures, or play a game that we were designing. Within each of those categories were four choices. Under the music selection, for example, the bird could initially choose from clips of rock, country, classical or jazz. Alex would play with this system for about an hour in the morning before we came into the lab.

At first he was interacting with it a lot, and then seemed to lose interest; the students were concerned that the system was a failure. I asked them, “Well, how often are you changing content?” The students looked at me as though I was insane and replied, “What do you mean?” And I said, “How often do you want to hear Vivaldi’s Cello Concerto?” They then reorganized the system to use four different channels of Internet radio so that Alex had something different whenever he clicked a choice, and Alex’s interest shot back up.

Ben Resner and Bruce Blumberg created “Rover@Home,” in which you could play with your dog over the Internet while you were at work.

Smith & Wesson Sets Sights on Clothes, Home Decor

Tuesday, October 14th, 2003

On Sunday, in the Charleston airport, I spotted a “Smith & Wesson” decal on a police officer’s bicycle. I wasn’t sure if it was a joke or if Smith & Wesson started making bikes. They started making bikes — and much, much more. From Smith & Wesson Sets Sights on Clothes, Home Decor:

Smith & Wesson Holding Corp., parent of the legendary 151-year-old handgun maker, is branching out into home decor, clothing and jewelry with a new catalog, just in time for Christmas.

The Scottsdale, Arizona-based company hopes the catalog, called Crossings by Smith & Wesson, will expand the gun maker’s consumer base and product offerings. The company already sells hunting gear such as binoculars and scopes, and has licensing deals for products ranging from bicycles to golf clubs.

The Smith & Wesson website doesn’t seem to have any “lifestyle” merchandise beyond the clothing section.

Escaped Murder Suspect Surrenders in Pennsylvania

Tuesday, October 14th, 2003

Daring but stupid. Escaped Murder Suspect Surrenders in Pennsylvania:

An accused murderer who escaped from prison by rappelling seven floors down the side of a jail house on a rope made of knotted bedsheets surrendered to authorities late Monday, police said.

Hugo Selenski, 30, who has been charged with murdering two of five people whose bodies were found buried in his back yard, had eluded a three-day police manhunt after he shimmied down the bedsheet rope from a window in the Luzerne County Correctional Facility on Friday, authorities said.

His former cell mate, Scott Bolton, tried to escape with Selenski but fell and was injured. Selenski climbed to freedom over the razor-wire of a perimeter fence on a prison mattress.

Selenski surrendered to authorities at his home near Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, about 120 miles north of Philadelphia. He was returned to custody under a surrender agreement brokered by his attorney, police said.

“The police will never think to look for me at home!”

Study: 1 in 50 Americans Morbidly Obese

Monday, October 13th, 2003

Disturbing. 1 in 50 Americans Morbidly Obese:

The number of extremely obese American adults — those who are at least 100 pounds overweight — has quadrupled since the 1980s to about 4 million. That works out to about 1 in every 50 adults.

The accompanying graphic from the CDC shows obesity more than doubling since 1986 and severe obesity almost quadrupling.