December 31, 2004

Zooming In

Well, I've had the Canon S1 for a few weeks now, but because of my nosebleed situation, I have not had all that many opportunities to test it. But soon after I got here in mid-December, I did have one chance to test it against the old Canon PowerShot model's zoom lens. The PowerShot S30 I've got has the typical 3x zoom for a digital camera, and that is identical to the zoom on my father's S45. So when we went to the 49ers-Washington game a few weeks back, we took side-by-side photos for comparison.

The grid of four images below represent the extremes of the zoom lenses for both cameras. Due to size restrictions, I couldn't post the full-sized comparison here, but if you click the image, it will take you to the 800x600 original image in a new window.


Of the four images in this grid, the two on the left are taken with the S45, and the two on the right are taken with the S1-IS. The top two images are fully zoomed out, and the bottom two are fully zoomed in. All the images are cropped, and in the full-sized image, are not reduced or enlarged in any way, so what you see is the original image, pixel for pixel. Since the images are cropped, that in itself acts like a zoom, but since I don't want to burden you with four megabyte-sized images each many times larger than your display, this will have to do.

The two key images are the ones at the bottom, which show the difference you get between the 3x zoom and the 10x zoom. These images were shot from the upper deck at Candlestick Park during the pre-game activities. I figure that the 25-yard-line, where the kicker was practicing, was about 60 yards distant from the lens. So looking at the lower-right image of the ball at the kicker's feet, that's a pretty good zoom image. I mean, I'm getting blades of grass and you can almost read the writing on the football.

So until they come up with a 20x zoom in a mid-range digital camera, I'm going to consider this as being pretty cool.

Posted by Luis at 02:24 PM | Comments (0)

December 30, 2004

The College and Those Students

I teach great students.

Teaching English in Japan is not always a walk in the park. Whatever difficulties there may be, motivating your students tends to be the most troubling. Teaching can be a joy, but the greatest threat to that joy is a class full of unresponsive, bored students who would rather not be there. Worse are those students who know they don't have to try. Japanese universities are filled with students who come to class only to sleep, read comic books, chat with friends, or even use cell phones (though usually through typing, not talking).

I had a class like that once. It was when I was teaching at a YMCA up in the countryside, in Toyama Prefecture. They would rent me out to local schools, and the least liked of all was the Computer school. This was a "senmon gakkou," or a trade school, where English Language was required on the curriculum. However, it was not really required; the students could come and sit and sleep if they wanted, and if they failed the tests, the teacher would simply be asked to have the failing students re-take the test until they passed--with an understanding that the second test would not be so hard (let's not waste time unnecessarily, after all).

Since the students knew that they'd pass no matter what, and since it was not the core subject of their trade school, it tended to be a pretty horrible class. A teacher would be lucky if they got three minutes of the students being even halfway quiet. If the students just slept, read, or (as many of the girls were wont to do) pulled strands of hair before their eyes to inspect for loose ends, that was a good class. But usually, a class meant that students wanted to gab in Japanese, and that meant the teacher shouting for quiet every four or five minutes when the sound level of the students made it so the teacher could not be heard even in the first row--were there any students listening anyway. One of the other teachers from the Y also rented out to that school became so frustrated at one point, they actually threw an eraser at a group of chatting students. It is not a job you want to have, certainly not for any stretch of time.

So the students I have at my college today are more than just good; they are spectacular. Lakeland College is one of only two remaining U.S. colleges in Japan that have full accreditation from an American agency (the other is Temple University). Students who come to us do so because they want an American education, and they understand that this means actual work, and actual learning. These students want what the college offers. Most colleges in Japan are seen as standard diploma farms--plant yourself there for a few years, and you get a diploma. Students at Japanese institutions know they don't have to excel too much, that many professors only read the first and last pages of their essays, and that their GPA won't matter much.

Students at Lakeland, however, know that they must excel, and by the time they get through the pre-academic language program this has been well-established. But it's more than just the fear of a failing grade--it's in their hearts. they want to do well. And this was expressed better than I could otherwise describe, at a recent lecture event in Tokyo.

IyoqOn November 30th, there was a speech by former Senator Nancy Kassebaum Baker (wife of US Ambassador to Japan Howard H. Baker), followed by a question-and-answer session, at the U.S. Embassy's Tokyo American Center. After the Senator finished, students from around Tokyo were invited to step up to the microphones. The first person to do so was from Lakeland College. She stepped down, and another student stepped forward--and it was another Lakeland College student. After she finished, a young gentleman came up to the mic--and introduced himself as a student of Lakeland College before asking his question.

At this point, a moderator asked the students of Lakeland College to please give the students of other colleges and universities a chance to step up to the microphone. After all, the audience was full of students from such prestigious colleges as Tokyo University and Waseda (think of Stanford and Harvard). After that request, there was a prolonged silence. Nobody came up to the mic.

After about a minute had passed, a student finally stood up and walked to the microphone to ask a question. "Good evening," she started. "My name is Shizuka Saito, and I'm from Lakeland College." After that, they just let the Lakeland students come. And the questions were not softballs, either. One was, for example: "Senator Baker, in 1996 you voted against a bill that would recognize same-sex marriages. Could you please explain this vote?"

These are the students we have. In the writing class that I taught last semester, there was just supposed to be a simple review and strengthening of the students' writing skills, but every chance they got, they reached for complex, difficult topics to cover, eager to achieve beyond their capabilities.

That's the biggest reason why the job I have now is the best job I have ever had.

Posted by Luis at 09:31 AM | Comments (3)

It Starts This Way

We now have new laws that have been created solely for terrorism and homeland defense, laws which infringe upon our civil liberties to an extent that made the real patriots among us nervous. But we were assured that the government's ability to use these laws would not be abused, and it would only be a tool against terrorism.

Yeah, right. As expected, the laws are now being more broadly applied to cases that obviously have nothing to do with terrorism. Not that this wasn't completely expected.

And not that more blatant, political abuse hasn't popped up before. But the idea that now any criminal we don't like can be called a "terrorist" is too far an encroachment of definitions; this is more than just the camel's nose under the tent. This is a clear and unmistakable step in the direction of taking the rights-endangering laws which were supposed to be used only against terrorists, and applying them to the general population for whatever purpose prosecutors feel they want to use them for (and let's not forget that local politics probably plays a big part here). And that is unacceptable.

We know what terrorism is. So let's end the farce.

Posted by Luis at 04:04 AM | Comments (1)

December 29, 2004

Musings on the Fundamentals

Before I even start, let me preface this by saying that I am not an atheist or anti-religion. I am an agnostic with leanings towards Deism, the idea that the universe was created by a being that does not intervene in its progression. These beliefs are founded upon the presumption of non-presumption, that I am fallible and that while I believe these things, I could be wrong (ergo the agnosticism), and on observation and use of reason rather than blind faith or the historic weight of certain scriptures beyond the value of the concepts introduced in said scriptures. I believe faith is a good thing when used selectively with judgment, but I believe that skepticism when used selectively with reason is just as important. People talk about our faith being tested by science, but these people seldom speak of our reason being tested by religion. I see faith and reason as being two complementary attributes of the mind, as religion and science are complementary. I get along fine with most people who call themselves "religious," it is that stubborn, outspoken minority called "fundamentalists" that I am almost always at odds with. And even then, only in the sense of how they apply their beliefs to others, not as much in the beliefs themselves or how they live with them. I may or may not agree with their beliefs or respect the reasons why they believe, but ultimately I respect their beliefs and their rights to hold them.

I am pretty Libertarian when it comes to religion. I see it as a personal prerogative, not "belonging" to any leader or church or nation; that it is purest in the heart and mind of the individual, and when congregated, it is most diffuse; I oppose central authority except where strictly asked for or desired by those under that authority. However, for that authority, whether on its own or in the name of its adherents, to attempt to impose its control on others who are unwilling to comply, to me is a cardinal sin--it is a direct abrogation of those people's religious freedom. You can persuade and preach religion, but thou shalt not force it down anyone's throats.

So you can begin to understand where fundamentalists and I might have problems. I live in a world where one is allowed to question, discover and believe and do what one feels right, where people of any religious stripe could be correct in their beliefs, an inclusive world where nothing is eliminated from the running. Fundamentalists, from my perspective, live, innocently or otherwise, in a world of arrogant presumption based upon the suspension of reason, a world which must be conquered by faith; where something is considered true not because it is observed, reasoned or real, but rather simply because someone of influence wrote it down before. I am sure that they would see me as someone without faith or the conviction of my beliefs, who refuses to allow the clearly apparent love of God into my heart and allows myself to be corrupted by the temptations of Satan, probably as one who is untouched by the Lord and destined to burn in Hell. And probably a lot more, and maybe I have the list of charges wrong, but likely something like that. Neither of these views need be disparaging, but rather only observations of states from the perspective of the observer.

I do not see these people as evil--on the contrary, the reason I respect them most is their sincerity and their actual concern for my mortal soul, and their willingness to work hard to save it. (That does not include the proudly arrogant ones who try to act superior and lord it over others.) It is important to realize that this concern is genuine and is the basis for much of what is being pressed in the public arena today: these people see themselves as being on a holy mission to bring light to the world. While of course there are bad or mean-hearted fundamentalists, I presume that the ones I deal with at any one time are sincere. My problem is where they cross the line of forced proselytization.

Under the fundamentalist creed, those whom they wish to convert must be converted or be doomed; and so to convert them to the Truth, one must somehow present them with the elements of conversion in the manner most likely to succeed. And proselytization works best if introduced young and if introduced as a publicly approved standard. But they also understand that there are certain structures in our society--in particular, the separation of church and state and the principles behind it--that prevent this from being done, and so certain strategies must be adopted in order to sugar-coat the pill, if you will. That is why we get things like school "meditation" or classroom "moments of silence." While superficially conforming to public rules of conduct on separation of church and state, proposals such as these are specifically designed to violate the spirit of said conduct, in other words, to indoctrinate, to proselytize. To introduce that religion as the public norm, the clear implication if it is introduced in public schools. Less subtle attempts at such indoctrination include the press to post the Ten Commandments in classrooms and schools as a cure-all for discipline problems. There is little more the fundamentalists would like than to convert public schools into Christian schools as a means of universalizing religion.

Intelligent design is one of the more subtle efforts. In public school science classes, what conforms to the principles of science is taught. The results of empirical observation and experimentation are presented. Everything that is presented is subject matter that has gone through a prolonged process of theory, testing and proof. If it cannot be proved as an absolute fact, it is presented as theory, that being an explanation for the facts discovered and understood so far, within a framework that stands up to questioning better than most or all other possible theories. The idea of intelligent design was crafted specifically to wedge Creationism into that rubric as well as possible, and then ram it through the rest of the way via public pressure.

The problem is, Intelligent Design is not really a tested scientific theory--it is, as I just stated, a tailor-made form of Creationism designed to look like a scientific theory. At its center is the presumption that complexity cannot arise from random chance. This presumption has no proof whatsoever; it is not even a scientific postulate, rather a simple feeling, usually prejudiced by religious beliefs. What can't such complexity arise out of random chance? The theory is hobbled from the very beginning, and has not passed through strenuous review by the worldwide scientific community--nor could it.

What is frightening, however, is how the fundamentalist viewpoint, while in the small minority, is being presented by the press as mainstream. It is as if the media believes that only those who seek you out to speak or come out publicly to proselytize are of importance, and even a quiet majority can be ignored simply because they are quiet. The fundamentalist viewpoint that the Bible could not by any chance whatsoever be allegory in any way, and that every word in the current English translation of the favored version of the Bible is the literal absolute truth--this view is somehow the view, or at least the primary alternate view being offered these days by the media, and they represent that as the mainstream view.

There are other beliefs, however, held by a much greater majority of Americans (and likely Christians worldwide), that allow for allegory and a reasonable amount of human fallibility in the transmission of the message so that one does not have an old man with a long beard grabbing some clay and splat, there's man--but rather that the processes and evidence we have observed indicate the manner in which God chose to create us. That God created the universe with the Big Bang, that God shaped us by using evolution. A view which not only is true to scripture, but also jibes much more with what we see in the universe around us. The idea that God has to do it exactly as written today in the Bible or it must be impossible is, to me, completely unnecessary, and, since it contradicts what we find in our world, it seems nonsensical. How does it belittle the grace of God to presume that he took thirteen billion years rather than six days to make the universe as it is, that God used magnificent and unimaginably complex forces of evolution to make us into what we are instead of simply squishing some clay and breathing into it?

It seems to me that science discovers and displays to all of us the great and glorious creation which is the universe, and to presume the limited literal scope of what Genesis presents is what belittles that very creation. Genesis is limited to just us humans here on Earth. Did God create hundreds of billions of galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars and likely even more planets in each one, spanning the vastness of billions of light-years for no reason except to drop the Earth into it so that it practically disappears? Science has opened our eyes to far more of physical being of creation than the Bible ever could; it would be sad to think we were limited to the one book and miss everything else. And I don't think that such a thing is right.

We have done this all before, remember: the Ptolemaic view of the universe was embraced by the Church (though there was really little support for Ptolemy in the Bible, as I understand it), and as scientific views were therein bonded to religion, any attempt to dispute them or proffer a different theory was met with accusations of heresy. As a result, our science stagnated for perhaps a thousand years. Are we going to let our science be dictated by religion again?

Religion is not science, nor is it a replacement for it. By the same token, science is not religion, and is not a replacement for it, either. Whenever one has attempted to tread the ground of the other, trouble has always ensued. If you hear a scientist claim that science disproves God, they are being a poor scientist--such a claim is unsupportable, not to mention outside the field. But if you hear a 'religionist' claim that the Bible disproves science, they are being equally ridiculous. What are you going to believe, the words in this here book, or your lying eyes? Religion is our tool for discovering the soul, science is our tool for discovering the world. The Bible is a guide for the soul, not a science handbook.

Some say, "To be the Word of God, the Bible must be true." But there are questions as to what is meant by true, and in what sense. True in the literal sense, in terms of days and clays and serpents, or true in the philosophical and moral sense? Is the Bible false if God took 13 billion years and not seven days?

Rationale for accepting both the Bible and what science has uncovered is hardly difficult to see. The Bible was not penned by God, but by humans, and however holy and noble they may have been, they were limited by human fallibility and by the understandings and the mores of their times. Imagine that God told Moses the story of creation. And presume that God did use the Big Bang and evolution and everything else science has observed. But Moses did not understand hydrogen or light-years or DNA, and since God was not telling him the story for his own personal edification, but rather to spread the word to others, he could not just magically give Moses the understanding in any case. So he describes creating the universe to Moses, do you think he will explain the inner workings of the Big Bang, what happened in which microsecond? Of course not; he would simply say that he said, "let there be light." Moses does not have to understand anything else for these purposes. God would not speak to Moses of billions of years, because Moses would not understand numbers larger than the tens of thousands. Just as we allegorize to children when we need to get past some minor but complex point they would not understand, so would God when telling Moses, trying to get to the more important parts; hence, days, not eons. Or if you think that the Bible is a bit more literal than that, consider that the Hebrew word yôm can mean both "day" and "eon," but we prefer "day" now because that's the way the translator went when translating from Hebrew. Or you could go the other way and accept the entire tale as loose allegory, that the creation details were generated by the storyteller because they would have to be there, and we get to the important stuff later.

It is far from necessary to require that the Bible be absolute literal truth, as fundamentalists claim--in fact, it would be much harder to support, both in terms of reconciling contradictions within the Bible and in terms of reconciling scripture with the reality we observe around us.

Fundamentalists often zoom in on flaws in evolution, both ones pointed out by the scientific community and ones they come up with by themselves. And while there are flaws with the specifics of the theory, the basic foundation--that mutations and other factors have changed simpler life forms into more complex ones--still stands strong. Missing links have never been proof against evolution; if you find 750 pieces of a 1000-piece puzzle and fit them all together as well as you can, the fact that 250 are missing does not mean they never existed and the puzzle is therefore unreal. Indeed, the fact that you have found so much proves that the puzzle is actually there, not missing, and that the missing pieces are in fact that--missing--not nonexistent. The facts remain: the geological and paleontological records show that life began as simple, and that as time progressed, that life became more complex and evolved along many different lines.

So how is it disproved? It is not; it is simply that fundamentalists presume it is, and however much their arguments crumble, they maintain that they are somehow correct, simply by faith. But this is a confusing contradiction: fundamentalists are all about faith, but jump on any flimsy "proof" which comes along.

I once worked with a young woman who was (and likely still is) a fundamentalist. She once explained to me proudly how she knew science was wrong about the age of things. You see, in her high school science class, the teacher gave a lecture one day about radioactive dating techniques. He explained that the scientist first estimated the age of a found object (by clues such as where the object was found), and then tested the age of the object via radioactive dating. My friend was able to tell the whole thing was not viable by the simple fact that if the scientist used an estimate at the beginning, and that entered the ultimate equation, the estimate would determine the age found--so the result of carbon dating (the type she was quoting, and which most people equate with radioactive dating) is always the result of what scientists think the age of an object will be. This reasoning made her certain in her belief that the scientists were wrong and she was right.

I was mature enough at that point not to try to correct her. It seemed clear enough that she was not truly engaging in debate that she would call either way depending on the evidence--that her faith was sufficiently resolved that no matter what proofs came up that contradicted her faith, she would always find a way to disbelieve them and stay with her faith. If she were truly inquisitive, then she would have probably, at some point, realized that the reflections of one high school student after a summarized lecture by a high school science teacher were unlikely to uncover so flagrant a flaw in a scientific standard upon which the careers of tens of thousands (probably far more) of highly skilled and educated people based their entire life's works upon, without them noticing that flaw. Nor did she challenge the teacher with the information.

That processing was for only herself, and if I had presumed to lecture her, the end result would not have changed. In fact, there are a series of radioactive dating tests, with carbon dating simply being one of them. Carbon dating is most well-known because it dates the more recent objects. Each radioactive dating test works for a specific range of time--for example, the measurement of carbon-14 in an object is only accurate up to tens of thousand years; the older an object is, the larger the margin of error is because the amount of carbon-14 that remains is so limited that an accurate measurement is less reliable. But there are other tests (some radioactive, some not) beyond that which measure other ranges of time. So when the scientist makes that original estimate, it is not to plug it into the equation and determine the answer, but rather to determine which dating method is most likely to generate the final result. But if an object is a thousand years old and the scientist guesses a million, the guess will not change the results of any test. The test will tell the scientist that the estimate was way off, and you need to try another dating method. It is very much like a mechanic seeing a nut and reaching for the right-sized wrench; the mechanic will guess the size of the nut, but if the mechanic guesses wrong, it will not change the size of the nut. The wrench simply will not work, and the mechanic will know to reach for a different-sized wrench.

That would have made my friend think, perhaps, but there is little doubt about it altering her faith. She might be a bit more thorough in checking out the veracity of future claims, perhaps. But my mission was not to convert her to my belief, so I didn't try, and simply let it lie.

But it did remind me of that point about fundamentalists that seems a bit odd: they seem to love finding 'evidence' and 'proof' that science and scientists are wrong. The question is, why? Especially when so much of the talking is aimed not at scientists but at the 'faithful.' If faith is all you need, then why all the time wasted on 'proof'? Especially when, in the end, it is impossible to prove any religion wrong. If you assume an all-powerful creator, anything is possible. I could posit that the universe was created twelve minutes ago by the all-powerful, one-and-only God Elmer, and everything we see around us was created to give us the illusion that the world had been around for quite a while longer than twelve minutes. You can't disprove it. And all-powerful god can do, literally, anything.

But fundamentalists also speak about something else: testing our faith. I have never understood this particular practice God apparently goes to such lengths to fulfill. God certainly doesn't need it--an omniscient god would know the status of your faith quite well. So the test must be for the individual. But let's reflect on what that test involves. For examples, the existence of the fossil record certainly begs an explanation. If you postulate that the world is 6,000 years old, then how did a T-Rex get buried under far more than 6,000 layers of sediment? Did Adam know and name the T-Rex? Did dinosaurs roam before the age of Noah? One would think that biblical people would have noted such creatures, yet they are absent. Even if you are one to believe that the Grand Canyon was carved by Noah's flood, its' kind of hard to explain everything that we've found. Not to mention that there are a lot of stars and galaxies much farther away from us than 6,000 light years, so if the universe was created that long ago, God had to have created the radiation from these objects streaming toward us as if they around for billions of years. Our world and the universe are full of things that are impossible should the universe be only 6,000 years old.

The answer we are given is that God is testing our faith--creating these anomalies to show us if our faith is strong enough to keep us grounded in the truth of scripture. But I don't buy it. I simply cannot accept that God would go to such incredible lengths to falsify the appearance of the world for that purpose, nor do I see it as a fair or accurate test. After all, what is being tested: the strength of a person's faith, or where they put that faith? And what is faith--would it be our ability to deny the evidence of the physical world and believe something we are simply told instead? Is that really a positive attribute? Am I to be condemned to an eternity of unimaginable suffering because though someone tells me the earth is 6000 years old, I see clear physical evidence contradicting that? Furthermore, is our faith supposed to lead us just to God or is it supposed to lead us to a specific God with a specific dogma? I have what you could call a belief in God, but it sure ain't what the fundamentalists say is God, not in the details at least. Is my faith lacking simply because I don't believe in their version of God? Will I suffer eternal pain because I don't get the details right? And if it is because God counterfeited the world to fake me out, did not the test encourage my failing it? Why not simply tell people the truth and let them acknowledge it? I could go on, but it seems abundantly clear that the whole "testing your faith" deal is a crock.

So it stuns me that the fundamentalists get as much respect as they do. Part of it is that they are not scientists, and therefore do not put their ideas through the strenuous process of verification that scientific ideas must survive. But it is also because they are religious, and despite their continuous wails of how awfully they are persecuted, their beliefs are given far more respect than would normally be granted. In this country, if you are a scientist, you can be lambasted and ridiculed and tarred and feathered. But if you are religious, you are given a respect and leeway to say and do things that you would not otherwise be able to do. Although the fundamentalists so often cry victim, they are anything but.

If fundamentalists want to believe these things, that's their option, and I respect their freedom and would work to protect it, however much I might disagree with it--as outlined above. But, as I also pointed out, their mission is not just to believe, it is to proselytize, to inject their world view into schools, into government, into the public view, and to tear down--not co-exist with--other beliefs.

So while I respect the right of fundamentalists to believe in intelligent design, I do not by any means respect their perceived right to force it on others. They do not have that right, to do so is an infringement against the rights of others, and it should not be tolerated. It is not as if there is any problem for fundamentalists to teach these things to their own children. Prayer, scripture and creationism is part of their belief system, not the school curriculum. If they choose to believe something that is contradicted by observed fact, it is incumbent upon them to 'protect' their children from the world, not to have the world change to their desire. These things also do not belong in any state-funded arena, nor in any venue where attendance by all is mandatory (such as public schools); you can find my reasoning for that here.

This is all why I roll my eyes and sigh tiredly when I see stories such as this one, which seem to be cropping up more and more nowadays. It is as if we are swinging towards a more religion-infused state of society, and by the time things swing back, the fundamentalists may have wedged yet another icon of God into the public domain, like they did with "in God we trust" on money, "under God" in the pledge, and "so help me God" in oaths--none of which were originally part of American life, but got stuck in at times such as this.

So what will it be this time?

Posted by Luis at 06:01 PM | Comments (4)

December 28, 2004

Nasal Matters

Well, the nose is doing better, for the moment at least. After it got packed, there were a few small bleeds for the first few days, but then nothing for three days--I thought I was going to be able to fly back as scheduled. But, as it turned out, there were three rather profuse bleeds on that fourth day, two days before the airplane trip--which should have been today. So I had to cancel that flight and we made an appointment to see the doctor again today (Monday).

However, the bleeds stopped after those profuse ones, and things seemed fairly well by the time of unpacking this morning. And indeed, when the doctor pulled out the loads and loads of gauze (which hurt a bit, but the stiff, over-sized multi-inch sponge up the other nostril really hurt the most when taken out)--but without causing a rebleed, to everyone's surprise. So I can be without packing--for a day at least--and get irrigation and air, and then, tomorrow, the doctor goes in with an endoscope to see if cauterization is still a possibility--that could potentially put an end to the whole affair. So we'll see how it goes.

In the meantime, we wait, and I remain as inactive as I can. If possible, I will get back before New Years' and this whole thing will be over. But I've learned all too well not to take anything for granted here.

Posted by Luis at 11:42 AM | Comments (0)

December 27, 2004

Tsunami Devastates Southern Asia

    Map from USGS, altered
As you may have heard, the fifth largest quake in a century and the largest quake period in forty years hit in one of the worst possible places--underwater in the Indian Ocean, causing a large tsunami with walls up to 30 feet tall impacting shores of Indonesia and of nearby nations, hitting nearby Sri Lanka next worst after Indonesia itself. As of this writing, the death toll is up to 8,600, but that number will certainly grow, and probably will exceed 10,000. (Note: as I wrote this, new stories came out stating the 10,000 mark had already been exceeded). Go here for the time-ranked Google search results on the quake (link should work through most of January, 2005).

The quake hit early morning, and I'm guessing that the areas worst afflicted did not have sufficient tsunami warning services--in Japan, when any quake hits, there is an immediate notification on television about possible tsunamis, and local public warning alarms as well. Indonesia was just hit too fast for warnings to have much of an effect, and India and Sri Lanka were not part of an international warning system.

I include the map at top right because few news pages are showing where the quake hit in the region. The map originally comes from the USGS, from a page on the quake today. If you're interested, here is a page showing the 11 largest quakes over the past century.

The death toll so far:

Indonesia: 4185
Sri Lanka: 3225
India: 2447
Thailand: 310
Malaysia: 42
Maldives: 15
Bangladesh: 2
Total: 10,226

Update: here's a better map, just found via Yahoo Photos.

Posted by Luis at 03:14 AM | Comments (2)

December 26, 2004

If Only Reality Followed Art

One of the DVDs I got for Christmas was the Third Season of The West Wing. It's a great show simply on dramatic and writing merits, but there are parts which are simply inspiring. One episode, "H. Con-172," has both the Republicans and the President each performing their own class act, acts of decency and rightness. In the story, it has come out that the President has multiple sclerosis, and was hiding that fact during the first election and the first three years of his presidency. The Republicans hold hearings to skewer the president and everyone they can get their hands on, but the committee chair Bruno (James Handy) and the Republican counsel, Clifford Calley (Mark Feuerstein), generously offer Leo McGarry (whose alcoholism and prior drinking problem are about to be exposed) a way out--censure of the president. And while Leo is outraged and refuses, in the end, Bartlet accepts:

LEO: Doing this to save me the embarrassment I've got coming to me is about the dumbest reason I can think...

BARTLET: There's another reason.

LEO: What?

BARTLET: I was wrong. I was. I was just...I was wrong. Come on, you know that. Lots of times we don't know what right or wrong is but lots of times we do and come on, this is one. I may not have had sinister intent at the outset but there were plenty of opportunities for me to make it right. No one in government takes responsibility for anything anymore. We foster, we obfuscate, we rationalize. "Everybody does it." That's what we say. So we come to occupy a moral safe house where everyone's to blame so no one's guilty. I'm to blame. I was wrong.

So often, you watch this show and think, man, that is really the way government ought to be run.

But you know it's not. Neither side. But we should start taking lessons.

Posted by Luis at 12:01 PM | Comments (1)

December 25, 2004

Merry Christmas

Well, despite the pessimistic views expressed here and elsewhere as of late, there is still good in the world, and there always will be--but look toward people, not institutions, to find it strongest. I tend to believe in the inverse-square law of spirituality: just as the intensity of light falls off by the square of the distance, so does spirituality when removed from the individual. Warmth, compassion, understanding and hope all originate from the human heart. In the glowing brilliance of your homes, find it there and stoke it, keep it alight, and the morning will come.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, whatever turns you on. Good night.

Posted by Luis at 03:53 PM | Comments (1)

Ya Think?

The suicide bomber who killed 22 people at an American mess tent in Mosul this week probably wore an Iraqi military uniform and made it through a screening process for new Iraqi troops that, in this case, was "likely not satisfactory," the American military commander in northern Iraq said Thursday.

--NY Times Article on Dec. 21 Bombing

First off, it is highly doubtful that the bomber was just "wearing" an Iraqi uniform--it probably was an Iraqi soldier. In light of that, think about what Bush was commenting on the day before:
...first of all, recruiting is strong. The place where the generals told me that we need to do better is to make sure that there is a command structure that connects the soldier to the strategy in a better way, I guess is the best way to describe it. In other words, they've got some generals in place and they've got foot soldiers in place. But the whole command structure necessary to have a viable military is not in place, and so they're going to spend a lot of time and effort on achieving that objective.

And so the American people are taking a look at Iraq and wondering whether the Iraqis are eventually going to be able to fight off these bombers and killers. And our objective is to give them the tools and the training necessary to do so.

--President Bush, Dec. 20 Press Conference

So where do you think the confidence of the American people in the Iraqi soldiers we're recruiting in the hope of "fighting off" these bombers when the soldiers themselves are becoming bombers? And when we are giving them access to U.S. bases (including Iraqi workers going about these areas unescorted), allowing them to walk straight up to our troops?

This is along the lines of what I discussed earlier: the way Bush is running things, we will never be able to trust them and they will never be able to trust us. And in the end, that's going to be the thing that brings it all down.

Posted by Luis at 01:11 PM | Comments (0)

December 24, 2004

Perception Reporting and the Death of Informed Consent

I'm getting sick and tired of the prevalence in the media of polls which report what people believe, which seem now to be the norm in terms of informative stories in the press. It seems that spin has all but erased the possibility of objective journalism. Instead of reporting what Social Security is, how it works, and what it is doing, for example, we get this story from the Washington Post:

A strong majority of respondents, 63 percent, do not think Social Security will have enough money to pay the benefits they are entitled to, and 74 percent think the system faces either major problems or is in crisis -- as Bush has asserted. The president also has at least general support from 53 percent of the public for the concept of letting people control some of their contributions to invest in the market.
The article then goes on to report on how this perception will play into the politics of the issue. This is just like the polls on whether you believed Scott Peterson was guilty or not. Not being on the jury, how could you possibly make an informed decision? The results of these polls are worse than useless.

There are far too many stories out there of the type I quote from above; you see them all the time. It seems that almost all news reporting nowadays is based on this kind of journalism, and not on edifying the public. Since when did public perception of the truth trump the actual truth in journalism? The role of the press, if I am not mistaken, is to inform and educate the public in matters of importance. People are obviously making up their minds about social security and solidifying their stands without having the slightest clue about what anything is about on the issue. We get far better information in ballot pamphlets on referendums, when an issue is carefully spelled out and various views given. But we don't have that in the press today, we have something more akin to a popularity contest. News organizations are not giving us information, they've turned into 24-hour spin machines.

What we need is more primers like this one from CNN/Money, which lays out the Social Security system, what the suggestions are, and what the possible fallout could be from any particular plan. It is simple and informative. It should, ideally, be followed by links to various other explanations, each one presenting a further level of detail, with access to information sources and links to opinion pieces. In other words, the facts should be laid out by the press so the people can read, learn, understand--and then decide. But such primers are rare, especially in contrast to the stories about spin. Right now we're simply assaulted with plans by politicians neck-deep in spin and then quizzed by the media about how they sound, the results of which are them used to "inform" us (regurgitation, not nutrition), and gauge how politically viable the plans are.

It is, in short, a joke.

The public needs information. Data. Facts. Explanations. Not spin, not polls, not uninformed reactions, not spin on uninformed reaction based on polls based on spin.

But then, I am probably asking for too much, aren't I?

Ask yourself, have you made a decision, even a tentative one, on what course to take on social security? If so, what is that decision based upon? Are you truly informed? Answer some very fundamental questions to find out:

1. The taxes paid by workers will exceed the benefits paid to retirees until what year?

a. 2018
b. 2042
c. 2052
d. 2100

To see the answer to any one question, select the text in the black box to reveal the answer:

a. 2018

2. Will Social Security be "out of money" by that year?

a. yes
b. no

b. No. It can draw from Treasury notes
for some time after that.

3. When will Social Security really be out of money?

a. 2028
b. 2042
c. 2052
d. 2100

"b" or "c", depending on who you go by.
But even then, it will still have enough funds
to pay for 75% or 80% of benefits.

4. True or false: Bush's plan will put more money into the system, staving off a financial crisis in Social Security.

False. It will remove as much as 1/3 of
the fees paid into the system, which will
quicken the day when it runs out,
leading to an earlier crisis.

5. Bush will pay for this by:

a. Borrowing trillions of dollars, adding massively to the deficit
b. Raising taxes in general
c. Raising payroll taxes, raising the retirement age, and/or reducing benefits
d. The system will magically pay for itself

If you answered "d", then you are most decidedly
a Republican. "a" is what Bush is saying now, but
as with so many of Bush's plans, the major costs come
long after he's out of office. A combination of "a", "b",
and "c" is more likely, though that's just my opinion.

It is very likely that you did not know the correct answers to many of the questions above. And you may very well be more informed than the people answering those polls. A simple understanding of the system leads you to the simple conclusion that you don't solve a financial crisis in social security by depriving it of up to 1/3 of its funds--but this is not reflected in what the media is reporting because they tend to forget to inject the facts into the equation at some point. We blame Bush and Cheney for making 70% of Americans think that Saddam Hussein was directly involved in 9/11, but the fact is that the media creates these impressions by simply reporting spin and then reporting on public perception of the spin. If more journalists reported on facts instead of spin, more news readers would make decisions informed by facts, not by what politician's delivery they like best, which party they belong to, or what opinion is prevailing so I can follow the winning side.

People, let's keep a lookout for primers. If you send me the address of a primer on any major topic of the day--not an opinion piece left or right, nor a fake primer by a leaning source, but a real, informative, balanced primer, I'll post it here. If I get enough, I'll make a special part of the page or a new page to hold them. Let's start with Social Security. I found the one at CNN/Money; any other ones out there?

Posted by Luis at 09:23 AM | Comments (0)

Update and Comments on the Mosul Bombing

The number of killed, thankfully are not as high as thought--22 people were killed, not 24, 15 of the soldiers, not 19. But still, it was one of the deadliest attacks on U.S. soldiers so far, and sets a chilling new tone on the insurgency. This is not just a few organized cells that can be wiped out. This is an indication of how long a struggle this will be.

The bomber was not some obvious fanatic; it had to be someone who could have gotten clearance to be on the base, someone who could walk past several security points without being detected. It was likely an Iraqi who worked on the base but was a member of the insurgency or some radical group--or was somehow manipulated by them. Either way, it means that those who want to kill the troops now have a new way of doing so, and unfortunately, there's not much we can do about it. Yes, security can be tightened, but there will be averse effects there as well; the Iraqis who are needed to work on the bases will not be trusted, and will be searched probably everywhere now, creating resentment among them. And still some bombers will find a way through, perhaps with more willing volunteers as Iraqi resentment rises and things become generally worse throughout the country. The 'success' of this bombing will likely also encourage other groups to take their own shots. And out troops understand the security problems:

"Iraqis here on this base are supposed to be escorted, but you see them walking around by themselves," said Lance Cpl. Chris Roell, a member of a K-9 unit deployed to Iraq. "They've got better digital cameras than we do.

"We've got Iraqis trying to make us feel better, saying this is the holiday season, cheer up, and then they're leaving base and giving their buddies grid coordinates."

But this bombing is also symbolic of a larger, longer-term theme to the war, bringing it ever-closer to the inevitable comparisons to the Vietnam War. In case the subtlety was lost on anyone, Vietnam was a war of insurgency, and so is this. Mosul was supposed to be a success story for the U.S., but it is now just as much an example of how that claim of success is premature. At the very, very best, it will be a long, grating haul for our people, knowing they can be blown up at any time, being deathly suspicious of any native Iraqis. This is not a problem to be solved, it is rather an inexorable fixture of the landscape.

We still don't have an exit plan, in case you haven't noticed. That alone should show you something. The Iraqi people don't want us there, and we don't want to be there. Most Americans--and likely most Iraqis--believe this whole thing is a mistake. We are waiting for an endgame which is not defined and far from promised. The question now is not whether we will win the war, but rather, how can we possibly 'win' this war? The war that President Bush has decided to fight is the hardest, and the most prone to failure. Or perhaps he didn't choose it--but it is less than satisfying to know that we got sucked into another Vietnam by a president who just simply didn't have a clue.

Posted by Luis at 02:28 AM | Comments (0)

December 23, 2004

Notes on the Bush Press Conference

A few days ago, Bush had one of his blue-moon press conferences. I haven't posted so far because the issues involved are, well, involved, and require a great deal of time. And with this damned nose problem of mine, it's hard to find time when I'm not in great pain to be able to deal with the issues. As it is, I am probably not up to snuff today, but I'll give it a shot anyway. Blame the errors, if any, on the coedine...

In this conference, Bush gave his initial statement, then answered questions form 15 reporters. Bush was in his usual present state, which means he lost track of things a lot, stopped and hemmed and hawed frequently, and lost full track of a reporter's question at one point. He seems to be getting worse with each one of these conferences.

In his opening statement, he gave firm hints about what he plans to do: scrap and rewrite the tax code, privatize social security, and blame Democrats for the budget. Well, he didn't put the last one that way, but he made it clear: we have to have "strict discipline," he wants to halve the budget deficit--but it requires "both parties working in a spirit of bipartisanship," which is rather clearly code for "if the Democrats don't agree with what we do and try to block it, we can blame them for it."

The first two questions were obviously pre-chosen, basically generalized questions that allowed Bush to lay out his positions and talk up for PR reasons a few major points that they wanted him to touch on, while not appearing to focus on them too much. The first was on relations with Putin and Russia, the second--the big one--so as to give Bush a chance to lay down his spiel on Donald Rumsfeld, in hopes to pre-empt actual, detailed questions on the matter. In short, Bush praised Rumsfeld, once again glossing over rather glaring flaws and errors. Bush has a sort of associate blindness, an if-I-like-him-he-must-be-OK mentality--and that is the kindest interpretation.

The third question dealt with Kerik. You know, once, just once, I'd love to hear Bush answer a question straight. The whole Kerik situation was handled incredibly poorly; the entire point of a vetting process is to check out a candidate beyond their word. Kerik had so much stuff wrong with his that it showed up the Bush vetting process as practically useless. And yet Bush said that he had "great confidence in our vetting process," and part of his reply was so muddled as to be practically nonresponsive. He was explaining the vetting process and why he has confidence in it:

There was a -- you know, when the process gets going, our counsel asks a lot of questions, and -- and the prospective nominee listens to the questions and answers them and takes a look at what -- what we feel is necessary to be cleared before the FBI check and before the hearings take place on the Hill. And Bernard Kerik, after answering questions and thinking about the questions, decided to pull his name down. He -- I think he would have a done a fine job as the secretary of Homeland Security, and I appreciate his service to our country.
Note all the stops and starts, the switching of subjects in mid-sentence--but even more, the disjointed nature of the reply within the context of the situation. It's almost stream-of-broken-consciousness. How did any of that explanation support the idea that the vetting process is worthy of confidence? Is that its extent? If so, then it is pitifully inadequate, though it would explain why they didn't find anything on Kerik when it took the press all of a few days to uncover a mine of questionable activities and associations.

And this again is an example of how badly Bush does in answering questions--and yet GOP spokespeople talk about him being at the top of his game, and performing brilliantly. They cannot be so blind, and neither can the press--Bush simply gets a bye from the media for these answers--answers so poor that I would give such a failing grade if it came from any of my non-native-speaker students. And yet somehow it is a brilliant answer from the president?

Then Bush was questioned about the weaknesses of the Iraq War in terms of the Iraqi army and the confidence the U.S. people have in the war in general. Bush's reply was to gloss over the problems--"There have been some cases where when the heat got on, they left the battlefield." Ya think? I suppose, given the abysmal state of affairs in Iraq, Bush answered as well as he could, but it still came out lame. In the end, he boiled it all down to, "polls change.... Polls go up, polls go down." This is essentially what all of Bush's responses to his failures boils down to: trivialization and masking the reality with a fantasy view built out of masking tape, spit, and a pittance of good-news items that pales when you take a good, hard, honest look at the totality of the situation.

It was on Social Security, however, that Bush got grilled on the most; the questions boiled down to: Mr. President, in order to get social security into order, your privatization plan won't do squat, so in order to fix the real problem, won't you have to make some actual tough decisions, like reducing benefits, raising the retirement age or raising payroll taxes just enough so that in 48 years, when Social Security might start lacking some funds, things will remain solvent?

That's where it's really at: Social Security is not in any real danger. Bush is trying to make it look like it's falling apart so he can dismantle it completely, under the guise of rescuing it. But he's not about to make the mistake of getting detailed. Instead of offering specifics about what he's going to do, he flatly refused to discuss it under the rationalization of "I'm not going to let you make me negotiate with myself," repeated again and again in his answers. God forbid a president, claiming to have a plan to essentially disassemble one of the most popular government programs, should have to offer details about it. Instead, Bush claims to be an "idea man": "I'll propose a solution at the appropriate time, but the law will be written in the halls of Congress." Unless, of course, Congress makes the horrible error of not realizing that social security is going to fall apart at any moment:

And I understand how this works. You know, many times legislative bodies will not react unless the crisis is apparent, crisis is upon them. I believe the crisis is. And so for -- for a period of time, we're going to have to explain to members of Congress the crisis is here. It's -- lot less painful to act now than if we wait. That's --
Ah. Well said.

The next reporter up--after Bush flatly refuses a request for a follow-up--asked Bush rather baldly to tell us how privatization will not destroy the system--although I was hoping desperately that this reporter would have the guts to lay down the specifics, not allowing Bush to simply ignore them--but he didn't. He did not, for example, point out that investment companies would be taking a rather large percentage of workers' contributions in the form of fees, or that even at its best, the system would leave many seniors in poverty. So Bush was able to entirely sidestep the glaring, gaping flaws in his idea and instead give a practiced PR spiel about how nifty the accounts are. First: they "encourage an ownership society":

One of the philosophies of this government is if you own something, it is -- it makes the country a better -- the more people who own something, the country's better off. You have a stake in the future of the country if you own something.
And he thinks we don't have that system already? He thinks people feel that not owning things is better? This is just fluff, idiotic at that. One of the things Bush just doesn't get is that we own the government. Like when he said we should give the wealthy a huge tax cut (and the common American a tiny sliver of one), because "it's your money." As if the national debt is not your debt. If anything, Bush believes in an "ownership society" only to the extent that if wealthy people can earn billions by manipulating the money markets, they "own" that money and god forbid that any of it should be taxed.

The second point Bush made: "it's capital available for -- when people save, it provides capital for entrepreneurial growth and entrepreneurial expansion, which is positive. In other words, it enhances savings." In other words, it takes money from a secure government system and allows money manipulators to gamble with your retirement account money. And many will wind up losers. Those with little money in the first place will, at best, get meager returns; but when the markets go down, as they sometimes do--for long periods of time--how many poverty-line families will be able to support themselves, aside from continuing to work at the minimum-wage "quality" jobs this administration loves so much? Will they have to work well into their seventies while the economy gets better, if they're lucky enough to have anything left in their accounts to leave to accrue on the chance the markets will come up enough so they can get some pittance from their accounts?

The final point Bush made was that people can pass on their accounts to family members or others. Well, that's nice. But there ain't no such thing as a free lunch. Money ain't gonna start falling from trees just because you invest in the market rather than pay into a government fund. All the things Bush highlights suggest that everyone will be getting what they get now and more, but that simply is not realistic--especially when you consider that current retirees get paid by current workers. In other words, we're paying into the system backwards. Instead of investing ahead, we're paying late. Retirees don't get the same money they paid in, that's been spent already; they get money that new employees are paying now. If you switch to a new system which cuts that off, where will the money come from to pay for all the people who don't have the investment accounts? We would essentially have to double-pay for social security--pay for the retirees off the current system for several decades while at the same time paying fully into the new account system. It just doesn't add up.

Just like school vouchers, private social security accounts sound good so long as you don't look too hard at them. Closer scrutiny, however, unveils hosts of problems that reveal that the system will simply not work.

Moving along... one intrepid reported asked Bush, if Iraq was enough of a threat to invade, then what about Iran and North Korea. Bush pulled out his standard "we negotiated with Iraq for 13 years and so we had to attack" chestnut. What, like we haven't been negotiating with North Korea since, I don't know, the end of the Korean War? That they haven't violated so many agreements, that they don't actively supply terrorists with weapons, that they don't maintain a nuclear program, that they don't oppress their own people and cause millions to starve?

Let's get beyond the fiction here: Bush invaded Iraq for reasons all of his own: political capital, control of oil resources, playing to his base and satisfying the neo-con hardliners. None of these would be satisfied by invading North Korea, else Bush would be trying to get us there right now. One is only confused if one is stupid enough to believe that we went into Iraq because of WMD or to help the Iraqis.

Bush ended his answer with a real gem: "diplomacy must be the first choice and always the first choice." Yeah, right.

Another reported pointed out that Bush never vetoed a spending bill. Bush answered incredulously, I set a budget, they spent the money in the budget, so how on Earth could I possibly veto their spending. Good lord, what a stupid answer. You veto spending bills if the Congress is spending money like a madman on pork. You use the veto to give yourself negotiating power, so you don't need a line-item veto. (You know, of course, that the only reason we don't have a line-item veto is because the GOP knows that Democrats sometimes inhabit the White House, and they can't just have it rescinded temporarily at times like that. The real answer for Bush here is that he allowed a hemorrhage of spending to occur for Republicans in Congress and didn't have any inclination at all to stop it--and likely will do the same in the future. Promises for cutting the deficit are science fiction.

The final question was about the Iraq War and its affect on Middle East diplomacy, and again Bush passed the buck here, saying essentially that we'll make investments on negotiations once the Palestinians got around to electing just the government that we want.

All in all, a rather average press conference for Bush. Full of lies and misinformation. In a by-the-way line of observation, there were a few things I noted in this conference, not really new stuff, but worth noting. His staff occupied at least the first row of seats in the conference. When did they start that? And why are they sitting there? As far as I recall, in the past, it has always been reporters in those seats, and his own people sit or stand by the side, or at the president's side.

But the other observation is one that I've made before: these press conferences are a sham. Bush is rarely challenged as presidents always used to be, the press is intimidated and held harshly in check. This editorial, for example, makes just a few of the many points that can be made on the topic. Harken back to the days of Kennedy when he held such meetings on a regular basis, sometimes every two weeks or so, and handled an inquisitive press corps with intelligence and style.

What we have today is a joke.

Posted by Luis at 06:09 AM | Comments (0)

December 22, 2004

Blast at U.S. Base in Mosul

The details are here, but in short, as many as 24 people are dead, perhaps 19 of them U.S. soldiers, killed in a mess tent explosion. The area was populated by U.S. servicemen, civilian contractors, and Iraqi soldiers. 57 were also wounded in the blast. Earlier reports put the incident down as a suicide bombing, but now the military spokespeople are leaning more toward "indirect fire," in short, a mortar attack or missile. But the holes caused by shrapnel are "uniform," suggesting ball bearings or other regular-sized shrapnel within the bomb.

More details as they come--but without doubt, this is not the last we're hearing of this. It may in fact be another escalation.

Posted by Luis at 04:25 PM | Comments (0)

December 21, 2004

The Nosebleed Seat

Not actually a seat so much as a nosebleed. A major one. Or ones, that is. Bloody. Gruesome. I wouldn't advise it.

They started coming a few days into the trip, after I'd had a throat cold and then an airplane trip. Then a few days after arriving, I got blood in my mouth, and then later that evening, a full-blown nosebleed. I mean it took twenty or thirty minutes to stop, and it was not just a trickle, it was a gusher. I'll spare you the gory details.

Even though Japanese national insurance does not cover treatment in the U.S., and I have no insurance just for the trip (something that will change in the future, I assure you), we figured that we'd get me to a doctor anyway. Well, four days, three doctors, and six or seven nosebleeds later (they would start after almost any activity, finally got three bad ones in one day)--most of them similarly gory messes--I finally got the treatment I needed. I got my nose packed. Both nostrils. It may not sound that bad, but just try having someone stuff WAY too much gauze--or one of those stiff, non-nostril-shaped sponges--down your nostrils, with insufficient anesthetic. It is not fun, trust me.

And yet, if bleeding continues around the packing, we go to stage three: a balloon inserted into the nasal cavity and then inflated. Which they say is extremely painful, so much so that I'd have to be hospitalized for the pain shots. And already, on an outpatient basis, this is costing us hundreds of dollars. Such a stay would be thousands.

Another problem: my flight back. These things don't heal quickly. And a serious nosebleed, of the type from which I suffer, can even be fatal on an over-water international flight. And the tickets are non-refundable, non-changeable. Delaying would cost another thousand dollars.

The only possibility is to have the nose unpacked later this week (assuming no new bleeds take place), and then immediately re-packed; after that, I could take the airplane ride home. A 16-hour ordeal from door to door, arriving home early evening. Then, the next day, to the local hospital in Japan, to have the nose unpacked, and treatment continued.

Not exactly the Christmas season I'd expected. Still, let's hope against hope for the merely miserable.

And now you know why I haven't blogged on the Bush press conference yet. I watched it, took extensive notes, wrote three paragraphs, and then bled a lot. Maybe cause and effect, we'll never know.

Posted by Luis at 01:32 PM | Comments (1)

December 20, 2004

Woodpeckers and More Jays

Went to Stanford Shopping Center via the San Fransquito Creek this morning and got a nice bird show right at the bike bridge. First, some Stellar Jays rooting around in the brush, and then some Acorn Woodpeckers (instead of the more common Hairy or Downy Woodpeckers). The Canon performed well in the photos that came out, but I am beginning to have serious doubts about the focusing. Given a foreground object and a background of, say, trees, the Canon went to the background, losing me all of my first shots of the woodpeckers, in addition to many of the jays. I did get the shots I wanted, but that was almost out of luck rather than having the camera perform well. I probably have the settings wrong, though--I'll have to check the manual on that. In any case, the successfuyl shots are displayed below.



Posted by Luis at 10:10 AM | Comments (0)

Rumsfeld Petulantly Agrees to Spend a Few Seconds on Dead Soldiers

But not without moaning about how hard he slaved in ordering a form letter written--no, wait, he wrote the original form letter himself! (yeah, right) and how he laboriously told someone to use the printing machine:

"I wrote and approved the now more than 1,000 letters sent to family members and next of kin of each of the servicemen and women killed in military action. While I have not individually signed each one, in the interest of ensuring expeditious contact with grieving family members, I have directed that in the future I sign each letter."
"Ensuring expeditious contact"? What the hell is that? To make certain contact will be made promptly? In the context of this situation, that makes no sense whatsoever--his signing the letters will not speed up the process. The reason he says this is to avoid openly stating the real reason he's starting to sign the letters: so he can make it appear that he gives a good goddamn about the fallen soldiers when he actually does not. This is about expressing true regret, not speed. It's about expressing the minimum possible amount of human warmth and caring, which Rumsfeld seems incapable of truly expressing.

And by the way, the number is 1,304. He could at least know the number of fallen soldiers to the nearest three hundred.

Posted by Luis at 12:31 AM | Comments (1)

December 19, 2004

Packaging Peeves

Okay, I've probably mentioned before about excessive packaging in Japan. But the U.S. is not without its wastefulness in this area. What I speak of is the Giant Plastic Casing for the Small Electronic or Other Item. The batteries I bought for my new camera the other day are a good example. If you note the total package on the right, six AA batteries came in a plastic case about 20 inches tall. Now exactly why is that? It's not just this, either. Music CDs sometimes come in a case twice as big as the CD, for example. Lots of items here nowadays seem to come in the oversized casings.

But that's not the worst part. The worst part is the Hard Plastic Casing From Hell. You know what I'm talking about. The thick plastic casing heat-pressed together around the item, usually unnecessarily beveled around the edges, which keeps the oversized packaging stiff. It's about as hard to open as any packaging I can imagine. You can't just pull it apart, and cutting it open, even with heavy shears, is a near-impossible task. And it's not just with the oversized casing, it often comes in smaller sizes as well. Whose bright idea was this, anyway? Sure, it makes it impossible for one to get pre-opened merchandise without it going back to the factory for re-casing. But hell, if you want to assure factory freshness, just put a tape seal or something on the damn thing, don't make it so that you need one of those giant James-Bond-Villain lasers to slice it open.


Posted by Luis at 04:18 PM | Comments (4)

December 18, 2004

Local Shots

So one of the aims in testing the zoom on the new camera is to go outside and try to shoot some wildlife. The lesser catch was another black squirrel, and I just missed a few woodpeckers.


But the real find, a bird not often seen hereabouts, is the Stellar's Jay, a crested Jay that is found more often near water (though there is a creek nearby). But I always have had a liking for crested birds. The shot below is reduced from its original size, by the way.

One would expect that hummingbirds would not winter this far north, but here's one. I do hear them quite a bit, their call is fairly distinctive. And I guess that the Silicon Valley area is quite warm enough this time of year to accommodate the little buzzers. This one was sitting atop a branch over my house, spotted from the backyard; the bird is only a few inches tall, and was about fifty feet away. The image to right is cropped, but not enlarged in any way. Not the clearest image, but considering the size of the subject and the distance involved, it's still a pretty good shot. It's an Anna's Hummingbird, by the way, if I'm not mistaken.

Posted by Luis at 09:18 AM | Comments (1)

December 17, 2004

Canon PowerShot S1-IS: First Impressions

For the past two years or so, I've had the Canon Powershot S30, a 3.2-megapixel camera which still today is regarded as one of the best digital cameras out there (though now it's the S45, it's still essentially the same camera). What I've always missed, however, was zoom--the S30 and its immediate kin only do the standard 3x zoom, which really isn't much. Other features--such as better movies, for example--were on my list, but the zoom, on a good camera, was my top want. For some time, I;ve had my eye on the Canon PowerShot S1-IS.

I looked around at various cameras, and almost at one point switched to the Olympus C-770 Ultra Zoom, slightly more expensive and slightly better-rated than the S1; I also trust Olympus' cameras (I had a nice one, until a former girlfriend stole it from me--an $800 camera at the time of purchase, too!), and the C-770 has 4 megapixels to the S1's 3.2, and has better macro features, as far as I can tell. However, the Olympus only takes xD memory cards, and I have grown to respect the Compact Flash type of flash memory card--they are cheapest and have the biggest capacities (the SanDisk Ultra CF card has a transfer speed about twice the xD's, and the 1 GB Compact Flash card is actually cheaper than the largest xD card, half the size at 512 MB). I also didn't much care for the Olympus' interface. So in the end, I went with the Canon.

I've only been using it for a bit over a day now, and in general I am very pleased with it. First of all, the zoom performs as advertised, giving me the extra reach I've wanted for a long time. Canon enhanced the zoom with very effective image stabilization (the "IS" in the camera name), and that helps to get sharper images not only in long zoom shots, but also regular low-light shots. With a regular camera, it took careful holding and several tries to get a sharp image at 1/30th of a second or less, but the new camera makes that a lot easier. It does feel a bit funny not to have the image displayed on the LCD exactly match your hand movements, but that's a very small thing to get over.

Very soon I'll be comparing shots with the 10x zoom versus my dad's S40's 3x zoom, but for now, here is a little example of just the 10x zoom. First, a reduced image of the entire shot I took of pigeons on a power pole and line, taken from across a supermarket parking lot:


The birds are circled at the center. Now, the same shot, at full size, cropped to show the birds at the center:


And finally, a shot taken at 10x zoom, also full-size and cropped:


That's not a bad zoom! I also found a black squirrel in a tree, and managed to get a shot of that with the zoom; for this display image, I had to scale it down by half in addition to cropping:


I still have a lot more experimentation to do, but as you can see, the zoom seems to be doing great so far. Canon's zoom is also very fast and very quiet; I can go to full 10x zoom much faster than I can go to full 3x zoom on my old camera. In fact, most first-time handlers of the camera see the zoom as too fast--hard to get an intermediate zoom because it just zips to the extremes; but with a little practice, you'll notice that an incremental touch on the zoom toggle allows for a slower zoom and perfect control. The zoom is also very quiet, and so can be used while shooting video.

I was a bit worried for a while that this camera had no macro mode. There is no flower-icon macro setting button, and macro focus is not mentioned in the manual at all. But it can take pretty good macro shots without switching settings; just be sure to have the camera fully zoomed out. And while it is advertised as having a minimal focus range of 3.9 inches, I found that I could focus on objects closer than 2 inches from the lens. Here is one photo of a small flower, maybe just less than an inch across, full-size but cropped:


With my S30, I wanted to take photos of stuck pixels on my Powerbook so as to show them to my students in the Computer class I teach, but with that camera, even in macro mode, I could not get close enough to take a good shot; however, the automatic macro mode on the S1 allowed me to take clear pictures of the stuck pixels easily, hand-held, in low light:



So even that, though unadvertised, seems to work better than my previous camera.

The S1, in many ways, is similar to my old S30: both cameras having the same resolution (image size), and the same basic settings and controls. While I would have enjoyed a better minimum shutter speed, 15 seconds (the same as the S30) is sufficient, and I was able to get the following shot (cropped and reduced) of Orion tonight:


Orion1That's Sirius in the lower left corner, by the way. I almost even got resolution on the Orion Nebula (the center "star" in Orion's sword, see unreduced image at right), but that's at minimum zoom--when I get my hands on a tripod another night, I'll try a 10x zoom on it and see what develops.

Unlike the S30, the S1 mysteriously lacks a focus assist light (the little lamp that comes on while focusing to help with low- or no-light focusing), a flaw many have noted; however, the S1 seems to focus OK in low light, you simply have to find an edge with enough contrast for the camera to lock the focus on. The S1 also has a slightly smaller LCD monitor--but it is on a very convenient swivel, making it easier to take photos from odd angles and still see what you are doing (it also allows you to turn the LCD screen inwards so as to protect it from being scratched while stored in a pocket or bag). With the S1, Canon fixed what I saw as a big flaw on the earlier Powershots: the "set" button used to be part of the 4-way toggle switch; in order to use it, you have to push the loose toggle switch exactly down, and not tilted to any side, for it to work properly, which is very hard to do. Now the "set" function has its own button, and is much easier to use.

This camera also has a lot of buttons on it: aside from the shutter/zoom toggle and the main setting wheel, there is a power on/off/play button/toggle, a separate button to start recording video, the four-way selection toggle, and ten other buttons--six on the back, two on the top left side, and two more on the lens base (if you don't count the attachment ring release button, that is). One complaint I read was that it is hard not to accidentally press some of them in the normal handling of the camera. I don't find that a difficulty, however; the normal areas for your fingers to go are button-free, so if you just hold it right, it shouldn't be a problem.

The S1 does have a few weak spots, though. While 3.2 megapixels will do fine for me, they could've made it 4.0 at least, or so you'd think. The lack of an autofocus assist lamp is also a serious oversight (or maybe they had to make tough choices, I don't know); and the lens cap is very poorly designed, is very loose-fitting and falls off at the slightest brush. I don't even have to take it off, in fact: just turn on the camera, and the extending lens assembly gently slips it off. For now, I have it awkwardly tethered to one of the strap holders. But I got the lens adapter, which extends just beyond the maximum extension of the zoom lens, and plan to add a UV filter, to act as a sort of transparent lens cap, which should make the regular cap unnecessary.

One more down side, unavoidable really, is the form factor. The zoom lens does not allow for the camera to be slim enough to slide into your shirt pocket, which the S30/45 barely does. The S1 will fit on my jacket pocket, but only with the lens retracted; with the lens adapter, it might not fit so well. But I'm willing to live with that, and might even get a camera case, though I dislike them quite a bit.

I have noticed a strange artifact, that while locking the autofocus in direct sunlight, I sometimes get red vertical streaking on the LCD panel--but it disappears after taking the photo, and does not show up on the photo itself.

The camera's video, aside from being zoomable, is now available as full-frame and full-speed, and will play just like footage shot with a digital video camera. The 1 GB Ultra II CF card I got ($85) is not only fast enough to record the video well, but also can take up to 11 minutes and 25 seconds of such footage (640 x 480 pixels, 30 fps). It's a huge amount to download into the computer, but it could replace a digital video camera if you don't film huge chunks of footage all at once. It saves the video in AVI format, so I'll have to see if that can be imported into iMovie or not.

The S1 runs on 4 AA batteries, either Ni-MH rechargeables, or standard Alkaline batteries. That means you can easily buy extras in an emergency if your rechargeables run out, no proprietary battery packs holding you back, like the S30 has. My father gave me a set of four NI-MH's with a fast charger unit, and I bought another 12 at Costco today (for about $25), so with four sets--each taking up to 500 or so images before quitting--I should never run out of juice again, with or without the backup.

One other personal drawback, I'm buying the camera in the U.S. to save about $150 on the purchase price, but Canon does not have a worldwide warranty like companies such as Apple have--which means if a defect shows up after I go back to Tokyo, I'll have to eat the repair costs in Japan, or ship the camera back to the U.S., taking even longer and adding greater shipping costs. Hopefully, the camera will not need repairs, as my S30 has not--aside from those caused by dropping the poor thing on concrete a few times...

Overall, the camera is extremely satisfactory so far. More on its performance as I go. (And more photos, too!)

Posted by Luis at 02:07 AM | Comments (5)

December 16, 2004

One Reason to Watch the Inaugural

There is a movement, centered at this web site, to execute a silent protest against Bush on his inauguration day. As the site points out, the Bush administration has become highly efficient and effective at gagging public protest, shipping them off to distant "free speech zones" and arresting anyone who dares criticize Bush within eyeshot of his motorcade. So they've developed new--and inevitable--tactics. Wear no anti-Bush shirts, buttons or other apparel, and carry no protest signs. Instead, mass along the route of the inaugural motorcade, and when Bush passes by, turn your back on him. It would be unspeakably embarrassing for the country and the administration for an American to be arrested for simply turning around--not that I'd put it past them.

This strategy will make it impossible for anyone--even those organizing and participating--to know who is participating and who is not. It also means the protesters will be thoroughly mixed in with the rest of the crowd. Because they will have no distinguishing appearance--they'll just be facing the other way--it may not be as visually impressive as you might expect. But it will be telling, in more than one way: it will be virtually the only way that Americans can protest to their president in any direct fashion. That in itself tells you a lot about how hostile and uncaring this administration is to its own people in a country that is supposed to be the world's leader in public participation and empowerment.

Posted by Luis at 12:34 AM | Comments (0)

Parasitism: Who's Leeching Whom?

Well, the MPAA is now going after BitTorrent and eDonkey, trying to shut them down like the RIAA tried to do with KaZaA, and Napster before that. While the RIAA got Napster, KaZaA is still out there, just as Gnutella is still going strong. Considering the worldwide structure of the filesharing networks, it is doubtful that they will make much of a dent.

Then there is the question of whether or not sales are affected. Despite online downloads of movies, DVD sales remain spectacular, so much so that they actually outstrip box office sales--DVDs now represent 60% of the film industry's revenue, and films are beginning to sell more in DVD form than at the theater. So how is it that BitTorrent downloads are killing the industry?

This is the same lame argument made by the RIAA, which studies (such as this or this, PDF files) have continually dismissed. Sales did not decline until after Napster shut down, and losses generally match major economic trends--not to mention the fact that music sales took a downturn just the the music industry drastically cut the number of new releases they generated--hmmm, they put less music on sale and music sales fall, what could possibly be the correlation?

My favorite quote from these stories, however, is this:

John Malcolm, the MPAA's director of worldwide antipiracy operations, said: "These people are parasites, leeching off the creative activity of others."
Ah. The downloaders are leeches on the creative activity... not the labels and studios that consistently rip off and abuse the artists? Please. No big industrial media firm is ever going to get my sympathy by claiming their "creative activity" is being "leeched" when they're doing what they're doing. Take Forrest Gump, for example: the film cost $55 million to make, probably about as much to promote, and it grossed $660 million at the box office alone--add a few hundred million for DVD sales--and yet Paramount claimed that it didn't make any profit, and refused to pay the author, Winston Groom, a single penny of the "net profit" they had promised him. This is hardly uncommon--Hollywood, just like the recording industry, makes it a standard practice to vastly underpay the artists and overcharge the consumers. They steal billions, then cry poverty, outrage and parasite at the filesharing phenomenon.

Hypocrites. I have no sympathy for them at all, only contempt.

Posted by Luis at 12:05 AM | Comments (1)

December 15, 2004

Forced DVD Trailers

Okay, so it's not earth-shatteringly important. But I am sick and tired of paying twenty bucks for a DVD, only to be forced to watch commercials! That's one of the big reasons why you get a DVD, so you don't have to watch it on commercial TV. I just got my first Amazon shipment of DVDs that I'm ordering, and wanted to check out Shrek 2. But before you get to the main menu, you have to sit through 'previews' of upcoming stuff they're working on. In this case, two trailers for Dreamworks features. The skip and menu features are disabled here. This, thankfully, is not on most DVDs, but Disney has them a lot, and now Dreamworks, it seems. You ask me, whatever genius decided to add the "feature" to disable such things on DVDs should be taken out and shot. A DVD player which could override such blocks would be worth buying, if they could make such a thing. Fortunately, the fast-forward feature still works on the Shrek DVD, and you can get through the trailers after a minute or so--often times, the forced trailers do have some way of getting around them, but you have to try three or four things before you find them.

Now, I've bought perhaps over 100 DVDs, a sizable investment, largely because the prices are usually just reasonable enough--but the forced trailers are exactly the kind of thing that would drive me to download the movie from the Internet instead. Commercials are for people who don't pay. Not for people who just coughed up some cash for the media. Pardon my opinion.

By the way, if you are considering buying the Shrek 2 DVD, and one of the factors pushing you in that direction is the "all-new surprise ending," then pull back--it's not what you think. It's not a new ending, it's simply another karaoke video like they had on the end of the first film. If you like that, then great--and I like the film enough to want to have the DVD anyway--but this is one of those cases of blatant false advertising.

Posted by Luis at 05:16 PM | Comments (5)

Pre-Flight Jitters

(Actually, this will be posted well after I fly out.) If you are one of those people who can easily shake the feeling that you've forgotten something when going to travel overseas, then you're lucky. I always have some nagging feeling that I've forgotten something. Last trip home, it was whether or not I locked the front door on the way out; I worried the whole way and then had to call the landlord in Japan to go and check for me. This time, it's a general feeling borne of having left in too much of a hurry.

Usually I'm much better about time when I leave on trips, often giving myself hours of extra buffer time. This time I cut it close on leaving the apartment, and rushed around in a slow-motion adrenaline half-panic while trying to throw everything I needed into my backpack and figure out what did I forget this time? Strangely, I think this time I didn't forget anything, unlike my usual experience of have left behind something considerable though not major. On one trip to Wisconsin a few years back, I forgot to pack my shirts, and remembered while on the airplane. And it was a business trip, so I couldn't rely on home support. I had to stop off at a shopping mall on the rental car ride to the hotel and buy a few new shirts on the fly.

But on this trip I think it's all going smoothly. Got to the train station just in time to catch the train (though the taxi driver played hide-and-seek with me at first), got the express OK, got into the airport and just beat out a very long and tedious line at check-in, then went straight to this nice computer lounge. Heck, I even got seats way up from, row 20 on the way home (and row 19 on the way back).

And I even remembered to lock the door this time.

Posted by Luis at 04:44 AM | Comments (0)

Modern Airports

So, one nice perk about airports nowadays is that they tend to have nice lounges for anyone to use where you can whip out your laptop and plug it in at a desk. So instead of wasting away for an hour or so in a seat near the boarding counter, I can hop downstairs, plug in my computer (don't have to worry about draining the batteries), and sit down in a nice cushioned rolling chair. Then I can work or play away until the flight is called up. Today, it's blogging for a while, then maybe watch the latest Simpsons episode downloaded from BitTorrent. Cool.

Posted by Luis at 04:31 AM | Comments (0)

December 14, 2004

The Larry King Effect

Can we stop hearing about this guy now?

There's come to be a certain phenomenon whereupon relatively average cases with no celebrities or political figures come into the national spotlight because of initially isolated media coverage, and the Scott Peterson case is one of them. One nexus where these cases begins is the Larry King show, which, when not commemorating Republican presidents, 60's crooners, psychics or other assorted guests, can, at the drop of a hat, become almost solely dedicated to a single criminal case. Although centered around a politician, the Gary Condit/Chandra Levy case was similar in nature; until 9/11 hit, the Larry King Live Show was practically the Condit/Levy Show, nonstop. When Peterson's case came up, despite the fact that it was a relatively average homicide case, King's intense coverage made it a media circus.

What real need is there for us to focus on this stuff? I really believe in curtailing the freedom of the press in cases like these, where it can be pretty certainly determined that the vital interest of the public is pretty much nil, and the destructive influence on fair trials is maximized. We should have laws that shroud criminal proceedings unless some actual public interest is being endangered; whoever said that the free press right in the Bill of Rights should outweigh all other rights, like that to a fair trial? The public's rubbernecking peep-show interest in cases like this is surely not as important as making sure that justice is done.

Posted by Luis at 09:56 AM | Comments (5)

December 13, 2004

Nanny Problem My Foot

The news agencies are making it sound like it's all about a nanny affair, almost a throwback to the early 90's when that kind of thing was more predominant, and people don't really care so much anymore. People probably have the impression that the Kerik nomination is being tanked just because of a technicality. But the truth is much more than that, much more than many of the news organizations are making a thing about. This CNN article is a good example of that, makes it look like a nanny problem and nothing else.

But the truth goes much deeper than that. Kerik had ties with a company that had mob ties, and received many unreported cash gifts from them, ran a corrupt ship at Riker's Island and at a hospital he ran in Saudi Arabia, and was involved in unsavory civil court cases that involved his being wanted under police warrant. Josh Marshall gives a good accounting, with sources, here. However you look at it, it is more than just a nanny problem, though the "liberal media" is walking on eggshells to avoid even hinting of anything that cannot be documented four ways from next Sunday.

The problem should be obvious: Bush is stacking his cabinet and other vital posts not with people who are necessarily qualified, but with people who will toe the party line--and making sure that these people are qualified and vetted is secondary, at best. I mean, seriously--with all that in this guy's past, and all they can say to excuse themselves is that he didn't fess up that he hired an illegal alien as a nanny? If their vetting process is so lame that they depend entirely on the word of the candidate, they should be ashamed of themselves.

Posted by Luis at 11:15 PM | Comments (0)

December 12, 2004

New Ecto

As you may or may not be aware, I post my entries to this blog using Ecto (Shareware, $17.95, or ¥2,030). I started using it back when it was Kung-Log, and bought it when it (deservedly) went commercial. It is a great blogging tool, and version 2 for the Mac is now out. (For PC users, version 1.5 has been released, but I won't be commenting on it.)

There is a fairly radical interface change, and I'm not sure that I like it, although my distaste might come more from having to re-learn the interface rather than from real problems with it. In the new interface, the blogging window becomes secondary (it had been primary), and the entries list becomes the new central window. There is an advantage here in that you can now have more than one blogging window open at the same time. Maybe it makes sense, but it takes getting used to.

Another change is the addition of a "Rich Text" view for the blogging window; you can switch between the classic HTML interface and the "Rich Text" interface, which I guess, as it states, shows the page as if it were read as an RTF file. However, the rich text view is not WYSIWYG to the web page like the preview window is, and when you create special HTML in the HTML view and then switch back to rich text, if Ecto doesn't recognize the HTML, it will erase it. I lost about 2 minute's of hand-typed table code that way. Solution: never go into rich text view, which makes it more or less useless. Ecto would be much better if there were a "Preview"-like view, which shows exactly how the page would render on a browser, but you could type directly into it--more like Composer in Mozilla has.

Other than that, there's little to grouse about. Oh, it would be nice if all the HTML shortcut keys worked in rich text mode, or if you could use shortcut keys to switch blogs while looking at the Entries & Drafts window, but those are minor. The new version does have some good improvements. First off, the Preview window works a bit better--it used to have lots of trouble displaying changes while you were typing in the blogging window, but now it works a bit more smoothly--not perfectly, but better. There is also a preview pane below the entries list now, allowing you to quickly see the post from the past you are about to open.
And there's the addition of the link creation engine. Let's say you're typing a blog entry and you mention a book or a video. You're an Amazon Associate, which means that if you link to an Amazon product and someone buys that product through your link, you get a share. But to make the link, you have to go to the Amazon site, find the product, get the ASIN or ISBN code, go to the Associates' pages, go through a multi-step process and then copy and paste the link back into your blog entry. Not exactly a snap. With the new Ecto, you just select the title of the product you typed and execute the keyboard shortcut COMMAND-SHIFT-A. A search window appears for the item on; select the product type and search. When you see the product you want, just double-click on it and Ecto makes the link for you (after you entered your associate ID in the options, of course). This takes a really cumbersome process and makes it easy--a great feature. (See my last post for an example of this; it would've taken a lot longer to do this under the old system.)

But there's another new feature I also like: the ability to simultaneously post to more than one blog at a time. I often post the same entry in this blog and over at the Expat (if it's political), and before, Ecto made me wait until it was finished uploading to one blog before I could even see the other blog. That seems to have been fixed, a welcome addition.

There are a few other minor touches--more menus and buttons, some more options than before. But before this upgrade, Ecto was already the best blogging tool out there, now it's just that much better.

Posted by Luis at 02:18 PM | Comments (2)

Shameless Plug (or: What I'm Getting)

Okay, it's time for me not only to brag about the DVDs I'm purchasing, but to see if I can ramp up the hits and possibly purchases on my Amazon Associates account! See, I'm being up-front about it. They're not needed to run this site, I'm gonna do this blog anyway; it'd just be a nice 4% gift for me, is all. If you're going to purchase any of the following DVDs from Amazon anyway, why not give me a cut and buy them through a link on this page? You don't have to buy the item immediately, by the way; if you put it on your wish list it'll still count, but only if you buy it within 24 hours after following the link(s) from this page. Or you could put it in your shopping cart immediately and let it sit as long as your cookies last (usually 90 days), doing the actual purchase later.

I do these DVD buys every Christmas, by the way, when I go back home to visit. It saves shipping costs to Japan, and I can watch the Region 1 DVDs on any one of my DVD players (the one I brought from the U.S., and the region-free player I bought at Costco later, as well as the DVD drive on my computer). The Potterx3-2 Japanese versions of these DVDs not only cost a whole lot more, but they often lack the special features like commentaries and such.

First off, the boxed sets. I'm getting the three Harry Potter films, more of a bundle than a real boxed set, so the reviews say. But it's at a good price (average of $15 per 2-disc set), so why the heck not. I'd rather not wait another six to ten years for the rest of the DVDs to come out and buy it in one grand set. Then there are the guy-film action adventure sets, the Die Hard films 1-3, and the four Lethal Weapon films. Yeah, I know. But they're fun. Though the Lethal Weapon series was turning into a Warner Brothers cartoon at the end there. If there's a #5, it'll probably be animated. Those last two sets are also under $40, for a three- and four-DVD set respectively. I'm also continuing to get the M*A*S*H series, season number seven for me (I probably will skip seasons eight and nine, though, and get the final season only after this).
More on the PBS side is Jim Henson's Storyteller series, the original and the Greek Myths. This was a short-lived series I enjoyed a while back, narrated by William Hurt. The episodes are very well presented, and I was pleased to find them out on DVD. Now if they'd just release the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (and at a reasonable price, I'd hope).

Some old comedies which came down in price enough for me to get: All of Me, the Martin/Tomlin vehicle which was one of Martin's best. The beautiful Harold and Maude, which I first saw in high school, hilarious black comedy. Foul Play, a film with 'made-for-TV' written all over it, but still a really good comedy flick. The martial arts battle between Burgess Meredith and Rachel Roberts, as well as the elderly Japanese couple in the limo make the film watchable all by themselves. Then there's Silver Streak, the first and best film with the Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor duo, and the best.

I'm also getting The Life of Brian, for reasons that should be obvious (shame on you if you don't know); and Sabrina, the original Billy Wilder Bogart-Hepburn-Holden classic (not the remake); the special edition of This Is Spinal Tap (with the actors doing commentary on the film in character as the Spinal Tap band, acting again as if it were a real doc). And ones that I'm less than proud of advertising but am getting because they're at least acceptable, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Martin's The Man With Two Brains, and Short's Innerspace.

Though I hate him as governor, Schwarzenegger was in some good films. Total Recall was not one of them, but it's a fun piece of bloody fluff along the lines of Robocop, and I'm interested in what the 58MVerhoeven-Schwarzenegger commentary will be like, and it's just ten bucks. I'm also getting Terminator and Terminator 2 (number three was just Schwarzenegger, not Cameron, and wasn't worth it).

And finally, the new films out: Shrek 2 (the extras are pretty good), and the final Lord of the Rings special extended edition, The Return of the King. The extended editions are still only $24, and this'll complete the set for me. The extended RotK runs 250 minutes! Add that to the 208 for the first film, and 223 for the second, and the entire extended edition would run a total of 11 hours and 21 minutes! That's what you call a long film. Sako, you still up for that marathon we talked about?

Posted by Luis at 01:11 AM | Comments (0)

December 11, 2004

Rumsfeld Lied

Yamantaka at The Expat pointed out this story coming out about how Rumsfeld could have ordered the extra armor for the Humvees all along. However, not only did he not order it, he has still not ordered it--the supplier of the armor says they have not received an order from the army yet.

Remember, Rumsfeld said that money was not an issue. The companies that make the armor and the vehicles themselves said that they could ramp up production no problem. About half the soldiers injured and killed in Iraq were hit by homemade bombs and rocket-propelled grenades, the kind of attack from which the armor would help protect the soldiers.

In short, Rumsfeld is simply letting the troops get maimed and killed, for no good reason. And then he lied to that soldier about it being an issue of being able to do it. Swell. I would join Yamantaka's call to fire Rumsfeld; the only problem is, I know that Bush would simply put someone even worse in his place. So the better idea is to shame and humiliate Rumsfeld into doing his job.

Posted by Luis at 10:36 PM | Comments (0)

December 10, 2004

It's Never Right

This always happens to me. Back when the yen was down to the 80's per dollar, I had no money to exchange. I always miss the sweet rate. Just a few days ago, it was at 102.1, and had taken forever to get there. Less than a week passes, and now the damn thing's back up to 105.8--more than a yen higher than yesterday, a big jump, like the other big jumps over the past several days. I mean, for crying out loud. Today I wanted to change but had no time, so it'll have to be Monday. And the way the rate works, if it goes favorable for buying dollars, the banks don't change the official rate until the next day; if the rate goes more favorable for them to sell dollars--worse for buyers like me--they change the rate almost immediately. I checked on that once, a bit of a scam there. But it means that even if the rate breaks my way Monday before I buy dollars, I still won't see anything from it--but the rate could get worse and I could get socked by it.

Good thing I don't play the stock market. With my luck in these things, I'd be broke by now.

Posted by Luis at 10:59 PM | Comments (0)

December 09, 2004

And Yet More Evidence They Don't Give a $#*% About the Troops

On the tail of the story that Bush and Rumsfeld care so little about the troops that they won't even sign the letters to the families of the fallen, comes this bit of news from Kuwait, where Rumsfeld was answering soldiers' questions in a 'town hall' style meeting. Apparently he figured he'd just get praise and adulation, but one soldier asked a very pointed question from an airplane mechanic from the 278th Regimental Combat Team of the Tennessee Army National Guard:

Why do us soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-arm our vehicles? And why don't we have those resources available to us? ... A lot of us are getting ready to move north relatively soon. Our vehicles are not armoured. We're digging pieces of rusted scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass ... picking the best out of this scrap to put on our vehicles to take into combat. We do not have proper armament vehicles to carry with us north.
Now that's a good question. It's not as if this problem hasn't been known about, much less been in the spotlight, for more than a year now. We've heard stories about soldiers draping bullet-proof vests along the side of their humvees in order to compensate for this. So what was Rumsfeld's flinty response?
It isn't a matter of money, it isn't a matter on part of the Army of desire. It's a matter of production and capability of doing it. As you know, you go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish to have.
That's his response. "You go to war with the army you have." Okay, let's say that's true. The war started 21 months ago. The deficit of vehicle armor was brought up by many in the initial months of the war. So, as Rumsfeld suggests, does it take more than a year an a half to produce and send armor parts to the battlefield? Of course not. Just the same as with body armor--the government could have provided the troops with enough, they just didn't fucking care. There was always enough money for that. There was enough money to give their cronies multi-billion dollar no-bid contracts of which we now see huge portions were stolen or pissed away. They got the $87 billion money which they touted as being "for the troops," which Bush lashed out at Kerry for because he voted for an alternate $87 billion bill and therefore "denied" money "for the troops." It was always "for the troops" when they wanted to win a political fight.

But now those same troops still don't have the equipment they need, equipment that the Bush administration could've gotten them long ago. And those troops are still dying (1,276 as of today, most recently Private 1st Class Andrew M. Ward, KIA in Ramadi) and they still don't have what they need, they're digging through garbage to find "hillbilly armor" and Rumsfeld just stares back at this kid and tells him to suck it up. Worse than that, he actually tried to tell the soldier that he was being stupid about it: "I've talked a great deal about this with a team of people who have been working hard at the Pentagon... if you think about it, you can have all the armor in the world on a tank and a tank can be blown up. And you can have an up-armored Humvee and it can be blown up." I'm sure that made the soldiers feel better about it. Of course, Rumsfeld was talking out of his ass at that particular moment; most vehicles aren't blown up with such excessive amounts of explosives, and the armor would save many lives.

These are the people who got voted back into office. Rumsfeld is almost the only cabinet secretary who will stay on. I can only imagine that the primary reason soldiers vote predominantly Republican is due to the induction process in which the soldiers' self-image is deliberately stripped down so it can be rebuilt, a process which, indirectly, has a political flavor. Here's an interesting study someone should do: find the political leanings of people about to go into the military, then find those same people after one year in the military and ask the same questions. Because I have trouble understanding why people who are so abused and mistreated by Republicans vote for them so enthusiastically.

As General Wesley Clark said, "The Republicans do like weapons systems and Democrats like people." He was being charitable, of course. The truth is, the Republicans in power don't give a shit about the troops.

Posted by Luis at 12:27 PM | Comments (1)

December 08, 2004

On DVD and HD-DVD and Downloading

Boy is this guy stupid:

"'s a heavier download. That's why we're pushing to get HD-DVD in place," added Parsons. The new technology...has far greater storage capacity than DVDs currently on the market.

"Right now, you can probably download a DVD in two, three hours," said Parsons. "This HD-DVD product is a day's download. And that'll be a big step [for the industry], to make downloading just super, super, super inconvenient."

First of all, this guy must have terrific bandwidth. If he's talking about downloading a whole 4.7- or 8.5 GB DVD in "two, three hours," he must have blazing DSL or maybe a fiber-optic connection, and constant private access to someone with significant upstream broadband. To download a 25- to 27 GB HD-DVD in a day would require similar feats of downloading magic. Most people don't get that kind of speed, meaning that even much smaller downloads can take days or even weeks, and that doesn't faze most downloaders. They just leave their computer on all day and let things download in the background. Doesn't matter much to them.

Right now, downloading a whole DVD is inconvenient for many, unless they have significant broadband. Which is why ripped DVD movies are typically not downloaded whole at original size. Instead they are compressed into much smaller files for easier downloading. An 8-GB DVD is stripped of its extras and the core movie file compressed into a 700 MB file, which can fit on a single CD-R for storage and is still of fairly good quality. That's what might take 2-3 hours--the compressed movie, not the whole DVD--and even then, only if you've got blazing bandwidth and are using the right service, like BitTorrent. Introducing HD-DVD would be no different--it just means a slightly different encoding job for the pirate who originally rips the movie. The time difference won't be so great unless the whole DVD, uncompressed, is made available for downloading, or if the movie file is not compressed as much--but it's the choice of the pirate, not the format of the DVD that determines things.

Not to mention that broadband is increasing. On clients like BitTorrent or Shareaza, with tracker sites like Suprnova or Youceff many complete DVDs are indeed made available whole, because many downloaders do now have the sufficient bandwidth--or extreme patience--to download such a large file. Now, HD-DVDs will not become a popular standard for many years--by which time, broadband will have increased to the point where downloading larger files is even easier.

So in short, the HD-DVD files will be downloadable just like today's DVDs are, with or without compression. Changing the format will do little or nothing to stop piracy. What stops piracy most is making the media itself cheap--which many DVDs are, certainly in contrast with music CDs. How many people are gonna sit and wait three weeks for a download to complete, then have to go through burning the DVD or CD (not always simple) just so they don't have to pay ten bucks to get the original product, which has better quality and features? Not enough to matter, that's for certain. As with downloaded music CDs, downloaded DVDs are not really any threat to the media conglomerates. They just love to act like they're the victims of something.

Posted by Luis at 10:23 AM | Comments (1)

December 07, 2004

You'd Think He'd At Least Call

Apparently President Bush, even on his many and lengthy vacations, cannot be bothered to even personally sign the letters he sends to bereaved families of soldiers killed in Iraq, instead having his signature stamped on them. Personally, I think a phone call is warranted. You might think that would take too long, seeing as how more than 1,260 soldiers have been killed in the line of duty. But the war has been going on for a year and nine months now, or exactly 628 days. Say Bush magnanimously grants five minutes of his time for each fallen soldier, that would average out to almost exactly ten minutes a day. Even for a president, that is eminently possible. But it seems that Bush can't even be bothered to spend ten seconds per day even signing the form letter that someone else likely typed for him.

Even worse, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld can't even find the time to sign his letters to the grieving families, either, as his letters are also machine-stamped.

We already know how much they disrespect the soldiers from how viciously they have tried to gut the soldier's pay and benefits; we know they would rather save their own political asses by blocking any press about returning caskets and refusing to attend any of the funerals for the fallen, even one or two symbolically. But this latest information, though seemingly trivial, sends home the message that the ultimate and final sacrifice of the men who they call "heroes" when it serves their own political ends are not worth even ten seconds of their day. That's how much they really just don't care.

Posted by Luis at 03:59 PM | Comments (0)


As I type, my students are taking their final exam in our Computer class. I design the final exam so that the question portion is on a web page with a form (fill-in-the-blanks are text boxes, multiple choice is done with pull-down menus), which generates an email with the student's answers. My email client (Eudora, by the way) is set to automatically check the email account every minute, though when I notice a student just finished (dancing hamsters appear on their monitor), I manually check the email, which arrives instantly.

The thing that just struck me is the fact that the server for the email is somewhere in the U.S. A student finishes the test here in Tokyo, Japan, sends the results to the U.S., and then I retrieve them from there, seconds later; the answers have traveled halfway across the world and back. It just strikes me as funny, one of those minor epiphanies concerning commonplace but things strange in usually-uncontemplated ways, like what happens every so often when I'm walking down the street somewhere and suddenly it dawns on me that I'm in Japan.

Posted by Luis at 12:22 PM | Comments (2)

December 06, 2004

Japan Fun Fact #5

Photo from Japan Guide.
Japanese people typically do not take showers in the morning; they take a bath in the evening. The "bathroom" in Japan is exactly that; the toilet is always in a separate room, except in small apartments where there is a "unit bath." The bathroom (again, aside from unit baths) consists of a large tub and a shower area. Most Japanese sit down on a stool for the "shower," but don't always use the shower head. One soaps up outside the tub, and either showers to rinse off or uses a small plastic bowl filled with water, poured over the head or shoulders, to rinse. Then one luxuriates in the tub, which has a water intake and outlet to circulate the tub water through a heating system to keep the water warm. In many Japanese families, the same water is kept for everyone (usually father first, smallest child last).

A few myths about Japanese bathing to be dispelled: first, Tom Clancy's Debt of Honor (his last even semi-readable book, before he descended into mediocrity) aside, Japanese typically do not go to bath houses, especially with work colleagues. Sometimes people might enjoy the luxury of a special bath house, but otherwise bath houses ("sento") tend to be for people with no bath at home. Second, Japanese rarely bathe in mixed-sex baths. It may be true still in a few small countryside villages and a few scattered hot springs ("onsen"), but not in most places in Japan. There is probably more mixed bathing in California, to be honest.

Posted by Luis at 11:38 AM | Comments (5)

December 05, 2004

Little Bits and Pieces

I am fighting off a bad throat cold (it seems I get no other kind) and working up to final exams, so not much today. But there are a few things:

Lycos Europe has the right idea. They've got a screensaver that, while the computer is idle and connected to the Internet, junk data is transmitted to web servers known as dedicated spam servers. The idea is to choke them right back, just as they choke our email, blogs, and whatever else they can get their slimy little paws into. Unfortunately, I can't find the screensaver on Lycos Europe at present, though I haven't spent too much time. If I find it, I'll install it.

The yen is at 102.1 to the dollar. This will be a great shopping deal for me when I go to the U.S. You can check up-to-date exchange rates here.

It was great weather out today. Pity I couldn't enjoy it more. Brought in by the unseasonable typhoon, we had 25-degree C temps and crystal clear skies.

This won't be the big headline in Japan tomorrow morning. Not even a little one, I'd wager.

These people need to get a sense of reality. Apparently, a lot of people are irked that the iTunes music store charges differently depending on the country. Well, duh. When is that not the case? For example, music CDs cost under $20 in the U.S., but almost $30 in Japan. Everything costs differently everywhere. You expect the Internet to make things different? Get real.

By the way, Fahrenheit 9/11 finished at the box office with $220,000 worldwide. I'll have to see if anyone lists DVD sales numbers to get the grand total.

One last bit. On the IMDB Studio Briefing, they tell the story of how, when the Wizard of Oz first played on TV in color in 1956, CBS was flooded with complaints by people with expensive new color TV sets. The problem: they complained that the opening sequence of the film was broadcast in black and white.

Posted by Luis at 10:20 PM | Comments (3)

Ah, If Only It Were So

In a saner reality, perhaps.

Posted by Luis at 03:32 AM | Comments (0)

December 04, 2004

Japan Fun Fact #4

Back when I was a student at SFSU, even though I lived relatively close to campus and there was a major bus line that would take me right there, it was all too often a crap shoot as to whether I would be able to actually ride the bus. Sometimes it would never show up. Other times it would be so full the driver wouldn't stop. Sometimes it would be 20 minutes late then three buses would come crowded together. Living relatively close to school didn't change things much; you would make the decision to walk to school, and then the bus would show up and you would not be able to get to a stop in time to catch it. Not altogether a pleasant service in terms of reliability.

In Japan such things rarely happen. Just as trains are punctual and stop on a dime, so are buses. If the bus is two minutes late, it's a surprising thing. Yes, it costs about $2 and they don't give transfers, but that's just Japan for you.


Buses in Japan have different flavors, but the most common is the pay-as-you-leave type. When you get on a bus, you get on at the back (as passengers leave via the front). You see two machines(see photo at below left); one hands out small paper-slip tickets (see at right), and the other takes prepaid bus pass cards (available in 1000, 3000, and 5000-yen denominations; you can't usually buy a weekly/monthly pass for unlimited rides). The pass cards handle everything automatically. The paper slip tickets have a number printed on them. There is no one price for the bus trip; you pay more if you ride longer. There is an electronic display board at the front which shows the current fare for whatever number your paper ticket shows. The number, naturally, increases as you go on.

Bustix1 Bustix0

When you decide to get off, you push the button, as is normal (I've never seen pull-strings on Japanese buses), and at the stop, you go up to the front to pay your fare and get off the bus. The machine at front is able to make change (a nice alternative to American buses!) and sometimes even sell bus passes. Otherwise, it either accepts your bus pass and shows how much you have left on it, or there is a money drop-slot over a conveyor belt to take your paper ticket and the money for the trip.

My only problem with the bus is that the schedule often makes no sense. Where I live, there is only one line, going to the train station, and buses come every twenty minutes. Express trains also come every twenty minutes. So you figure that it'd be natural for the two to be coordinated. But of course not! The buses drop you off at the station about two minutes after the express leaves--wasting 15 minutes of your time. Nice if you want to have a cup of coffee, visit the ATM machine, and study the train lines before departing, but usually people don't need to do that.

Posted by Luis at 02:30 PM | Comments (0)

December 03, 2004

Republicans: Divide and Conquer California

With California being the largest electoral state, and because it always goes to Democrats these days, Republicans are seeking out new ways to grab as much of the state as possible away from Democrats. First is a proposal by Republican lawmakers to divide the state's electoral votes: whomever wins in any one congressional district gets one electoral vote, up to the total of 53; the remaining two senatorial votes are given to the candidate winning the most votes statewide. Note that Republicans are not suggesting this be done in states like Texas.

Add to this the fact that Governor Schwarzenegger plans on "redrawing legislative and congressional district boundaries"--in short, non-census gerrymandering, just like in Texas, so as to stack the legislature with as many Republicans as possible and take the state into Red territory.

But add the two together: Schwarzenegger gerrymandering to turn districts Republican, and Republicans awarding electoral votes on a per-district basis. Begin to see a pattern forming? Republicans nationwide are doing everything they can, no holds barred, to solidify their power and make this a one-party country...

Posted by Luis at 02:23 AM | Comments (0)

December 02, 2004

More Vote Irregularities in Ohio

In addition to the 4000-or-so extra votes one machine magically conjured up for Bush in Franklin County (only 638 people voted in that precinct), there are other problems that investigators are now finding in Ohio. One of them is the always-mysterious people-who-don't-vote-for-president, an unnaturally high 93,000 in Ohio. These ballots would have to be examined by hand, and most that can be read that way would likely go to Kerry, as most are in poorer areas with more minority voters, who were more often given punch-card machines which register such "non-votes" when the chad are not punched just right--sure you remember that mess.

There were also strong correspondences between minority areas and other voting machine problems. Almost all problems reported just happened to be in Kerry strongholds, primarily in areas with a high concentration of African-American voters; in the chart below, red areas indicate black population levels, blue dots are reported problems in Kerry districts, green for Bush districts:

Not hard to see the disparity. The same applies to vote spoilage:

Republicans will likely roll out the old "Democratic voters are stupid" riff like they did in Florida in 2000, but with numbers so disproportionately skewed, that chestnut will be nothing more than a lame insult to minority voters. But they'll make the charge anyway, most likely. But this absolutely harmonizes with the stated Republican goal of suppressing the minority vote.

I saw the CBS 60 Minutes report on voting machines recently, and in the report, it showed an rather easy way to misvote: if you have three buttons lined up vertically, and you push the top and bottom one at the same time, the middle button is selected on the computer screen. The representative for the voting machine company (or perhaps she represented the district) insisted that a voter would never press buttons like that. However, it is easy to see how she is wrong. Try this: point your index finger as though you would press a button. Now look at your hand: most likely, your other three fingers are curled up into your palm, with you thumb resting over your middle finger (some people actually have the thumb extended, more likely to hit a surface). Now look at the position of your thumb knuckle. When you press the button, the thumb knuckle will be protruding downward, and could come in contact with the surface at the same time your forefinger does. We usually don't hit anything with it as a usual button may be raised (or touching the surface below the button may be unimportant), but you should be able to see how the thumb knuckle could hit the flat surface of the touch-screen on the voting machine. That would generate a misvote, and explain why many people tried to vote for one candidate and kept seeing another's name coming up on the screen.

Harder to explain is the Pat Buchanan effect in Ohio. In many districts heavily weighted for Kerry, third-party candidates did far too well. In precinct 4F of Cleveland's East Side, the ultraconservative third-party candidate, Michael Peroutka, got 40% of the vote. In precinct 4N, the Libertarian candidate Michael Badnarik captured 32.5% of the vote. It is highly unlikely that these candidates won such large percentages of the vote in precincts almost totally devoted to Kerry, meaning that there was obviously something wrong with the voting machines in those precincts.

In Florida in 2000, if one were to have given Gore all of the votes he lost due to vote fraud, vote spoilage, and machine 'malfunctions,' he would have won Florida and the election easily by tens of thousands of votes. Ohio may not be such a easy 'real' win for Kerry, but it could easily turn out that without all the 'errors' coincidentally all working against him, Kerry might very well have won the state, and again, the election. All of this making George W. Bush truly worth of the Thief of the White House.

Posted by Luis at 03:19 PM | Comments (1)

December 01, 2004

Just When You Thought They Couldn't Be More Obnoxious...

I just woke up to a few hundred blog comment spam, and though a few had common attributes--IP Addresses and URLs--most were simple, meaningless text strings with varied, faked IP Addresses and not even a URL, name, or anything in common. Completely useless to any spammer whatsoever. And I almost had no common element to erase them all in one swipe with MT-Blacklist, meaning I would have to resort to deleting them one by one--a process which could take more than an hour. Not exactly an enticing proposition. But fate rescued me: the unspeakable moron who mega-spammed me used one common element--which I reported earlier, but Paul reminded me that I should probably not announced it--and it was in every spam. So I did have one common element to shovel the freshly-laid manure out, after all. But it was close--had the slimeball not used that one little thing, I'd have been in for a hellish hour of staring at spam.

And it's not just this morning. I have been getting an increasing amount of this kind of spam, probably from the same lowlifes, almost every day now, with many emails bearing no URLs, mention of a company or web site name, or anything else of value to a spammer. It's as if they simply want to wear me down, make me so sick of deleting spam that I give up and let everything stay, including their links. These people are unspeakable pieces of human garbage. Imagine someone coming to your home, every morning before dawn, and stapling ads to the front of your house until its covered with them, and it's legal and there's little you can do to stop them aside from just taking down the ads.

I've been putting it off, but that comment registration system is going up as soon as I get the time. I just pray to God they haven't found a way to hack that, too.

Posted by Luis at 09:47 AM | Comments (3)